Can Kalvin Phillips be more than just Rodri’s understudy at Manchester City?

The last time Kalvin Phillips started a game, it was a historic low. England’s 4-0 evisceration by Hungary in the Nations League was their heaviest home defeat since 1928. It was the day Gareth Southgate was told by the England fans that he didn’t know what he was doing. It was seven months ago, and in part because of the World Cup, it feels longer.

The last time he began a club match, it was another season and ended in the high of saving his hometown club from the drop. Leeds’ 2-1 win at Brentford in May meant they leapfrogged Burnley to stay up on the final day. More than three-quarters of Phillips’ appearances for United came in the Championship but, while his departure was long expected, victory meant they were not returning there.

And now, belatedly, he is set to make a long-awaited full debut for Manchester City. Phillips has played 90 minutes for his new club, but spread across six substitute appearances in four competitions, the first more than five months ago. Since then, he has had shoulder surgery and returned in time to go to the World Cup, where he came off the bench twice. He returned overweight and was dropped from the squad for the last round of the Carabao Cup against Liverpool. Now he is set to face Southampton in Wednesday’s quarter-final.

But it has been a false start to his City career: among their other summer signings, Erling Haaland has scored 27 goals and Julian Alvarez has won the World Cup. Phillips was due to be unveiled on the same day as the two strikers but he was unwell and missed the event. It now seems a symbolically bad beginning.

Now, however, Pep Guardiola pronounced: “He’s ready.” Phillips has survived his manager’s programme of tough love; it was Guardiola who, unprompted, disclosed that the midfielder’s condition was the reason for his omission and who warned him he needed to be in “perfect” shape all year round. Guardiola has had sufficient success that he deems it a reflection on the players if they are not involved, even though Phillips was his £42m signing.

Phillips was named England’s player of the year for 2021 but half a season has given him the feel of a back-up at club level. Rodri has been outstanding and integral for the last 18 months. Only Bernardo Silva has made more appearances for City this season. Guardiola is relishing the sense of competition for a position he used to play for Barcelona. “He has to fight with Rodri for the benefit of all of us,” he said. “Rodri cannot sleep and have the feeling there is someone close to him to do it.” He argued Phillips can displace the Spaniard from his strongest side. “Why not?” he said. “It depends on him how he is able to fight with Rodri. That’s why the big clubs must have these kind of feelings. We need Kalvin: I said that from day one.”

Phillips was “educated under Marcelo”, in the City manager’s words: Guardiola is famously a fan of the former Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa, though the Argentinian’s policy of man-marking all over the pitch means Phillips will have to adjust.

“There are patterns and movements that need time and games,” Guardiola said. “But he’s an intelligent player, like holding midfielders are, with an incredible work ethic. In duels he understands when the ball is coming. He is strong in the air, when they have a tempo, [he has] the quality to break lines. He has to improve the reception to come from central defenders but it is a question of time but he has the quality to do it.”

Bielsa is not the only manager to form part of Guardiola’s thinking: he canvassed the thoughts of Gareth Southgate as he looked for a replacement for Fernandinho when his captain announced he was returning to his native Brazil. “He is a national team player and when they reached the [Euro 2020] final, him and [Declan] Rice both played amazingly,” Guardiola added.

Phillips starred for England alongside Declan Rice at Euro 2020

(The FA via Getty Images)

Now he could be part of another defensive double act. Phillips and Rodri are rivals for a spot but not duplicates. The Spaniard has the advantage of being better versed in Guardiola’s football. “Rodri knows a little bit more what we want to do,” he said. “The quality of the long balls, Kalvin is better than Rodri. In the shorter spaces in the first actions and controls Rodri is better. Everyone has his own qualities but they can play together, especially when you play with two holding midfielders. That mainly happened against Chelsea here.”

If Rodri provides one comparison, Jack Grealish offers another. He also joined from his boyhood club, gravitating from the Championship to the Premier League. The former Aston Villa captain admitted last week he found it more difficult than he expected to get used to City. “For me it’s not hard,” Guardiola countered. “The way we play is so simple: without the ball, help each other and with the ball, be in the right position to get it.” For Phillips, the treatment table and the bench have been the wrong positions to get it. And now, at long last, he will be on the pitch when the first whistle blows.

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