Why Kalvin Phillips was not considered good enough for Manchester City

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It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when the writing appeared on the wall during Kalvin Phillips' time at Manchester City, because there was plenty of evidence to suggest things weren't going to go well, but there was a very early sign that something was wrong.

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

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 complexities of the defensive midfielder role at City, and despite selling Lafia knowing that, at 18, he was not going to be given much first-team exposure anyway. The club's coaches realized that the young Belgian was a more natural fit than the new arrival.

There were elements of misfortune in Phillips' first few months in Manchester. He was too ill to attend the unveiling ceremony at the Etihad Stadium, which also saw Erling Haaland introduced 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 alive. . Sidelines until the Winter World Cup.

But the strange and very sad truth is that for someone who was voted England's Player of the Year a year before arriving at City, aged 28, he will now certainly make a huge contribution to sixth-placed West Ham. It is that Phillips was basically not good enough to play for a team that is the current Premier League champions and European and world champions.

“I deeply regret my decision towards him,” Guardiola said earlier this month. “I've said it many times. He didn't deserve what happened to him and I'm so sorry.”

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There was nothing unusual about the fact that Phillips played just a few minutes in Manchester City's first few games last season because the shoulder injury came on early. He wasn't the only City player to struggle in his first season – on the day Phillips' surgery came to light, Jack Grealish scored early against Wolves amid continued criticism of his debut campaign in Manchester.

There was no scrutiny of Phillips' position at City at the time due to his injury, but Guardiola subsequently revealed he had returned from the World Cup due to being overweight and had been left out of the squad. Guardiola takes a very strict approach to that (“When you're not fit, danger is coming,” he said. “You're not fast enough or quick enough with your head.”) But the truth is that he chose to reveal it. The information about Phillips was telling.

The player was barely above the minimum weight and it is understood others have reported his similar condition, but Guardiola felt the need to send a public message to him in particular.

A few weeks later, Guardiola sent a letter to the entire City board after he felt players, and even employers, were becoming complacent, born of weeks and months of frustration at voicing his concerns behind closed doors without seeing what was needed. reaction.

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It was the same with Phillips.

Although his injury denied him the chance to show what he could do on the training pitch early, shielding him from any public scrutiny, those around City noted that he had not quite reached the standards demanded by his new club.

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

Not that he caused any problems for the staff or his teammates at all. Guardiola and his staff really appreciated his role in the dressing room, as a great teammate and a good person for the overall chemistry in the dressing room – especially in the post-World Cup period when many players, including several England players – were teammates, Most notably, Joao Cancelo, is complaining about various problems at the club. That was important.

“The only thing I can say about him is that I demand good characters and characters and he is a perfect example,” Guardiola said.

Phillips has had his own personal struggles over lack of playing time – he has spoken of calling his former Leeds coach, Marcelo Bielsa, for advice, and of crying over City's rare but poor performance late last season – but he has never acted erratically around the training pitch, which is a no-no. For Guardiola, this is something that was known about Aymeric Laporte and Riyad Mahrez in the past.

The problem Phillips had, in terms of adjusting his mentality at Manchester City, was that it took him too long to realize that his new team-mates were somewhat more enthusiastic, somewhat more professional. It wasn't that his standards were poor by any means, but in a dressing room full of players who arrive early for training and leave late, who look after themselves more in their own time, he didn't quite fit in.

For example, Phillips didn't really do anything wrong after the World Cup: other players returned from England undercooked too, because those who didn't start alongside Gareth Southgate in Qatar had not received particularly intensive training, and all City players were given some The days after their team's tournament ends and when they have to return to the club.

Phillips took his allotted leave and reported back on time, but the difference was that some of his team-mates, including Laporte and Nathan Ake, returned early, having noticed they could do with some extra fitness work.

“He wants change,” Guardiola said about Phillips two weeks after he was removed from the team. “Maybe it will be a good lesson for him in the future.

“A footballer has to be perfect over the course of 12 months. Excellent. Even on holidays, he has to be perfect. You have to be ready, because this level requires a lot of effort. You have to play three games (a week), and you have to be ready. “Being fit. If you're not fit, nothing. But I said last week he's improved.”

