It was perhaps the most successful and unsuccessful season of all time. Kalvin Phillips has completed his first year at Manchester City with an historic haul of medals. Still, his three trophies outnumbered his two starts in the league. Across all competitions he has started in just four games, City have lost two of those and the first of those defeats – to Nathan Jones’ Southampton – ended up costing them four times as much.
A year like no other ended on at least a personal high when Phillips scored his first goal for England in a 7-0 win over North Macedonia. Then he thought: ‘I came to Manchester City to win trophies and we won the trophies but I didn’t play as much as I wanted to.’ Even if that last part is an understatement, his determination is just his strengthened.
Phillips insists he doesn’t want to leave City. Leaving now, he believes, would be an admission of defeat. He could attract interest – perhaps from Newcastle or West Ham – but he’s hoping to sit out the summer transfer market. “My intention is to stay there,” he said. “We just won the treble so there’s no reason for me to go unless I’m not playing. Of course I will have to think about it. I can’t wait 12 months and say, ‘I’m not playing, so I’m leaving.’ As you’ve seen with many players at City, it can take quite a while to establish yourself in the team.”
The decision is not his alone. Pep Guardiola revealed Phillips came back from the World Cup overweight. While the former Leeds player cast Rodri as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, it was devastating that Guardiola also favored Ilkay Gundogan in the defensive role. Some of Phillips’ cameos have been so brief – his last four Premier League substitute appearances have totaled 17 minutes – that one might suspect he was not trusted. City’s £42million investment for Leeds gave them an expensive fringe player.
“I’ll definitely speak to Pep,” Phillips said. “I don’t know if it will be in the summer because everyone enjoys their free time and everyone wants their place away from football so I’ll probably leave it until I come back for pre-season.”
Guardiola can ban some players but persevere others. City have their own version of second-season syndrome, with players improving after a year to get used to his methods and tactics. Rodri is a case in point; This also applies to Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish. Nathan Ake’s breakthrough year was his third. Phillips has consulted some of those who did not have an immediate impact.
“All I know is how difficult it is to understand how Pep wants to play and how quickly you have to adapt to your system,” he said. “I spoke to some players about it. Nathan Ake is one, Jack [another]. They all said the same thing, they all said the first 12 months were the hardest of their City careers, but after that…it doesn’t get easy, it gets easier.”
A key difference is that Phillips’ predecessors appeared far more often than he did in their debut campaigns, even if they weren’t necessarily successful. each gained more of their manager’s trust. Guardiola’s past as a defensive midfielder adds an element of allure: there are some who he feels come naturally to his claims – like Sergio Busquets and Philipp Lahm – and others, like Rodri, who empathize with the role. Phillips’ time under Marcelo Bielsa, one of Guardiola’s coaching heroes, was expected to prove useful to him. Instead, it required another tremendous learning curve. “I’m on the verge of almost making it,” he said. “Of course there is a bit of work to do in the pre-season, and I hope so [I will] be all right.”
In one respect his first year was an unfortunate one – he was sidelined at the end of his Leeds career with a hamstring injury, then had to have shoulder surgery when he joined City – and in another respect it was a fortunate year to be with three medals from minimal contributions.
If staying at City comes with some risks, particularly regarding his place in Gareth Southgate’s plans, leaving could feel like giving up. A player who worked his way up from a Championship midfielder to a midfielder bought by Pep Guardiola has made his decision. “I’ll just go away in the off-season and have fun with my family, girlfriend and friends,” he said. “And then come back and fight.”