Before each World Cup, we are struck by the unfortunate news of the injury of an important player. In 2018, it was Dani Alves for Brazil. Four years earlier, it was the unlucky Marco Reus, who stretched out at the weekend against Schalke, fearing he would also miss the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. And in 2010, it was Michael Ballack who injured his ankle in the FA Cup final against Portsmouth.
Paul Pogba’s delayed surgery this summer makes him a huge World Cup doubt, and another midfielder who could be a World Cup doubt is England’s Kalvin Phillips.
England’s tradition of pre-tournament injury alerts is a long one. In 2002, it was David Beckham’s metatarsal. In 2006, it was Wayne Rooney’s before Harry Kane’s ankle raised concerns in 2018.
Now the concern is for Phillips, who may need shoulder surgery to return to full fitness after a Manchester City start. He has had shoulder issues since sustaining the injury in Leeds United’s last game of the 2020-21 season. It was feared he would miss Euro 2020 but he recovered and played a key role as Gareth Southgate’s side reached the final at Wembley that summer.
England have no shortage of midfielders, but Phillips’ absence would be a blow to Southgate and England’s chances at the World Cup, as he offers a combination of abilities few others possess.
Of the options Southgate has, Phillips is the best in terms of dual roles. He is very technical on the ball in terms of passing ability and range, but he also has strong defensive skills, which makes his presence invaluable.
To illustrate this, we can use John Muller’s Player Role Analysis, which redefines positions based on the type and location of a player’s actual hits. (You can read a full explanation of these here).
Under these terms, Phillips is classified as a builder, a player who acts as the team’s main circulation center in possession and as a defensive stopper at the base of midfield.
We can also illustrate what he does on the pitch by looking at smarterscout ratings, which assign players’ skills a range of ratings from zero to 99. These ratings relate to either how often a player performs a given stylistic action (e.g. volume of shots per touch), or their effectiveness (e.g. how far they move the ball up the pitch) compared to others playing in their place. His progressive passing numbers show how keen Phillips is on playing those long, precise passes that get his team up the field.
So what does this actually mean?
These assists help England when it comes to quick changes of play, playing balls behind the opposing defense and in transition, and that was clear at Euro 2020. On more than one occasion, Phillips’ precise long passes put England within a goalscoring opportunity. .
For example, against Scotland after falling down the right side, Phillips spots Phil Foden’s run behind the Scottish defense and throws a perfect pass to his Manchester City team-mate…
…Foden manages to control the ball, but shoots wide. The goal would have been disallowed anyway as Foden was in an offside position, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of Phillips’ ability to play those passes.
Another example is against Germany in the round of 16. After a clear corner, Phillips spots Kieran Trippier’s run and flicks the ball over the Germans to put Trippier in a great cross position…
… from where the defender manages to find Harry Maguire, who misses the target from close range.
These assists are essential for England when considering wide attacking options, whether it’s changes of play to place wide forwards in one-on-one situations or balls behind the defense for wide runners.
Mason Mount is another player whose spatial awareness benefits greatly from these passes. The Chelsea midfielder’s awareness of where space is and when to attack it makes him an optimal receiver for those passes.
In this example, against Denmark in the semi-finals, Phillips puts Mount in front of goal with a single pass that eliminates eight Danish players…
…before Mount dribbles inside to bring the ball to his left foot, and his shot is blocked.
The importance of these precise long passes is not only the creation of chance, they can also act as a tool to relieve pressure if England face a pressing opponent.
The other aspect of Phillips’ importance is his defensive skill set. Phillips is an elite disrupter of opponent movement through tackling, fouling, blocking and clearing – he scores 91 out of 99 in smarterscout data when it comes to movement disruption of the opposition. Additionally, his 81 out of 99 rating for fetches and ball interceptions shows Phillips’ ability to mop up balls in the middle of the field.
