Kalvin Phillips to Man City? One past Pep Guardiola transfer pattern suggests it’s a recipe for success
Kalvin Phillips is on the verge of signing for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Various sources in the media are reporting that Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips is about to seal a summer switch to Manchester City for around £42m. This would make him City’s second signing of the window and adds him to a mighty midfield unit.
Even with the loss of Fernandinho, Phillips joins a midfield where Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden are all present and viable options.
The question then, is why? Why have City signed Phillips to replace a player who barely played last season? The answer is two-fold, with the first issue being tactical and the second as part of Pep Guardiola’s squad building ethos.
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Firstly, the tactical edge Phillips adds to the Manchester City midfield is substantial. The upgrade on Fernandinho is obvious, but simply allowing Rodri to rest more often isn’t reason enough to sign someone like Phillips.
Phillips can play as a sole pivot in a three but also, as we’ve seen for England, as part of a double pivot. Meanwhile Pep Guardiola has also used a quasi-double pivot at times, most notably with Barcelona during the 2009/10 season.
At Manchester City, with the way City keep their wingers wide and push their “free 8’s” up high, Rodri is often joined in midfield by one or both full-backs, turning City’s shape in possession into something like 2-3-2-3 (or the old W-W).
This is fine, but can leave them susceptible to counter-attacks as it keeps their best recovery defender, Kyle Walker, in advance of the last line of defence. However someone like Phillips could slot in next to Rodri in midfield, meaning only one midfielder drives forward.
Kalvin Phillips for Leeds vs. Man City:
◎ Most ball recoveries (9)
◎ Most crosses (5)
◎ Most tackles won (6)
= Most interceptions (3)
An incredible performance. pic.twitter.com/q79TYlCNKw
— Squawka (@Squawka) October 3, 2020
In turn with this, the back line shift would be asymmetrical, with the right-back and two centre-backs forming a three while the left-back (City are allegedly after Marc Cucurella) becomes the width City crave on the left.
This in turn lets the left-winger cut infield, making City’s shape in possession more like a 3-2-2-3 or, to it another way, a Cruyffist 3-3-1-3 (aka 3-4-3 diamond). This structure would essentially allow City to dominate the middle of the pitch while still stretching it wide and protecting themselves against transition and then, if need be, return to a 4-3-3 for defensive phases of the game.
Essential to this is midfielders who can handle themselves defensively, which is why Phillips is so perfect. His ball-playing and ability to break lines was honed under Marcelo Bielsa, who also loved the Englishman’s ferocious tackling ability in duels. He is a passer like all of City’s other midfield options but is also a much better defender as well (especially important if Bernardo Silva really does want out as the Portuguese is the only non-Rodri midfielder who comes close to being as solid a defender as Phillips).
Kalvin Phillips, basically, can do whatever Pep Guardiola needs him to do. And would allow a basic continuation of City’s present midfield model while also facilitating a massive expansion should Pep do, well, what he’s always done.
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What Pep has also always done (or tried to do, anyway) is sign players like Phillips; that is to say, players from within the league his team is playing in. Adapting to Guardiola’s system is already so difficult and such a long process, tying that up in also adapting to a new country and culture almost puts too much pressure on wouldbe recruits.
In his first summer at Barcelona he signed five players, three of them came from within La Liga. He won the Treble.
In his second summer at Barcelona he signed three players, none of which came from within La Liga. He only won La Liga.
In his third summer at Barcelona, he signed three players, two of which came from within La Liga. He won La Liga and the Champions League and beat the most expensively assembled team (manager included) in the history of football 5-0.
In his fourth summer at Barcelona, he signed two players, neither came from within La Liga. He only won the Copa del Rey.
At Bayern, with the squad needing a lot of shaping and a league that doesn’t really produce many players in the mould Pep likes, it was less obvious. But he still signed at least one Bundesliga player per summer and two of them went on to become Bayern legends (Robert Lewandowski and Joshua Kimmich) who delivered huge glory for the club.
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At City it’s been much the same as Bayern. John Stones arrived in Pep’s first summer, with Kyle Walker following the season after then Riyad Mahrez in the summer of 2018. The summer after he signed no one from the Premier League and the following season City did not win the Premier League. Then he picked up Nathan Aké from Portsmouth and the following summer spent avalanches on Jack Grealish.
Now, while those first two signings have proven key players the latter two have not, but they continue the ethos. Players who already know the league and its intricacies, meaning Pep has less to teach them and the team can get on with winning the league.
While Ake has put in some meaningfully solid performances even in his smaller rotational role, Grealish is oozing with potential and should he find a greater harmony with Guardiola in his second season (as most do) there’s almost no limit to how good he could be.
The same can be said of Phillips (and Marc Cucurella, if City go there). The defensive midfielder is 26 and has spent his whole footballing life at Leeds; he understands the English game and yet has the quality to explode in the right system. England have shown he can be conservative, Bielsa has shown he can be explosive, now Pep Guardiola is going to show that he can be brilliant.
If Phillips can improve City as much as it seems like he can, then Pep Guardiola’s incredible transfer streak can continue.
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