It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when Kalvin Phillips' time at Manchester City became known because there was so much evidence that things weren't going to work out, but there was a very early sign that something was wrong.
Phillips signed a six-year contract with Leeds United for £42 million ($53.5 million) on July 4, 2022, two days before City sold fellow teenage midfielder Romeo Lavia to Southampton for £10.5 million.
As soon as pre-season training began later that month, Pep Guardiola and his team had concerns.
They noted that even at this early stage, Phillips appeared to be struggling with the intricacies of City's defensive midfielder role, although Lavia was sold in the knowledge that he was unlikely to have made the first team anyway at 18, the coaches recognized club that the young Belgian was a better fit for them than their new signing.
There were also unfortunate moments in Phillips' first few months in Manchester. He was too ill to attend a sunny unveiling event at the Etihad Stadium that also saw Erling Haaland introduced to his new fans, and the season was barely a month old when he needed surgery on a recurring shoulder problem that has kept him out of running stayed on the sidelines until the Winter World Cup.
But the rather strange – and rather sad – reality for someone who was voted the best player in England a year before he arrived at City, and who is now, at 28, sure to make a big contribution to sixth-placed West Ham, is that Phillips is basically was never considered good enough to play for a team that is the current Premier League, European and World Champions.
“I’m so sorry I chose him,” Guardiola said earlier this month. “I've said that many times. He didn’t deserve what happened to him and I’m so sorry.”
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There was nothing unusual in Phillips only playing a handful of minutes in City's opening games last season as the shoulder injury struck early on. He wouldn't have been the only City player to struggle in his first season – on the day Phillips' operation was revealed, Jack Grealish had scored an early goal at Wolves, although his debut season in Manchester continued to be criticized .
Due to his injury, there was no review of Phillips' position at City at the time, but then Guardiola announced that he had withdrawn from the World Cup overweight and was left out of the squad. Guardiola is very strict about this (“If you're not fit, you're in danger,” he said. “You're not fast enough or not quick enough in your head.”), but the fact that he had chosen to disclose this information about Phillips were revealing.
The player was barely over the weight limit and it is understood others had come forward in a similar condition, but Guardiola had felt the need to publicly send a message to him in particular.
A few weeks later, Guardiola sent a message to the entire City organization after feeling that the players and even his employers had become complacent, and this had arisen from weeks and months of frustration in airing his concerns behind closed doors To express without seeing the required reaction.
It was the same with Phillips.
Although his injury had robbed him of the chance to show what he could do early on on the training pitch and protected him from any public scrutiny, people at City had noticed that he was not quite up to the standards required by his new club.
Guardiola never fully trusted Phillips (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
Not that he caused any problems for the staff or his teammates. Guardiola and his team really valued his role in the dressing room, as a great teammate and someone who was good for the overall harmony in the dressing room – especially in the post-World Cup period when many players, including some of his England team-friends and Joao Cancelo in particular complained about various problems at the club. That was important.
“The only thing I can say about him is that I demand good personalities and characters and he is a perfect example,” Guardiola said.
Phillips had his own personal problems due to his lack of game time – he spoke of calling his former Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa for advice and crying over a rare but poor performance from City at the end of last season – but he never acted Unrest on the training ground, which is a taboo for Guardiola and has also been reported by Aymeric Laporte and Riyad Mahrez in the past.
The problem for Phillips adapting his mentality to City was that it took him too long to realize that his new team-mates were just a bit brighter and more professional. It wasn't that he had poor standards, but rather that in a dressing room full of players who came to training early and left late and took extra care of themselves in their free time, he couldn't quite keep up with them.
For example, Phillips didn't really do anything wrong after the World Cup: other England players also returned inadequately because those who didn't start for Gareth Southgate in Qatar didn't train particularly intensively and all City players were given a few days after their tournament ended team to leave and set a date by which they had to return to the club.
Phillips took his allotted time off and reported back on time, but the difference is that some of his teammates, including Laporte and Nathan Ake, came back early after realizing they could use some extra fitness work.
“He wants to change,” Guardiola said of Phillips, a few weeks after keeping him out of the squad. “It may be a good lesson for him in the future.
“A footballer has to be perfect over 12 months. Perfect. Even on vacation it has to be perfect. You have to be ready because this level is so demanding. You have to play three games (a week), you have to be fit. If you're not fit, then nothing. But I said last week that he has improved his level.”
