What went wrong for Phillips at Man City?

26 January 2024 0 By Total Football News

Kalvin Phillips reacts during a warm-up for Manchester CityKalvin Phillips has not started a Premier League game for Manchester City this season

In the end, maybe Kalvin Phillips’ misfortune at Manchester City boiled down to two simple facts – he is not Rodri and he plays in the same position as Pep Guardiola did.

As has been the case periodically during that time, Guardiola was asked for the specific flaw that has condemned Phillips – one of the standout performers in England’s run to the Euro 2020 final and still a part of Gareth Southgate’s squad – to just two Premier League starts out of a potential 58.

Typically, Guardiola avoided a direct answer and turned the question on himself.

“I have to be here to help the players develop and be better players and suit what we want to do and I was not able to do it,” he said.

“The quality is there. That’s why he’s in the national team. Look what he’s done at Leeds. I regret more myself than Kalvin.”

Asked if the simple truth is that Rodri is a better player, Guardiola’s response was to the point: “He doesn’t need to be like Rodri. Rodri is unique.”

Guardiola likes to dismiss his playing career these days. But, in his prime, he was superb.

By the age of 21, he had won the Olympics, La Liga and the European Cup. Two years later, he was part of the Spain side who reached the World Cup quarter-finals, where they lost to Italy. He finished his career with six league titles and three European trophies, including the Super Cup.

He remains among the top 20 on Barcelona’s all-time appearance list. His mentor Johan Cruyff regarded him as one of the best midfielders of his generation.

As has been apparent throughout his time as City boss, his attention to detail is extraordinary.

To win his favour in the role he excelled in, you have to be almost perfect. Rodri is. Phillips is not.

Injury issues

It might have turned out differently for Phillips had he not arrived at City plagued by a shoulder injury that affected him throughout his final season at Leeds. He almost missed Euro 2020 because of it and the effects lingered into the following campaign.

From the opening of the 2022-23 season, when Phillips made his City debut as a last-minute substitute against West Ham, to the 17 September encounter at Wolves, City played seven games. Phillips missed four of them through injury and was limited to just 13 minutes’ playing time.

After the Wolves game, Guardiola confirmed the Yorkshireman may require surgery. Taken at face value, Phillips was still in the City manager’s plans. “We need him,” said Guardiola. “Rodri cannot play all the games.”

Except, virtually, he did. After missing the two games immediately following that Wolves match, Rodri sat out just three more as City claimed the Treble: a Carabao Cup tie at Bristol City, the FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield United and the final Premier League game at Brentford, when the title had already been won.

Phillips started the first and last of those matches but by then, Guardiola had come out with his infamous criticism of Phillips returning from the World Cup overweight.

As he warmed up at Elland Road, in front of supporters who previously adored him, Phillips smiled when the Leeds fans baited him during the first game after Guardiola’s controversial comments with chants of “You’re too fat to play for Leeds” and “Kalvin Phillips, he eats what he wants”.

But they hurt. Phillips subsequently tried to play down the clear sign of a rift with his manager, admitting he had returned from a post-World Cup break “two or three kilograms over” and that Guardiola’s discontent was “perfectly understandable”.

However, in an interview with Sky Sports after the season’s end, he revealed he needed an inspirational chat from his former boss Marcelo Bielsa to drag him out of his despondency after a dismal substitute appearance – as a replacement for Rodri – against Leicester on 15 April.

“I remember going home and was just so upset with myself, I started crying,” said Phillips.

“I messaged Bielsa and asked if I could speak to him. He basically told me that I’ve got the ability, it’s just down to confidence and being positive.”

Will Phillips return to Man City?

Manchester City midfielder Kalvin Phillips (left) replaces team-mate Rodri (right) during a Premier League gamePhillips’ last Premier League appearance for Manchester City was as a replacement for Rodri in a 6-1 win over Bournemouth

Phillips started two of City’s final three Premier League games of last season, came on for the other and was on the bench for the FA Cup and Champions League final wins against Manchester United and Inter Milan. And he clearly felt a part of the club as he had fun on stage, serenading John Stones, during the celebration parade on 12 June.

That appreciation is mutual. No-one at Etihad Campus has a bad word to say about Phillips. Like Guardiola, they are sorry it has not worked out. On the flight back to Manchester from the mid-season training camp in Abu Dhabi this week, Phillips personally said thank you to every member of staff. The feelings were of genuine warmth and affection.

Phillips will be welcomed at West Ham. David Moyes tried to sign him in the summer when City got him.

Phillips will clearly find the demands at London Stadium are not quite as high as at City. He will also find an environment somewhat more appreciative of what he can do, rather than what he can’t – a focus on the speed with which he can move the ball and his reading of the game.

Asked whether the midfielder could play for City again one day, Guardiola gave a positive response: “Yes,” he said. “Why not? He has to play to make me realise how wrong I was. For the guys who don’t behave well, I don’t care, but these kind of people who help us in every training session and in the minutes he played, I always feel: ‘What more could I do?'”

But nobody really believes it will happen. Phillips might be excellent at West Ham. But it won’t turn him into Rodri.