Leeds United’s run to the Championship title last season — which marked their return to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years — was an amazing feat that members of their squad will cherish dearly.
However, that achievement undoubtedly holds a much deeper significance for midfielder Kalvin Phillips, who is a local lad who came up through the ranks at Leeds.
It wasn’t hard to imagine that a young Kalvin dreamt of making the first-team and helping his hometown club end their long top-flight drought. And lo and behold, his dream became a reality as he played a crucial role in the Whites’ successful promotion push.
SBOTOP takes a look back at Phillips’ fascinating career journey thus far, from the Leeds academy all the way to the Premier League.
Early Leeds days
Phillips was a late bloomer of sorts. He arrived at Leeds United’s academy in 2010 at age 14 from local club Wortley. Leeds happened upon the youngster almost by chance. He ended up featuring in a tournament he didn’t plan on playing in just to make up the numbers.
There he caught the attention of Leeds legend Walter ‘Sonny’ Sweeney, who got him a trial at the club. And the rest, as they say, was history.
Phillips was by no means an elite prospect, but he had good physical gifts and eventually earned his way up inside the club. He became the captain of the Under-18s side and looked well on course for a first-team call-up. His debut finally came in 2015 as Neil Redfearn brought him on against Wolves. And his first senior goal came the following match against Cardiff.
Despite that promising start, though, it took Phillips until the 2016-17 season under Garry Monk to fully establish himself as a first-team regular. Phillips was still playing as a box-to-box central midfielder in those days, and after just one goal in 33 appearances in 2016-17, he had seven goals in 41 appearances in 2017-18.
However, Phillips would have to say goodbye to those goals and his position as new manager Marcelo Bielsa had other plans for him.
Becoming ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ under Bielsa
Bielsa’s arrival at Leeds in 2018 was a major turning point not only for the club but also for Phillips’ career. One of the Argentine’s biggest changes in his first season in charge was to transform Phillips into a holding midfielder.
It was a surprising decision to hand a youngster who had no previous experience playing the position with such immense responsibility. Aside from the very important job of shielding the defence and playing as a de facto third centre-back, Phillips was also tasked with making smart decisions in terms of distributing the ball.
Clearly, though, Bielsa saw that Phillips possessed the versatile skill set for the task, and he was right. Phillips quickly emerged as one of, if not the best player in the league at that position.
Phillips had already shown some potential, particularly given his physical tools, to fulfil his defensive part of that role. But the fact that he also displayed some outstanding passing ability was quite unexpected.
Phillips was a natural as a deep-lying playmaker who could orchestrate the offence from the back thanks to his impressive range of passing. As a result, he quickly became known as the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’, in reference to the great Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo.
Thanks in large part to Phillips’ amazing positional transformation, Leeds finally went on to win the Championship in Bielsa’s second season in charge, and it was off to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years.
A bright future ahead
With Leeds back in the Premier League, an England call-up soon followed for Phillips, who became the first current Leeds player since Alan Smith in 2004 to play for the Three Lions.
It wasn’t too surprising that Gareth Southgate would take interest in Phillips and his impressive skill set. His combination of passing ability and defensive work is hard to find and remains in high demand at the top level.
Given the current trajectory of his career, it seems almost inevitable that one of the big Premier League clubs will come calling for the 24-year-old in the near future.
Losing a player of Phillips’ quality would definitely be a blow for Leeds. Despite the versatility within the squad, their recent Premier League 2020 results — back-to-back 4-1 defeats to Leicester and Crystal Palace — during his absence from injury are showing that replacing him is much easier said than done.
But when the local lad is fit and in the line-up, Leeds’s Premier League 2020 odds to win should rise. And while Phillips’ future is bright, his present is also promising as he looks to help his talented hometown team cement Premier League status for another season.
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