Since Fernandinho brought an end to a glittering, trophy laden career at Manchester City, manager Pep Guardiola had been on the look-out for a replacement. The Catalan manager targeted Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips as his number one target to provide competition for Rodri, who himself was brought in to replace the Brazilian and firmly established himself in the defensive midfielder role.
After appearing to have secured the signing of the former academy player, what can Guardiola and City expect from their new £45m man?
Rotating with Rodri
As is the Guardiola way, Phillips will be expected to rotate in his position and regularly replace, and be replaced, by Rodri. The Spaniard had an outstanding season, scoring vital goals, including the precise strike that equalised against Aston Villa, and was a rock in front of the City defence that only conceded 26 league goals all season.
Phillips is already familiar in that role, which is why Guardiola wanted to bring him to Manchester. The Catalan boss was linked with move for Frenkie de Jong and was even touted to be looking at outgoing United midfielder Paul Pogba. However, it is the workrate that Phillips puts in that persuaded Guardiola to ignore the availability of Frenkie de Jong, or the fact that he could have got Paul Pogba on a free transfer.
Phillips has demonstrated that he has the qualities a Guardioa-esque defensive midfielders must possess. Solid in front of the back four with the ability to turn defence in to attack within moments. City have the pace to hit teams on the break, and before they know what’s happened, they’re picking the ball out of the net. Phillips fits that mode and attacking philosophy that Guardiola loves.
Eyebrows were raised when Phillips was selected for Gareth Southgate’s England side to play Croatia in their opening match of Euro 2020, but he was one of the outstanding players of a drab match, providing the pass for Raheem Sterling to score the only goal of the game.
Phillips can also play higher up the field if necessary, as demonstrated at the Euros, but, after playing a huge role in the Leeds side, Phillips knows that his playing time will be limited at City to start with, and the fact that he turned down other offers to play for City and Guardiola shows he is happy with that.
Bench is the best place to learn
Of course, there will be those that will say Phillips is swapping a regular first team place for a seat on the City bench, and it’s clear that Guardiola employs this tactic fairly often with new signings. It must be frustrating for new signings to be content with a place on the bench when they first join the club, and it is likely Phillips will go the same way as players such as Nathan Ake, Jack Grealish, Joao Cancelo and even Rodri himself. It is likely that Phillips will occupy a place on the bench often during his first season.
One reason for this is to integrate them into the team.
From the bench, they don’t only watch the play. They watch the manager. They can understand what Guardiola is demanding from his side and how he utilises his players on the pitch. That sort of knowledge can’t be gained on the field of play, and may be one of the reasons why City are so successful.
Guardiola cares little about the thoughts of others, who question why he signs players and leaves them on the bench. But some take longer to adapt to the team and his huge demands as a manager, and Guardiola will not compromise the team chances of taking three points simply because they’re a big name or the blues paid a lot of money for them. If they’re taking longer to adapt, Guardiola displays patience and won’t just throw them in.
Joao Cancelo is the perfect example of this style of management. The Portuguese defender failed to impress in his first season and was often benched by Guardiola. From there, he learnt what was required, he understood what was required of him and last season, was outstanding. It was the same with Ake, and no doubt Grealish will go the same way. And Rodri himself found himself understudy to Ferna, in the same way Phillips is to Rodri.
Phillips will get game time. Guardiola will afford him the opportunities every player under him deserves. And, while he won’t provide immediate competition to Rodri, it will be a role that he’ll eventually be fighting for every week.