But any improvement in that sense, and even the positive impact that Phillips had on the rest of the team, was not enough to turn the situation around because, unlike the way Guardiola and his staff still believe in new players who struggle in their first year. (Going into that season, Guardiola was convinced that Grealish was on the verge of brilliance), and they began to form the view that his signing would never work out.

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The biggest reason for this rare imbalance in City's transfers is due to the type of player Phillips is and his incompatibility with what Guardiola needs for his team to function.

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

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

There was also a problem with He writes Midfielder Phillips is: Guardiola prefers his defensive midfielders to stay in position rather than roam, and must be essentially flawless when under pressure, especially when receiving the ball from the goalkeeper or defenders with one or more pressing them. .

City knew they would need to adapt to their style but felt they would be able to do so, partly due to the Bielsa factor.

Guardiola said: “He has to improve reception from the center of defence, but this is a matter of time.” “At Leeds, he moved sideways, but he has the ability to do it.

“He is a national team player. In the European Championship, when England reached the final (in 2021), he played amazingly. He had the mentality of training with Marcelo Bielsa, with resilience and fighting.

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

But during the first season, they came to believe it would never happen, and unlike Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Rodri and others who had notable struggles in their first season but retained strong support from Guardiola ahead of their second season, Phillips was made available for a loan move last summer.

He wanted to stay at City, though, in the hope that he could turn things around the way Grealish and Ake did, and he used those examples publicly to show his determination. This time, he attended pre-season preparations five days ago, having done extra training during his summer break, and truly believed that more opportunities would come his way.

But he soon saw Mateo Kovacic arrive and outpace him in midfield. Late in the summer window, Matheus Nunes also joined, and started two games in his first three weeks at the club – Phillips started just four games all of last season, two in the domestic cups and the other in league matches after City had clinched the table. Title.

In September, after Rodri was sent off against Nottingham Forest and handed a three-match ban, Phillips shed some light on how frustrated he was about the situation and how his team-mates had to lift his spirits, and said he was facing “probably” the biggest week or so of my Manchester career. City so far.”

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But nothing has really changed: he played for Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup defeat, but returned to the bench for the Premier League matches against Wolves and Arsenal.

By October, things were on the rocks, and club executives publicly admitted that Phillips would never break into the team and would be set to leave in January. He initially hoped to move to Juventus in Italy, but they were unable to agree terms with City.

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Last month, when Guardiola said he was “sorry” for not rewarding Phillips' behavior with game time, he made his most damning statement ever.

The Catalan said: “This is only because I imagine some things and imagine the team and find it difficult to see it.”

The question everyone is asking now is: How did this transfer go so wrong? – Especially at City, where bad signings were few and far between during Guardiola's seven years as manager.

It's important to remember that there were a lot of areas where this move made sense. City saw an England international available at a good price, which came with glowing reviews for his character and, more importantly, the fact that he was being coached by Bielsa.

City also knew the market they were shopping in – they knew, for example, that Aurélien Chouamini would be moving that summer, and although they rated him as a better player, they did not want to bring in someone for around the £70m he expected. To start regularly in a position where Rodri was, and still is, the best. This could threaten the harmony in the camp, something Phillips will not do, even if he does not bring the same quality.

When City pursued Declan Rice last summer, it was because they wanted him to play two key roles; Mostly as a more advanced midfielder, starting alongside Rodri and then moving forward, also as a substitute for the Spaniard, when needed. However, Rice wants to play in Rodri's position more often, something Arsenal have confirmed to him.

City were, and still are, in a position where they cannot afford a top-class specialist player as a replacement for Rodri, and they know that when he is unavailable, they will have to use players in deeper areas to compensate.

They knew in the summer of 2022 that Phillips would be happy enough not playing every week, but they thought he would get far more chances than he did, and he left with just six regular starters at City, having fallen short. He even made himself an option for the double pivot without Rodri.

He now has a chance to show exactly the type of player he is at West Ham, and perhaps in an England shirt at the European Championships this summer, but City feared very early on that Phillips was not up to the task, and that was never going to change.

(Top image: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

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