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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Why Kalvin Phillips was not considered good enough for Manchester City

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the writing went up on the wall for Kalvin Phillips’ time at Manchester City, because there were so many clues that things were not going to work out, but there was one very early sign that something was amiss.

Phillips signed, on a six-year contract, from Leeds United in a £42million ($53.5m) deal on July 4 2022, two days before City sold teenage fellow midfielder Romeo Lavia to Southampton for £10.5m.

No sooner had pre-season training begun later that month than Pep Guardiola and his staff had some concerns.

They noted, even at that early stage, how Phillips seemed to struggle with the intricacies of City’s holding midfielder role and, although Lavia was sold in the knowledge that, at 18 years old, he would not have been given much first-team exposure anyway, the club’s coaches realised the young Belgian was a more natural fit than their new arrival.

There were elements of misfortune about Phillips’ first few months in Manchester; he was too ill to attend a sunny unveiling event at the Etihad Stadium, which also featured Erling Haaland’s introduction to his new fans, and the season was barely a month old when he had to have surgery on a recurring shoulder problem, which kept him on the sidelines until the winter World Cup.

But the rather curious — and quite sad — reality for somebody who had been voted England’s best player a year before his arrival at City, and one who, at 28 years old, will surely now make a big contribution to sixth-placed West Ham, is that Phillips was essentially never considered good enough to play for a team who are the current Premier League, European and world champions.

“I feel so sorry for my decision for him,” Guardiola said earlier this month. “I’ve said that many times. He doesn’t deserve what has happened to him and I’m so sorry.”

There was nothing too unusual about the fact Phillips had played just a handful of minutes in City’s first few games of last season because that shoulder injury came early. He would not have been the only City player to struggle in their first season — on the day Phillips’ surgery came to light, Jack Grealish had scored an early goal at Wolves amid ongoing criticism of his debut campaign in Manchester.

There was no scrutiny of Phillips’ position at City at that time due to his injury, but then Guardiola revealed he had reported back from the World Cup overweight and was being kept out of the squad. Guardiola has a very strict approach to that (“When you are not fit, danger is coming,” he has said. “You’re not fast enough or quick enough in the head.”) but the fact he had chosen to disclose that information about Phillips was telling.

The player was barely above the weight threshold and it is understood others had reported back in similar condition, but Guardiola had felt the need to send a message publicly to him in particular.

A few weeks later, Guardiola sent a message to the entire City organisation after feeling the players, and even his employers, had become complacent, and that was born out of weeks and months of frustration at airing his concerns behind closed doors without seeing the required reaction.

It was the same thing with Phillips.

Although his injury had robbed him of the chance to show early on what he could do on the training pitch, and shielded him from any public scrutiny, those around City had noted he was not quite reaching the standards his new club demanded.


Guardiola never fully trusted Phillips (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Not that he caused staff or his team-mates any issues whatsoever. Guardiola and his staff genuinely valued his role in the dressing room, as a great team-mate and somebody good for the overall harmony in the dressing room — particularly in that post-World Cup period when many players, including several of his England team-mates, and most notably Joao Cancelo, were complaining about various issues around the club. That was important.

“The only thing I can say about him is I am asking for good personalities and characters and he is a perfect example,” Guardiola has said.

Phillips had his own personal struggles due to his lack of playing time — he has talked about calling his former head coach at Leeds, Marcelo Bielsa, for advice, and about crying over one rare but poor City performance late last season — but he never acted disruptively around the training ground, which is a no-no for Guardiola and something that has been known of Aymeric Laporte and Riyad Mahrez in the past.

The problem for Phillips, as far as adjusting his mentality to City is concerned, was that it took him too long to appreciate that his new team-mates were just that bit more switched on, that bit more professional. It was not that he had terrible standards by any means, but that in a dressing room full of players who arrive early for training and leave late, and who take extra care of themselves in their own time, he did not quite match them.

For example, Phillips did not really do anything wrong after the World Cup: other England players came back undercooked, too, because those who were not starting for Gareth Southgate in Qatar did not do especially intense training, and all City players were given some days off after their team’s tournament ended and a date by which they had to return to the club.

Phillips took his allotted time off and reported back on time, but the difference is that some of his team-mates, including Laporte and Nathan Ake, came back early, after noticing they could do with some extra fitness work.

“He wants to change,” Guardiola said of Phillips a couple of weeks after keeping him away from the squad. “It will maybe be a good lesson for him in the future.

“A footballer has to be perfect over 12 months. Perfect. Even in the holidays, he has to be perfect. You have to be ready, because this level is so demanding. You have to play three games (a week), you have to be fit. If you are not fit, then nothing. But I said last week, he (has) improved his level.”

