“Just like Pirlo, top!” - those were the words from Phil Foden to Kalvin Phillips after the City midfielder’s return in the Carabao Cup in November.
Not only did his cameo against Chelsea remind everyone of his qualities as a deep-lying midfielder, his team-mate’s comments showed the appreciation he has from colleagues.
After eight weeks on the sidelines with a shoulder surgery and 40 minutes for the first team, Phillips was named in England’s 2022 World Cup squad, a decision which underlines his importance to the national team.
The classy defensive midfielder was fast-tracked straight into the Three Lions squad after leading Leeds United to promotion to the Premier League under Marcelo Bielsa in 2020.
He currently has 23 appearances for his country – all under Gareth Southgate, without representing any of England’s youth sides.
But being spotted late isn’t something new for Phillips, who was 14 when he was scouted playing for his local Sunday league team, Wortley.
“I just feel like everything I’ve worked for has finally paid off,” he said to Englandfootball.com last year. “I didn’t get picked up until late, I was 14 when I was invited to a professional academy.
“I feel like that was the best decision for me because I got time to enjoy myself with my friends when I was playing for my grassroots team.
“Then coming through the ranks at Leeds where I’ve been a massive fan all my life, so I take pride in that, too. Then getting promoted and getting the call-up for England – you can’t really put it into words to be honest, you don’t dream of stuff like this.”
He made his debut in January 2015 in an FA Cup clash at Sunderland the FA Cup and in time, he would earn the nickname 'the Yorkshire Pirlo’ from the Leeds faithful.
Former Leeds Academy coach, Jason Blunt says it took time for Phillips to find his way but it was the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa that altered his career path.
“At first, if I remember correctly, when he came through the Under-18s and Under-23s he found it quite tough to break into the team,” Blunt said.
“But when he did, I don’t think the fans took to him straight away. After I left the U23s and when Bielsa came in, I think he sort of changed him and then made him more robust and he could cover more ground.
“Physically, he turned him into a proper footballer and athlete. And Bielsa deserves huge credit, and Kalvin would probably say the same, in probably changing his career path.”
Phillips’ progress and intelligence in the middle of the pitch led to comparisons from fans with the Italian football legend, and he became the central figure of a side that reached the play-offs and then won the Championship.
Flags emblazoned with ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ were in full view at Elland Road and away grounds around the country and even the former AC Milan and Juventus maestro couldn’t ignore the comparison.
“It’s true. In England, there’s never been this kind of player. There have been great midfielders over the years with different skills," Pirlo told The Athletic in August 2021.
"There’s the boy at Leeds (Phillips), who’s a bit of a regista.
"But we’re a bit different. He doesn’t have the same characteristics I had. You’ve always had box-to-box midfielders, like Frank Lampard."
This wasn’t the first time Pirlo had sung the praises of the midfielder, as he sent him a good luck message ahead of the EURO 2020 final – despite England facing his native Italy.
Understandably Phillips was shocked to hear the words of encouragement but explained how it was another example of the 2006 World Cup winner’s class.
“Oh my God. I thought he was going to say something about Italy but no, he wished me well. Full respect for that,” Phillips said.
“I’ve seen that he’s very cool, but I’ve heard he’s a nice guy as well.
“To have someone on the other side wish you well, and especially a player like that… it’s a great feeling.”
Some critics were surprised that a midfielder from an unfashionable Leeds team would start England’s EURO 2020 opener against Croatia at Wembley but he would win them over and was arguably Man of the Match in the 1-0 success.
Strong in transitions and turning defence into attack, Phillips provided the assist for Raheem Sterling’s opener and he didn’t look back, starting all of the Three Lions’ matches including the final.
After taking the lead through Luke Shaw, Leonardo Bonucci equalised in the second half and England’s long wait for glory ended in heartbreak with the 3-2 defeat in the penalty shootout.
Amid the emotion and tumult, Phillips immediately ran to console Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka whose decisive penalty was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Such actions are part of the reason Southgate wants him in his squad, despite the injury setback that has limited to just four appearances in his early City career.
His displays across the tournament, and performances in friendlies and the Nations League, saw Phillips named 2020/21 England Player of the Year.
In typically humble fashion, the midfielder couldn’t believe the news when his international midfielder partner Declan Rice told him just over a year after his England debut.
But it was no surprise to Blunt, who witnessed his modest personality during his early days in the Leeds academy.
“What was great about Kalvin was his personality was fantastic. He was so grounded and he would always come to speak to the academy kids, knowing he came through it himself,” he said.
“Not just as a footballer, but as a person, he was just down to earth and polite. Even when I’ve been back up there when my own son was in the academy, he would stop and speak to me.
“What stood out was that all the academy players looked up to him and respected him.
“Even when he changed teams and played more regularly in the first team, that didn’t change the way he was to how he was as a kid.”
After another strong season with Leeds in 2021-22, where he helped the Whites avoid the threat of relegation, Pep Guardiola saw him as a perfect fit at City and he moved to the Etihad Stadium in July 2022.
Injury has made it a frustrating start so far, but Qatar can kickstart his season and Guardiola can reap the benefits when City go back trophy-hunting in the second half of the season.