But any improvements in this sense and even the positive impact that Phillips had on the rest of the squad were not enough to change the situation because, unlike Guardiola and his staff, Guardiola and his team still believe in new players, Having struggled in their first year (at the start of this season Guardiola was convinced Grealish would shine), they had begun to form the opinion that his signing would never work out.
The main reason for this rare City transfer failure lies in the type of player Phillips is and his incompatibility with what Guardiola needs to make his team work.
“Kalvin is better than Rodri when it comes to the quality of long balls. “Rodri is better in shorter spaces and first actions,” Guardiola said last season, a gentle introduction to his feelings.
“If we need a game with transitions or games with chaos, Kalvin is perfect,” the manager said in October. Anyone who has paid attention to how Guardiola wants his teams to play over the last 15 years will find that chaos is the exact opposite of what he wants from a football game.
There was also a problem with the type of midfielder Phillips is: Guardiola prefers his defensive midfielders to stay in their position rather than roam, and they fundamentally need to be error-free when under pressure, particularly when they have the ball from their goalkeeper or defenders assume one or more opponents are pushing towards them.
City knew he would have to adapt to their style but they felt he would be able to do so, partly due to the Bielsa factor.
“He needs to improve the reception from the central defenders, but it is a matter of time,” Guardiola had said. “At Leeds he moved laterally but he has the ability to do that.
“He is a national player. At the European Championships, when England reached the final (in 2021), he played brilliantly. He had the mentality of training with Marcelo Bielsa, with the resilience and the fight.”
Phillips' play at Euro 2020 helped establish him as one of England's best central midfielders (Facundo Arrizabalaga/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
But during that first season they came to the conclusion that it would never happen, and unlike Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Rodri and others who struggled significantly in their first season, but also had the strong support of Guardiola in their second season retained, Phillips was made available for a loan move last summer.
However, he wanted to stay at City and hoped he could turn things around in the way Grealish and Ake did, and he publicly used these examples to show his determination. This time he reported to pre-season five days early after completing additional training in the gym during his summer break, fully believing that more opportunities would come his way.
But he quickly saw Mateo Kovacic arrive and move above him in the midfield pecking order. Matheus Nunes also arrived late in the summer and started two games in his first three weeks at the club – Phillips started just four games in the whole of last season, two in the domestic cups and the others in league games after City clinched the title.
In September, after Rodri was sent off and given a three-match ban against Nottingham Forest, Phillips shed some light on how dejected he had been about the situation and how his team-mates had to cheer him up, saying he was “probably facing…” the biggest week of my Man City career so far.”
But nothing actually changed: he played at Newcastle United in a Carabao Cup defeat, but was back on the bench in Premier League games against Wolves and Arsenal.
By October the decision was actually made, with club managers openly admitting that Phillips would never break into the team and that he would move on in January. He had initially hoped for a move to Juventus in Italy, but an agreement could not be reached with City.
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When Guardiola said last month he was “sorry” for not rewarding Phillips' hiring with playing time, he delivered his most damning sentence of all.
“It's just because I imagine some things and the team and it's hard for me to see him,” said the Catalan.
The question on everyone's mind now is: How could this transfer go so wrong? – especially at City, where there have been few bad signings in Guardiola's seven years as manager.
It's important to remember that there were many areas where the move made sense. City saw an England international at a good price who had rave reviews about his character and, more importantly, the fact that he had been coached by Bielsa.
City also knew which market they were shopping in – they knew, for example, that Aurelien Tchouameni was moving this summer, and although they rated him as a better player, they didn't want to sign someone for around £70m who would expect to do so regularly to start in a position where Rodri was and still is the front runner. That could jeopardize the harmony in the camp, something Phillips wouldn't do even if he didn't bring the same quality.
When City hired Declan Rice last summer, it was because they wanted him to play two main roles; Mostly as an advanced midfielder, starting alongside Rodri but then moving forward and also acting as a replacement for the Spaniard when required. However, Rice wants to play in Rodri's position more often, which Arsenal have assured him of.
City were and still are unable to buy a top-class specialist as an alternative to Rodri and know that if he is unavailable they will need to deploy two players in deeper areas to compensate.
They knew in the summer of 2022 that Phillips would be content not to play every week, but they and he believed he would be given far more opportunities than he had and he leaves the team with just six City starts to his name Account, although he didn't even make himself an option for the double pivot without Rodri.
Now he has the chance to show exactly what type of player he is at West Ham, possibly in an England shirt at the European Championships this summer, but City feared very early on that Phillips would not be up to the task, and He never changed that either.
(Top photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)