The 24-year-old has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Marcelo Bielsa’s intense, even maniacal, approach at Elland Road and the clamour for the local lad done good to make Gareth Southgate’s squad for upcoming friendlies against Denmark and Italy is growing.
Phillips is not your typical England candidate. He has never represented the Three Lions at youth level and only joined his hometown club as a teenager. Though he might not have made a career in professional football at all had he listened to the advice of his school.
When invited to Leeds’ Thorp Arch training ground on day release from school his mother was sent a note in an attempt to dissuade her son. “It said they hoped I realised that not many people make it as a professional footballer,” Phillips told the Yorkshire Evening Post.
But Phillips defied the odds and could be about to again. Southgate has watched him several times this season and, as demonstrated by picking Mason Mount while on loan at Derby County last season, isn’t afraid of delving into the Championship when it comes to sourcing the very best talent for England.
Nor are a number of Premier League sides. Aston Villa made enquiries last summer but an agreement couldn’t be reached. One suspects that regardless of whether Leeds win promotion this season, Phillips is bound for the top flight after another stellar campaign.
Initially deployed by Thomas Christiansen as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system in the early days of his United career, Phillips has been remoulded into a deep-lying playmaker by the eccentric Bielsa. He has thrived as a result, becoming one of the Championship’s most-talked-about players in the last 18 months while playing as the No.6 in a 4-1-4-1 shape.
Playing in front of the back four is a position of responsibility in any team. But doing so in a side coached by the famously particular Bielsa comes with additional details and Phillips has even found himself tasked with filling in at centre-back when the right moments arise in matches.
That takes a certain type of football intelligence and Phillips has it in abundance. He has superb vision to see the game unfold around him, too, and this is exemplified best in his range of passing. No midfielder in the Championship has attempted more long passes (284) this season with his average of 9.74 (per 90) putting Phillips third among his midfield peers.
Possession is at the very centre of Bielsa’s tried-and-tested tactical blueprint and Phillips’ importance to this Leeds United side is summed up in the fact he takes 77.96 touches (per 90) – fifth among all midfielders in the Championship. At Leeds, only defenders Luke Ayling (90.79), Barry Douglas (87.74) and Liam Cooper (82.37), as well as midfield orchestrator Pablo Hernandez (88.65), take more.
He is responsible for snuffing out opposition attacks and then getting Leeds playing, setting the tone and tempo for a side expected to finally win promotion back to the Premier League this year after 16 long years in the wilderness.
“He’s a practical player who plays simply,” Bielsa told the Yorkshire Evening Post at the very start of his Leeds revolution. “He’s good from a defensive point of view, he has a very good long pass and he has good orientation of the game.
“He’s very good at getting the ball and putting it into another space, a better space. He’s very good when he has to cover the team when our full-backs go in attack. And when we are outnumbered, he is very good with his defending.”
Overall, Phillips ranks 11th among players in his position for passes attempted (56.73) per 90 and 12th for completed passes (46.37). Of those, 16.42 go forward (per 90) and he ranks eighth overall for forward passes by a midfielder.
Phillips takes a mean set-piece, too, carving out more shooting opportunities from dead-ball situations (38) than any other midfielder in England’s second-tier this term. Only the aforementioned Hernández (2.71) and Jack Harrison (2.13) better his 1.99 chances created (per 90).
His performances have drawn admiring glances from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United and Burnley but it is inevitable bigger clubs will take a closer look at the lynchpin of Leeds’ midfield if his displays continue – and even more likely if an England cap materialises.
Still playing Championship football at 24, Phillips is late to the party. But better late, than never.