‘We don’t have a natural replacement for Kalvin Phillips’ is Gareth Southgate’s England resignation letter

Matt Stead
West Ham manager David Moyes, England midfielder Kalvin Phillips and Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola
There were no winners in the Kalvin Phillips loan

Gareth Southgate must have known that the latter half of his England reign would come to be defined by that laughable quote about Kalvin Phillips.


“We know it’s an experiment and we know that we don’t have a natural replacement for Kalvin Phillips.”

It is the quote which will come to define at least the last 18 months and surely the final tournament of Gareth Southgate’s otherwise excellent reign as England manager.

As a sentence, it is not quite as perfectly melancholic as Roy Hodgson’s “I don’t really know what I am doing here” in the aftermath of Euro 2016, but it is every bit as damning for the coach who navigated the crime scene of that tournament and has stayed long enough to preside over something which threatens to be just as bad.

The idea that England might “experiment” with their starting line-up at an actual European Championship is bad enough, but the suggestion that this mess is an unavoidable consequence of losing a midfielder who last started consecutive England games in November 2021 is ludicrous.

Back then, Phillips was taken off after 64 minutes of a 5-0 win over Albania, and at half-time of a 10-0 thrashing of San Marino. Reece James, Emile Smith Rowe and Tammy Abraham played in both matches, with Conor Coady, Tyrone Mings and Ben Chilwell all making appearances. It was that long ago. Yet more than two and a half years later, the absence of Phillips was the supposed reason for that disaster of a Denmark performance.

Phillips was a phenomenal England player, their best at the last Euros. But his inexorable decline has not been sudden; not since joining Manchester City in summer 2022 has he played either regular or good football. He played 40 minutes at the last World Cup. This should not be an integral cog without which the machine cannot possibly function.

And if it is, that incriminates and condemns the manager who has allowed that scenario to unfold.

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There is some sympathy for Southgate, for whom the decline of Phillips and poor personal choices of Jordan Henderson have combined to necessitate midfield upheaval in the build-up to a major tournament. But these things could have been predicted at least a year ago, when Phillips had endured a difficult debut Manchester City season with little sign of things improving, and Henderson took his Saudi Arabia gamble.

It was wrong to persist with Henderson then and Southgate would surely concede in hindsight it was a bad call. But if he was willing to use the excuse of being without them in the middle of the tournament, perhaps he should have simply picked one or both in his squad and accepted the inevitable ‘form over reputation’ criticism if they were so integral to his team?

“We have been trying to find a solution in midfield for seven or eight years,” Southgate said after a Denmark draw which lacked control, cohesion and competence. “If we hadn’t had Declan Rice for the last few years, I don’t know where we’d have been.

“Unfortunately, Kalvin wasn’t a possible for us for this tournament and Hendo the same, so we’re trying to find something different.”

This tactical plan devised over the last 12 months – dating back to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s first England start in midfield – does not engender a great deal of hope that Southgate can suddenly discover and implement “something different” over the next few days in training which can help England thrive in Germany.

Perhaps Jude Bellingham can drop back with Phil Foden moving central and Anthony Gordon providing some actual vague concept of width on the left? Maybe Kobbie Mainoo or Adam Wharton could come in to partner Rice; it is worth remembering that Phillips had made five competitive starts for England and was yet to make his Premier League debut when he impressed at Euro 2020, so inexperience cannot entirely explain their respective bench roles.

And Southgate throwing Conor Gallagher on for more “energy”, which translated to the Chelsea midfielder being booked after leading a one-man press to retrieve a ball he himself had lost within eight minutes of his introduction, indicates that the manager still does not actually understand the structural issues undermining anything England want to do.

In any event, it suddenly dawning on him that “we don’t have a natural replacement for Kalvin Phillips” in the middle of a tournament is fundamentally funny. And at this stage with England, if you don’t laugh you will very much cry.

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