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Kalvin Phillips, Jamie Shackleton and Charlie Cresswell are all at different stages of their careers but all three have big decisions ahead of them in the new year.
For Phillips the ‘dream move’ to Manchester City has brought him riches and medals that simply would not have been possible had he remained at Elland Road. What it has not brought is the game time he wants and needs, particularly with another major international tournament rolling round in the next 12 months.
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Being ever-present at Leeds in Marcelo Bielsa’s system catapulted Phillips into the national team picture, where he was ever-present for the delayed 2020 European Championships. Going to Manchester City, where he has been a bit-part player in a much larger and more talented cast, has not removed him from Gareth Southgate’s plans but it has coincided with less frequent starts for his country. Since the £42m move Phillips has started just three of the 13 England games for which he has been fit and available.
Tuesday night’s win over Italy was the third of those. The first also came in a win over the Italians and that perhaps proves that Southgate still trusts the 27-year-old for big occasions, even if his Manchester City gametime amounts to just 760 minutes across this season and last. Phillips’ words after the match were a clear indication that he knows the importance of regular football if Southgate is still to trust him come next summer’s Euros in Germany. The only clear path to that, judging by Pep Guardiola’s team selections, would appear to be a move.
“As a football player you always want to be playing and that’s the case for me, I want to play as much as possible and obviously I haven’t done that over the past year and a half so it’s one thing I want to do,” said the ex-Leeds man.
“To come into an England game and start, I did it against Scotland and was perfectly fine, but I always try and make sure I’m ready for whatever comes. Gareth played me and I was happy to just pull on the white shirt again. I want minutes and I want to go to the Euros and we’ll see what happens.”
For Shackleton, three years Phillips’ junior, game time has not been such an issue so far this season because his versatility has allowed Daniel Farke to use him in four different roles. There’s no international consequences to speak of if Shackleton finds match minutes harder to come by once full-backs Djed Spence, Junior Firpo and Stuart Dallas return to fitness but there is a career to think about. Shackleton would clearly love nothing more than to remain at Leeds beyond the end of his current contract next summer but if the Whites are to be promoted will he play in the Premier League? He did in the first two post-promotion campaigns, although not as often as he would have liked, and then spent last season out on loan with Millwall.
At some point, if Shackleton wants to be as ever-present in a team as Phillips was at Leeds prior to his exit, then following his old pal out the door might be a necessary step. January will likely give some indication because Shackleton could sign a pre-contract with another club or perhaps by then Leeds will have made up their minds to offer him a fresh deal. Much will depend on the player’s willingness to be a useful role filler, albeit for a club he adores and supports, versus his desire to nail down a starting position and make a name for himself as something more. On the evidence of this season so far, there is a place for Shackleton at Leeds and giving up a potential second promotion, this time with fans present, would be a hard pill to swallow.
And what of Cresswell, a player three years Shackleton’s junior, who also spent last season with Millwall? The 21-year-old played a lot more football than his Leeds team-mate during their time at The Den and that experience likely fed his hunger for a starting role this season. Logic suggested he was well within his rights to harbour some level of expectation, beyond just hope, because he did it in the Championship for a team finishing just a point outside the play-offs. Coming back to Leeds this summer did not guarantee the chance to do it again in the Championship for a promotion-chasing outfit but it felt possible. Reality has proven somewhat different, however, with Joe Rodon’s arrival on loan and the re-emergence of Pascal Struijk as a player of real significance at centre-back.
Cresswell started the first two games of the league season and since then has had two late, late cameos as a substitute, brought on to help shore up leads in the very final minutes. Like Phillips, his lack of involvement at club level has not nixed his international hopes – Cresswell started both of this week’s England Under 21 fixtures, admittedly with Taylor Harwood-Bellis out injured. His age might allow him to be a little more patient when it comes to personal ambition. But not playing or not even getting into the squad when Liam Cooper, Struijk and Rodon are fit is evidently not how he saw this season panning out. Not playing makes it far harder to develop at a critical point in his career and standing still does not appear to be in his nature. Farke spoke so highly of Cresswell after a recent win, in which the centre-back did not feature, because his attitude stood out to the boss. Whether simply throwing a bone to a player who might take on importance if injuries strike or speaking out of a genuine appreciation for a youngster’s exemplary outlook, Farke was still not giving Cresswell what he really wants and needs. Injury to others could, as it did this week with the Young Lions, grant Cresswell access to regular football but at Leeds, at present, it looks like two injuries and not one would have to occur.
Come January, if the situation remains as it is currently, Cresswell will also have a decision to make. Being a part of something special at Leeds is a real possibility but how special will it be if he is not really part of it? Does ‘side before self’ apply if you don’t get to play for the side? Farke’s admiration for both Cresswell and Shackleton, not to mention his usage of the latter, makes it unlikely that he would happily sanction exits for either. Squad depth is one thing Leeds were keen to address in the summer and these situations are simply a by-product. Keeping everyone involved, especially when a team is doing so well defensively and winning games, is difficult. Keeping everyone happy all of the time is nigh on impossible. Keeping Leeds on track for promotion is Farke’s job and that, rather than the wishes of individuals, will inform his decisions.