When Kalvin Phillips signed for Manchester City and pictured what his first start for the club would look like, there is little chance he imagined it involved losing to Southampton in the Carabao Cup.
Six months after joining from Leeds United in a £42million ($51m) deal, Phillips has had to stay patient — following shoulder surgery and, more recently, being told he is not in adequate physical shape by Pep Guardiola — for his chance to show why the Premier League champions pursued him last summer.
But against Southampton, where the home side looked and played more like City than City themselves, the England international lasted 63 minutes before he was replaced by Rodri when they were 2-0 down.
Although the defeat will leave a sour taste in Phillips’ mouth, coupled with Guardiola’s team collectively performing below par, getting over an hour’s game time was crucial for Phillips.
Guardiola was careful not to rush the defensive midfielder back too soon, noting that 27-year-old Phillips has been “frustrated” with how the beginning of his City career has started.
“We need Kalvin — I have said that from day one,” Guardiola said. “When he didn’t train after the World Cup, it’s because I said I don’t want him to get injured, so it’s better to wait a few days and come back step by step.”
Since the turn of the year, across three appearances, Phillips has managed 99 minutes of game time. Wednesday night was the longest time he has spent on the pitch since England lost to Hungary in the Nations League in June.
So, while the result and performance was not good enough for a squad of City’s calibre, the steps Phillips continues to take towards getting back to his best were pivotal.
Before their 2-0 quarter-final defeat to Southampton, Guardiola spoke at length about where he thinks Phillips can improve.
Guardiola complimented the former Leeds United man’s range of passing, highlighting he is “better than Rodri” with this aspect of his game, but cited how his team-mate is more adept in “shorter spaces and first actions”.
“Rodri knows a little bit more what we want to do,” Guardiola said. “He (Phillips) understands where the ball is coming. He is strong in the air and has the quality to break lines to wingers and inside.
“He has to improve the reception from central defenders but this is a question of time. At Leeds, he moved the lateral way, but he has the ability to do it.”
Against Southampton, Phillips, who occupied his position in front of the defence, moved from left to right and right to left, constantly trying to make himself available to the City defence or to disrupt an opposition attack.
According to FotMob, Phillips completed 38 of his 42 passes — three of those were into the final third — against Southampton and had 53 touches. He lost possession once, won five out of six ground duels, and made two clearances.
After several months out injured, he was understandably playing catch-up and at times, when you consider the speed of the game away to Southampton, it showed, but the home team knew this would be the case and sought to put him under pressure.
Their manager, Nathan Jones, highlighted afterwards how he wanted James Ward-Prowse — playing in a more advanced position — to exploit and harangue his England team-mate.
In the final 15 minutes of the first half, Phillips was brushed off by former City player Romeo Lavia before Ward-Prowse closed him down, won possession, and nearly sprung a counter-attack.
“We shifted Prowsey to a 10 position because he understands how we want to press and he has the athleticism to do it,” Jones said after the game. “We wanted him to get around Kalvin Phillips, jump off the shape and then press. He did everything really well.”
Despite conceding possession at times, Phillips continued to look for the ball. He did not hide, nor did it visibly affect his confidence.
Assessing how he thought Phillips coped with his first start in a City shirt, Guardiola made clear it will take time before the club sees the best from him.
“It is step by step,” Guardiola said. “Of course you need time. He was, a lot of the time, injured, and he needs time. It is not about Kalvin, this player or another player — when you have nights like today, the responsibility is for everyone, but for the manager first.”
After criticising his physical fitness in December, Guardiola has now outlined what Phillips needs to do if he is to force his way into City’s starting XI ahead of Rodri.
While the quadruple is off the cards for at least another season, Phillips has over half a Premier League campaign, the FA Cup and the Champions League to return to full fitness and remind everyone of the talent at his disposal.
(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)