West Ham have reached an agreement to sign Kalvin Phillips from Man City on an initial loan deal; midfielder has been unable to make an impact at the Etihad Stadium following £45m move from Leeds but could shine again in different surroundings
The best of Kalvin Phillips for Manchester City and Leeds United in the Premier League.
Kalvin Phillips was billed as a Fernandinho replacement with the attributes to slot into Manchester City’s midfield. Instead, his signing will go down as a rare recruitment error by the champions.
Phillips was mostly a spectator as Pep Guardiola’s side powered to the treble last season. The new campaign has brought more of the same. In total, he has made six starts in 18 months, playing only seven per cent of available Premier League minutes.
Such a prolonged period out of favour would normally be a red flag to any suitors. But the circumstances are unique at the Etihad Stadium. Guardiola’s demands are as high as they come – particularly in the No 6 position, where he can already call on Rodri.
City remain dependent on the Spaniard. This season, they have lost all three of the Premier League games he has missed, their struggles without him showing why, when he is available, he invariably starts.
- West Ham and Man City agree Kalvin Phillips loan deal
Image: Pep Guardiola says he has not been able to "visualise" Kalvin Phillips in his team
Phillips was determined to change Guardiola’s mind, insisting on staying last summer and fighting for his place. But it was telling that, even when Rodri was unavailable in the first half of the campaign, Phillips was overlooked. The writing was on the wall.
Still, though, his reputation remains intact. West Ham have agreed a deal to sign him on an initial loan deal. Newcastle, Crystal Palace and European giants Juventus, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were also interested.
Guardiola infamously aired his dissatisfaction when Phillips returned from the World Cup “overweight” last season but, for the most part, and despite the lack of any consistent playing time, he has praised the midfielder’s attitude and professionalism.
“He is behaving incredibly,” he said in October. “He doesn’t deserve what has happened to him and I am so sorry,” he added more recently. Phillips, he said, is a “perfect example” as a character.
He is of course seen in a similar light at international level, where he has retained the backing of manager Gareth Southgate. “A super boy with great humility,” is how the England boss describes him.
That character formed part of the attraction to a long list of interested clubs but, at 28 and ostensibly in the prime of his career, it is his enduring quality as a player which is most appealing.
Phillips has plenty to offer.
Bielsa’s approval and defensive dominance
It was of course under Marcelo Bielsa that Phillips began his rise to prominence, playing a crucial role in Leeds’ promotion from the Championship before establishing himself in the top-flight.
In his farewell letter ahead of his move to Manchester City, he described the Argentine as “the best manager he had ever come across”, lauding his influence on his life and career.
Image: Phillips excelled for boyhood club Leeds
The admiration was mutual. Phillips was vital to Bielsa. The Argentine outlined his strengths in conversation with Sky Sports in 2021.
“He is a very good passer, over short and long distances, and he always knows what’s happening around him,” he said.
“He is aware of where the opponents are when he needs to recover the ball and he is also aware of where his team-mates are once he has recovered it.
“He knows how to assess danger and he takes good decisions on the pitch. He is good at knowing which threat he needs to neutralise as a priority at any given time.”
Image: Phillips excelled as Leeds' No 6 under Marcelo Bielsa and then Jesse Marsch
Bielsa added that those qualities were “quite difficult to notice” given the general tendency to focus instead on results and goalscorers. But they were not lost on him. In fact, in the same interview, he likened Phillips to Andrea Pirlo and Diego Simeone.
“Like Pirlo, Phillips is a player who knows how to organise the possession play,” he said to Sky Sports of a player affectionally dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ by Leeds supporters.
Asked if he saw parallels with Simeone, a player he coached while Argentina boss, Bielsa added: “They are both combative players who are comfortable when there are disputes or there is friction on the pitch. Simeone, of course, also had very good passing ability.”
Image: Phillips has only started six games for Man City
It was high praise but those qualities were evident right across Phillips’ two seasons in the Premier League with Leeds. Indeed, it was only after he suffered a hamstring injury during the second of them that the team’s results deteriorated and Bielsa lost his job.
They missed his ball-winning ability at the base of midfield in particular. Over the course of that season, Phillips actually won possession at a higher rate than any other Premier League player.
Without him, they were bewilderingly open, conceding three or more goals in nine of the 14 Premier League games for which he was unavailable. He returned, under Jesse Marsch, in time to help drag them to safety on the final day of the campaign.
City had been monitoring Phillips with a view to completing a cut-price deal in the event that Leeds were relegated but still went ahead with the move, paying a considerably higher sum of £45m.
It was a measure of how highly they rated him.
Passing prowess and ball-striking ability
Like his former bosses at Leeds, Southgate values Phillips’ tactical and defensive qualities highly. But you don’t get a move to City without being technically sound and he is certainly that.
“He is a very, very good player who is reliable with his rebounding of the ball in midfield,” said Southgate. That short-passing game was of course similarly important to Bielsa. But Phillips’ biggest strength is his distribution over long distances.
Image: Phillips remains an important player for Gareth Southgate
Soon after Phillips made the move to City, Sky Sports’ pundit Jamie Redknapp faced ridicule online for arguing, during a discussion with Micah Richards, that Phillips was a “better passer” than Rodri.
But Redknapp was primarily referring to the range of Phillips’ passing and his core point – “he is one of the cleanest strikers of the ball we have produced in years,” he said – was quite correct.
Guardiola admitted as much in January of last year. “In the quality of the long balls, Kalvin is better than Rodri,” he said. “In the short spaces and the action of the first control, Rodri is better.”
His long passes were a major a feature of Leeds’ play. During the 2019/20 season under Bielsa, he completed 136 out of 215, his 64 per cent success rate placing him among the Premier League’s best.
Image: Phillips' long passes from deep were a weapon for Leeds
Those passes were often used to switch the play, allowing Leeds to stretch their opponents and attack into space, but they were also a weapon to get in behind, particularly in wide areas, where his service helped wingers Raphinha and Jack Harrison thrive.
Bielsa rated his ball-striking ability highly enough to make Phillips one of his most prominent set-piece takers. He ranked 12th in the division for chances created from set plays that season.
There are other players ahead of him in the dead-ball stakes with England but his excellent range of passing was a contributing factor towards their run to the final of Euro 2020.
Phillips’ distribution helped England break down their opponents as he became one of only six players to start every game at the tournament. He subsequently won the country’s player of the year award, cementing his place in Southgate’s plans.
Image: Phillips plays in a more advanced role with England
That the England boss uses him slightly differently to his club managers is another source of encouragement to any suitors.
While he has primarily operated as a lone No 6 with Leeds and City, he usually plays in a double pivot with Declan Rice for England, his box-to-box role allowing him to show he can also excel with more licence to get forward.
Ultimately, Guardiola found no place for his qualities at Manchester City. But there are plenty of managers who would. An unsuccessful signing for the champions could fare differently elsewhere.