Southgate was ridiculed for Phillips comment – here’s why he was right

Southgate was ridiculed for Phillips comment – here’s why he was right

After a performance that induced anger from some of their more distinguished former players and drew boos from their supporters came a comment that opened the England manager up to derision. “We know we don’t have a natural replacement for Kalvin Phillips,” said Gareth Southgate.

To some, that is the Kalvin Phillips who made two league starts in 18 months at Manchester City, then went on loan to West Ham, gave a goal away on his debut, was sent off on his second start and whose time in London ended with the departure of the manager who signed him. That Kalvin Phillips?

Not exactly. Southgate meant the Phillips who dovetailed with Declan Rice in Euro 2020, who helped England reach the final after a campaign that began with five consecutive clean sheets, the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ who drew praise from the actual Pirlo. England can often be accused of living in the past; it is just that, with Southgate, that past is 2021.

Phillips’ decline in his last two disastrous years means it can nevertheless be jarring to hear a manager who can call upon the talents of Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka bemoan his absence. If Southgate may have misjudged the wider audience – not so much failing to read the room as the other rooms in which his words were heard – he nevertheless made a pertinent point.

England don’t have another Phillips. They don’t have a natural replacement for Jordan Henderson either. Two very different statements can both be true and while England do have a large number of high-quality players, rendering their underachievement in Euro 2024 more egregious, they also have a shortage of even decent players in several positions. It can be the way of international football that abilities are not democratically distributed across the team, that they lack clubs’ capacity to buy to address the weakest department of the side.

But England find themselves with an acute shortage in two roles – left-back and defensive midfield – and fault-lines in others. Southgate made a point of praising Kieran Trippier after the draw with Denmark: on his 50th cap, he brought diligence and determination. But the lack of a left-footed left-back is ever more glaring: England now attack only in the middle or on their right, creating a scenario where opponents barely need to field a right-back.

Kalvin Phillips struggled to recapture his form on loan at West Ham (Getty Images)

Southgate’s gamble on Luke Shaw, four months without a game, still training alone but nevertheless in the squad, was based on a hope that he, too, can turn back time to 2021, and a lack of plausible alternatives to one of the world’s best left-backs. That Ben Chilwell, his only natural deputy, did not even make the 33-man training squad reflected his own injury problems.

Phillips and Shaw highlight the twin impediments to Southgate, club managers and injuries. But England can cast thoughts back the best part of two decades to the age of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard when a host of other fine central midfielders were found further back in the pecking order, often on the bench, sometimes not even in the squad: Nicky Butt, Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Gareth Barry, Scott Parker, Jermaine Jenas.

Southgate admits Alexander-Arnold is an ‘experiment’ in midfield (Getty Images)

Were any at his prime now, he would probably be starting for England. Instead, and if Jude Bellingham is a No 10 now, the four options are a reinvented right-back whose extraordinary passing range cannot camouflage his inexperience in midfield, in Trent Alexander-Arnold, an eager scurrier who has never threatened to have Phillips’ and Henderson’s impact at international level, in Conor Gallagher, and two rookies, in Adam Wharton and Kobbie Mainoo. As Southgate admitted, the situation could have been worse. “If we hadn’t had Declan Rice, I don’t know where we’d have been,” he said of a player first capped by the Republic of Ireland.

For some, an explanation can be found in the low percentage of English players in the Premier League; though their increasing attractiveness to foreign clubs shows talent can travel. But it shows an imbalance: England are now producing huge numbers of attacking midfielders and wingers, but not defensive midfielders; they have a surfeit of right-backs and a shortage of left-backs. They have increasing numbers of goalscorers but only one real goalkeeper, with Aaron Ramsdale now a back-up for Arsenal. Much like Rice, Jordan Pickford is still more important because of the absence of alternatives.

England head coach Gareth Southgate insists his team lack depth in midfield (Getty Images)

Like any manager, Southgate can be criticised for some blind spots – left-back Rico Henry, though he is injured, goalkeeper Nick Pope, though he was out for most of the season, perhaps midfielders Lewis Cook or James Ward-Prowse, who has slipped from his thinking – but in reality, he isn’t overlooking many obvious candidates.

It is why he gave Phillips a cap before he had played a Premier League game, why Shaw is still training alone in Blankenhain. Southgate invited mockery with his longing for Phillips. The concerning element, however, is not that he said it but that his basic argument is correct.