The number of aerial duels played by Phillips is about average for a defensive midfielder (amount of aerial duels: 53 out of 99), but it is interesting to see that he scores 88 out of 99 when it comes to aerial duels from set pieces, which further describes his potential importance to Southgate’s side out of possession.
No wonder Pep Guardiola thought he was the perfect Fernandinho replacement. “After Fernandinho decided to go to Brazil, we were looking for a midfielder and we thought he (Phillips) was perfect for us.
In reality, his City career has only just begun but Southgate has found him perfect for England. So if he were to miss the World Cup, what could the coach do?
Looking at Phillips’ peers in the national team, we can see that they could offer some beneficial skills, but none are carbon copies. Jude Bellingham’s immaculate ability on the ball could position him as an option despite not offering the same level of progressive passing as Phillips (15 of 99), but the question is Bellingham’s defensive aptitude in this role deeper (disruption of opposition movements: 39 out of 99). 99, ball recoveries and interceptions: 47 of 99).
The other thing to point out is that Bellingham is more of an orchestrator than a builder. He prefers shorter, higher percentage passing in more forward positions on the pitch where he can then injure the opponent – as we can see in these small bumps in the Creator and Box parts of the graphic below – by compared to Phillips’ longer passes.
Next up is James Ward-Prowse, a set-piece specialist who is central to Southampton’s build-up game and has the ability to play those progressive passes and game changers like Phillips (progressive pass: 92 of 99) . However, Ward-Prowse doesn’t offer the same defensive skill set as Phillips, making fewer defensive moves (disrupting opposition moves: 33 of 99) and less effectively limiting the ball’s progress when he’s the assigned defender (defensive impact: 20 out of 99). 99).
His move from a creator to a distributor perhaps shows a greater likelihood of adapting to a deeper passing role, but he’s still active in the opposing half more than the defensive third.
The third option is Jordan Henderson, a player whose intensity off the ball puts him in the middle of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. However, Henderson’s profile is more suited to the right side of Liverpool’s central midfield than the deeper role – something Klopp achieved towards the end of the 2018-19 season. “He likes that position (right side of midfield) so it’s my fault that he played for a year and a half as a starting player, but we needed him there,” said Klopp.
Henderson’s runs in the box and his integration with Liverpool’s flexible right triangle make him the ideal candidate for Liverpool, but England demand a different role from him, which limits his runs forward to adapt. – reasonably enough – to a safer approach in possession.
The manifestation of what Klopp said can be seen below. Henderson evolved to be more active in the opposing half, receiving progressive passes and becoming central to Liverpool’s attack on his right side. The blip in 2020-21 is because Henderson had to cover Fabinho when the Brazilian fell in defense through Liverpool injuries that season, and Henderson himself went into defense to cover as well.
The final option – and perhaps Phillips’ most complementary player – is Declan Rice. The West Ham midfielder is used to playing deeper like Phillips and has an impressive defensive skill set.
Rice’s ball-carrying ability makes him a strong threat in transitions and when trying to dribble forward or get out of a pressing situation (carrying and dribbling volume: 94 of 99), but it doesn’t provide the same quality of progressive passing as Phillips (progressive passing: 25 of 99), looking more to play those safer passes (link play volume: 82 of 99) that make them perfectly compatible.
Without Phillips, Rice’s presence is essential. He understands the defensive priorities of the position and has the skills to perform the role. Add to that his current run in the team, his ability to carry the ball and his threat from set pieces and the West Ham midfielder is sure to start.
That leaves us with three combinations – Rice and Henderson, Rice and Bellingham, or Rice and Ward-Prowse. The Henderson option offers a safer and more experienced option, or Bellingham could help England dominate possession more and be up front. Ward-Prowse is the least likely option, especially if Trippier provides the set-piece threat.
England will certainly miss Phillips if his surgery prevents him from competing at the World Cup, but while none of the replacements are exact copies, they offer different skill sets that could benefit Southgate’s side d other ways.