But any improvements in that sense, and even the positive impact Phillips had on the rest of the squad, was not enough to turn the situation around because, in contrast to how Guardiola and his staff still believe in new players who struggle in their first year (heading into that season, Guardiola was convinced Grealish was about to shine), they had begun to form the opinion that his signing was never going to work out.

The biggest reason for this rare City transfer misfire is due to the kind of player Phillips is and his incompatibility with what Guardiola needs for his team to work.

“In the quality of long balls, Kalvin is better than Rodri. In shorter spaces and first actions, Rodri is better,” Guardiola said last season, a gentle introduction to his feelings.

“When we need a game with transitions or games with chaos, Kalvin is perfect,” the manager said in October. Those who have paid attention to how Guardiola likes his teams to operate during the past 15 years will note that chaos is the exact opposite of what he wants from a football match.

There was also an issue with the type of midfielder Phillips is: Guardiola prefers his holding midfielders to stay in their position rather than to roam, and they need to be basically flawless when under pressure, especially when receiving the ball from their goalkeeper or defenders with one or more opponent bearing down on them.

City knew he would need to adapt to their style but they felt that, due in part to that Bielsa factor, he would be able to do so.

“He has to improve the reception from central defenders, but this is a question of time,” Guardiola had said. “At Leeds, he moved the lateral way, but he has the ability to do it.

“He is a national team player. In the Euros, when England reached the final (in 2021), he played amazingly. He had the mentality to train with Marcelo Bielsa, with the resilience and fight.”


Phillips’ play at Euro 2020 helped cement him as one of England’s top central midfielders (Facundo Arrizabalaga/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

But during that first season, they came to believe it was never going to happen and, unlike with Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Rodri and others who have had notable struggles in their first season but retained the strong backing of Guardiola heading into their second campaign, Phillips was made available for a loan move last summer.

He wanted to stay at City, though, hoping he would be able to turn things around in the way Grealish and Ake did, and he used these examples publicly to show his determination. This time, he reported for pre-season five days early, having done extra gym work during his summer break, and he genuinely believed that more opportunities would come his way.

But he quickly saw Mateo Kovacic arrive and go above him in the midfield pecking order. Late in the summer window, Matheus Nunes joined too, and started two matches in his first three weeks at the club — Phillips started just four matches all last season, two in the domestic cups and the others in league matches after City had sewn up the title.

In September, after Rodri was sent off against Nottingham Forest and banned for three matches, Phillips shed some light on how down he had been about the situation and how his team-mates had had to lift his spirits, and said he was facing “probably the biggest week or so in my Man City career so far”.

But nothing really changed: he played at Newcastle United in a Carabao Cup defeat but was back on the bench for Premier League matches against Wolves and Arsenal.

By October the writing truly was on the wall, and club executives openly acknowledged Phillips was never going to break into the team and that he would be moving on in January. He had initially hoped for a move to Juventus in Italy, but they could not agree terms with City.

Last month, when Guardiola said he was “sorry” for not rewarding Phillips’ attitude with playing time, he delivered his most damning line of all.

“It’s just because I visualise some things and visualise the team and I struggle to see him,” the Catalan said.

The question everybody is asking now, then, is: how did this transfer go so wrong? — especially at City, where poor signings have been few and far between during Guardiola’s seven years as manager.

It is important to remember there were a lot of areas in which the move made sense. City saw an England international available for a good price, who came with glowing reviews of his character and, importantly, there was the fact he had been coached by Bielsa.

City also knew which market they were shopping in — they knew, for example, that Aurelien Tchouameni was going to move that summer and though they rated him as a better player, they did not want to bring in somebody for around £70million who would expect to start regularly in a position where Rodri was, and still is, top dog. That could threaten the harmony in the camp, something Phillips would not do, even if he did not bring the same quality.

When City pursued Declan Rice last summer it was because they wanted him to play in two main roles; mostly as a more advanced midfielder, starting alongside Rodri but then moving forward, and also as the Spaniard’s replacement, as and when needed. Rice, though, wants to play in Rodri’s position more often, something he was assured of by Arsenal.

City were, and still are, in a position where they cannot buy a top-class specialist as an alternative to Rodri, and know that whenever he is unavailable, they will have to use two players in deep-lying areas to compensate.

They knew in the summer of 2022 that Phillips would be happy enough with not playing every week, but they and he believed he would get far more opportunities than he has had, and he leaves with just six City starts to his name, having failed to even make himself an option for the Rodri-less double pivot.

He now has a chance to show exactly the type of player he is at West Ham, and quite possibly in an England shirt at the European Championship this summer, but City feared very early on that Phillips was not up to the job, and that never changed.

(Top photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)



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