Kalvin Phillips: a square peg in a round hole?

It sounded good, didn’t it? On the surface, if you pick at his skills and look at his recent career, there’s a lot there to love. But if you scratch at it a little, does it start to unravel quite easily?

If we think about Kalvin Phillips’s career, he was a nobody before Marcelo Bielsa. Some credit the Argentine entirely, but Bielsa found a player who could do what he asks. He’s not a manager who comes in and sees what works; Bielsa arrives and demands players adapt to his needs or they leave.

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That Leeds team was controlled chaos, running hard yards and doing it at pace. Kalvin Phillips starts to catch the eye as a midfielder who defends on the front foot, chases the ball, harasses, harries and hurries opponents. He’s never sitting in midfield and reacting to danger in defensive territory, he’s after it.

That continues into the Premier League. Leeds are pure energy, everything seemingly done at a sprint. It’s not always brilliant, but it certainly draws attention. Phillips thrives, a player who can match the work rate but then calm himself in possession almost instantly to play good forward passes. When teams back off, he’s able to use the ball dangerously, an attacking midfielder now being given space in deeper areas to pick out forward passes.

Then we see him playing well for England, named England’s player of the year for 2020/21 after a successful Euro 2020 tournament. Sure, Declan Rice was robbed by a mixture of stupidity and standard football rivalry, but Phillips still got the vote.

And for England, he’s again working hard, moving out of midfield to put pressure on the ball. He’s not the sitter, Rice is the disciplined one, Phillips is free to be in perpetual motion, going after the ball and trying to get England back in possession and moving forward, whilst shutting off passing lanes and making opponents work harder to use the ball well. Notice the balance: Phillips is the force, Rice is the security.

Of course, he earns his move to Manchester City. And you can see why. We all know now that it didn’t work, but what was he bought for? Manchester City are a side who like to press high and win the ball back quickly. They’ve played one sitter in Rodri for a long time, and they work hard off the ball to regain possession. They’re also full of players who can use the ball quickly once they’ve done that work.

All of that sounds alright for Phillips. He’s a good passer, he works hard, he has proven he has the stamina to play that style for 90 minutes every week under Bielsa.

But he’s seen, at least from the outside, as an alternative to Rodri. Why? Has he ever really been a sitter like Rodri? He definitely played deeper for Leeds, but they also played somewhat of a one-to-one defensive system and thrived in chaos. City don’t do chaos. I’m not sure Phillips has ever been a player like Rodri, even ignoring that Rodri is one of the best to ever do it.

So, who’s he competing with? He’s basically playing in the position that we see Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva play. He’s an 8, if we do basic numbers to roles. And he’s nowhere near as good as those players.

I think Pep Guardiola quickly realises that, which is why he doesn’t play him. He’s not signed a Rodri replacement, and he’s got world class players where Phillips wants to play. He’s a fine passer, but nothing like the dangerous passer of De Bruyne. None of Silva’s guile.

You can see why West Ham is an attractive move for all parties. He’s been an aggressive, ball-winning midfielder with an eye for a pass and someone who looks forward and we lack passers in midfield who can defend. He sees a team that has had recent success, a manager who wants him, a club that an England team mate like Rice thrived at.

I just don’t think anyone actually paid attention to the details and asked pertinent questions about how he’d succeed.

Has Phillips noticed that we don’t play with a player like him? Has he asked how he’ll be used and assessed whether a team that sits two midfielders in will suit him?

Has David Moyes really paid attention to how and why Phillips has thrived? Don’t get me wrong, I thought a spot next to Edson Alvarez where he’d get the freedom to push on and defend higher with the Mexican behind him would suit.

But it’s not worked like that. I’ve worked backwards from what I’ve watched to what I remember of him, and I’d fully accept better knowledge of his time at Leeds could show it’s all nonsense, but it strikes me that we’ve signed a front foot, aggressive ball-chaser to a team that does not ask its central midfielders to do that.

The above tweet, from my former KUMB colleague Jack Elderton, seems a perfect example and a simple explanation of what we do and what is expected. Tomas Soucek knows to drop in, it’s what he does because it’s the instruction. He’s an aggressive player sometimes, so it’s not just some natural inclination that Phillips doesn’t have, it’s the drill. Yet Phillips is pushing on higher than Ward-Prowse and chasing a ball into a position he doesn’t need to, exposing the midfield and defence.

This one, and it’s the same thing in a different area. His game is to go to these things, that’s how he’s thrived and why he is (or was) a player coveted by many. West Ham’s is not, it’s to have your protection and to shield. The advanced one can go, but that’s on the basis that the foundations of Soucek and Phillips (in this instance) are in place. Think of how rarely Alvarez does it. When he does, like the stupid booking recently, he’s doing it with a team behind him in place.

The player hasn’t helped himself, he’s not looked fit or mentally sharp. He has been caught out taking time on the ball that he doesn’t have on numerous occasions. Was he unlucky in the box with Gordon? Sure. Did he take an extra touch when he could have already cleared? Yes. And, realistically, how often is it bad luck until the player is to blame?

He was a bit unlucky when he got sent off, he was a bit unlucky losing possession inside a minute on his debut, he was a bit unlucky a referee thinks someone blocking the path of your leg when you’re on the ball is a foul to them. But every single one of those bits of bad luck follows a poor decision from Phillips, mistakes others may have made without punishment. But they’re still mistakes he made, with bad luck compounding them.

With all that said, the manager takes a lot of blame for his use of him. I won’t blame him for the signing, even if we can point at reasons he may not have suited, his quality has been shown at different levels and across a number of years.

Where he takes blame is what’s happened since. Is he using him in the best position to suit him? Has he got him drilled to the demands of this team? It would appear not on both counts, so why keep throwing him into deep areas and expecting different results? Not only have you not got him to the level you could have, which is excusable as the player is as big a part of that as the manager, but you’ve repeatedly put him in positions to expose that. That’s not excusable.

I won’t criticise the signing directly. Sure, you assess a manager on signings, too, but some won’t work. It’s a point in the assessment, rather than a big shining example of something more worrying. But I think the management of him since has simply been bad. Not working out is one thing, not getting him right is another, but both can be explaining away.

Using him badly and doing it on numerous occasions is terrible.

There is still time for the player to learn and the manager to learn. Maybe Phillips will start to realise he needs to be more passive, allow the game to be played so he does the defending that confronts him. Maybe Moyes will realise he isn’t that player, and use him as an enforcer in front of a double pivot. But it just looks to me like a player joining the wrong club and getting stuck into a team that neither suits him nor has a use for his skill set.

The right club may get a bargain in the summer, six months destroying his value could mean a team that wants what Kalvin Phillips thrives at can buy him with his stock at its lowest. He's just a square peg here, and the antithesis of what Lingard was.

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