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Kalvin Phillips’ West Ham loan suits everyone – David Moyes is a long-time fan

When David Moyes was out of work between May 2018 and December 2019, he regularly attended games to identify players he might sign, in preparation for his next job. Kalvin Phillips was one of those targets.

Moyes has always admired Phillips, now 28, and kept close tabs on him when he played for Leeds United. In January 2022, he attempted to break West Ham United’s transfer record with a £50million (now $63.5m) bid to sign Phillips from Leeds. The offer was rejected and six months later, the England midfielder joined Manchester City, for £45m.

This month, Moyes revived his interest in Phillips, given his continuing lack of playing time under City manager Pep Guardiola and with West Ham midfielders Edson Alvarez and Lucas Paqueta sidelined with calf injuries. West Ham have agreed to sign Phillips on loan for the remainder of the season and to cover his full salary. He will undergo a medical on Wednesday.

Barring any late twists, Phillips could make his West Ham debut in their next league game, against Bournemouth a week tomorrow, February 1.

Alvarez was the only recognised defensive midfielder at Moyes’ disposal and his absence was noticeable in their 2-2 draw away to last-placed Sheffield United on Sunday, which accelerated the pursuit of Phillips.

Tomas Soucek and summer buy James Ward-Prowse have struggled as a midfield duo, and Alvarez and Phillips will likely be the preferred partnership there as West Ham bid to cement their place in the upper reaches of the Premier League and progress from their Europa League last-16 tie in March.

Phillips was open to a move in this window to strengthen his chances of being named in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for this summer’s European Championship. In November, he was warned about his lack of game time since joining City.

Phillips has become a key figure for England under Southgate (Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

“He needs to play and is a really important player for us,” said Southgate. “We don’t have many players who can operate the way he can, we have faith and trust in him. We don’t have an ideal situation.”

City were also willing to let Phillips leave on loan last summer, but he opted to stay. That decision has seen him play 318 minutes across 10 appearances, just two of them starts, for the 2022-23 treble winners this season. He has never been considered a first-choice option in midfield under Guardiola.

In his first few training sessions after arriving from Leeds, coaches felt teenager Romeo Lavia, now at Chelsea after a spell with Southampton, was more suited to playing the holding midfield role in that City side than the established England international.

Guardiola wanted Phillips to slow the game down and take the ball off the goalkeeper while under pressure from the opposition. He could not do so consistently, which helps explain why he failed to dislodge Rodri from the starting XI or find a place alongside the Spain international ahead of last summer’s midfield signings Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes.

The nadir of Phillips’ spell in Manchester was when he reported back to training after the World Cup just over a year ago and Guardiola said he did so “overweight”.

Phillips has failed to win the trust of Guardiola (Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

“I’d love to have done with Kalvin what (former Leeds manager) Marcelo Bielsa has done with him,” said Guardiola. “We have our own specific way to play and he sometimes struggles in a few things, but the Leeds playing style was perfect for him. The club spoke with him because he did not have many minutes and he said, ‘No, I want to stay.’ We brought Kalvin here for his quality. He is open-minded, always wants to learn and wants to help. This is what we want to try to do.”

Moyes will have no issues trying to give Phillips much-needed confidence.

He has a proven track record of revitalising the stagnated careers of talented players, with Jesse Lingard, during a loan from Manchester United three years ago, perhaps the most recent example. Moyes will hope Phillips rediscovers his form and plays in the way that prompted him to watch the midfielder so closely in his Leeds days.

Between 2014 and 2022, Phillips made 234 appearances for Leeds across all competitions, scoring 14 goals. He helped his boyhood club seal promotion to the Premier League in 2020, also the year he made his England debut.

Phillips’ transition from academy prospect to a key cog in the Bielsa machine was not easy. He joined Leeds’ academy in his mid-teens and was almost released when at under-18s level.

There were serious discussions at that time about whether he would be kept on. In that period, his ball-striking technique stood out, a skill that helped in the Bielsa era when Phillips would ping passes around from deep. He also took a lot of Leeds’ set pieces.

It was only after Bielsa was appointed in summer 2018 that Phillips found his ideal position. Before that, he had been a central midfielder who had not stood out when used in a more attacking role under Thomas Christiansen. He was not a crowd favourite before that point.

Bielsa used him as the deep-lying midfielder in his 4-1-4-1. Phillips could drop into a back three when the full-backs went forward (which they did a lot under Bielsa) and pulled the strings from that area. Leeds under Bielsa tried to control possession, and the role suited Phillips. He was physically strong enough to be a big asset defensively and technically good enough to do what Bielsa needed him to do on the ball.

Moyes often plays with a 4-2-3-1 and prefers his side to sit deep and break on the counter. Phillips’ range of passing will complement that setup.

Bielsa, who was not known for maintaining close relationships with players, had a soft spot for Phillips, once telling him he would be happy to see him marry one of his daughters. He was the player Bielsa tried to contact when the Argentinian thought he might be leaving at the end of that 2018-19 season, leaving a voicemail on Phillips’ mobile.

Moyes develops close bonds with his players, too. In an interview with The Athletic, full-back Emerson Palmieri said the players consider the Scot to be a father figure — a manager who helps them on and off the field. Moyes will offer Phillips an arm-around-the-shoulder approach when needed.

Like most players, Phillips works best when he feels his skills are fully appreciated. When he was at his lowest at City, he knew who to turn to.

“The only time that I’ve felt down about the situation was when Man City played Leicester and I came on for about half an hour (in April last year), but I was rubbish,” Phillips told Sky Sports. “I can remember going home and I was so upset with myself that I started crying. I got on the phone and messaged Marcelo Bielsa and asked if I could speak to him.

Phillips, left, Ben White and Tyler Roberts celebrate Leeds’ Championship title (Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images)

“It was just good to have a chat and he basically told me that I have the ability, it’s just down to confidence and being positive. And since that conversation, I’ve been as positive as I can. Getting through that and seeing the rewards coming at the end of the season with the treble, it was a nice thing.”

Bielsa could also be ruthless with him — on Phillips’ 100th club appearance, against Swansea City in 2018, he was substituted after 28 minutes — but generally, he was a player the South American trusted massively. In that summer of 2019, Phillips was close to joining Aston Villa. Bielsa said, if he was not sold, he had to commit 100 per cent to Leeds or he would be dropped into the under-21s. Phillips chose to stay and was a massive part of the promotion season that followed.

Phillips was less effective under Jesse Marsch, who played a different system to predecessor Bielsa, in the final months of 2021-22 as Leeds barely avoided relegation back to the Championship. That summer, he met Leeds’ then owner Andrea Radrizzani on a yacht off the coast of Ibiza and told him he wanted to leave for City. Radrizzani agreed to let him go.

Initially happy about joining a club of City’s stature, Phillips became increasingly disillusioned about his lack of playing time. 

Now, he has a chance to show his quality under Moyes.

This is a signing that has been years in the making, is a coup for West Ham and one from which Moyes will hope to reap the rewards.

(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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