WHEN Leeds United fans first started calling Kalvin Phillips the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’, England’s latest breakthrough star was still finding his feet in the Championship. Clearly, they knew what was coming.

As Phillips left the pitch at Wembley on Sunday afternoon, with the acclaim of a jubilant crowd ringing in his ears, the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ phrase was trending worldwide on social media. By the end of the evening, even the Italian press were using it in their reporting of the game. Many more performances like this, and perhaps the now-retired Pirlo will be remembered as the ‘Turin Phillips’.

“I was having a look at Twitter,” admitted Phillips, as he reflected on his role in England’s first ever opening-game win at a European Championships. “It’s a nice feeling, but first and foremost, I’m happy that we won the game and happy to do my job as well.”

That job is pivotal to the way Southgate wants his side to play, and might well prove crucial to England’s prospects of prospering in the latter stages of the tournament. For all the repeated agonising over attacking line-ups and potential defensive deficiencies, England’s failure at a succession of tournaments in the last couple of decades has generally owed much to a paucity of talent at the heart of midfield.

Owen Hargreaves threatened to be a world-class holding midfielder before a succession of injuries took their toll, but since he briefly shone at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, England have had to make do and mend in the midfield engine room.

For all that Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice have done a decent job of protecting those behind them, England have been crying out for a ‘link player’ or an old-fashioned ‘number eight’, someone capable of disrupting the opposition and shutting down the likes of a Luka Modric, but also boasting the energy and technical ability required to spring forward and launch attacks.

In truth, it wasn’t always obvious that Phillips might be that player. A box-to-box midfielder at the start of his career, which saw him join Leeds’ academy from local side Wortley Juniors as a 14-year-old after being spotted at a tournament, he has been fairly well shackled by Marcelo Bielsa, who tends to use him as a defensive shield rather than anything more progressive.

England have Rice to do that job, but having watched Phillips in his maiden Premier League campaign, Southgate sensed that the 25-year-old was capable of playing in a less restricted role on the international stage.

On Sunday, Southgate’s judgement was vindicated. Not only did Phillips snap around at Modric and Marcelo Brozovic, he was also England’s best passer, completing 31 of his 33 passes and delivering the slide-rule through ball that enabled Raheem Sterling to score. In the build-up to the tournament, much was said and written about Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, and England’s perceived abundance of creativity. In the end, it was an unassuming Yorkshireman, with his cornrow hair sweeping behind him, that outshone them all.

“He’s on the front foot, at the opposition midfielders, always in their faces,” said Sterling. “But at the same time, he’s great with the ball. He uses the ball well and, for our goal, you can see the clever play, the drive with the ball and little bit of skill at the end with a great weight of pass. He brings a lot to the team. First major tournament, first major game and he’s done brilliantly.”

Tournaments have a strange habit of developing lives of their own. This time last week, it was probably assumed that while Phillips might start against Croatia, a fit-again Henderson would return to the side to face Scotland on Friday night. Suddenly, that looks an unlikely scenario, with Phillips’ newly-developed relationship with Rice a key axis of the England team, enabling Southgate to select four attacking players without having to worry about the balance of the midfield.

“There’s a lot of talk about me and Declan fighting for one position,” said Phillips. “But when we play together, I think we play really well.”