In Focus: Phillips primed to be Pep’s new unsung hero
Premier League champions Manchester City are poised to sign Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips for a fee of around £45million.
Defensive midfielder Phillips, 26, looks to be a direct replacement for City’s departed captain Fernandinho, leaving the England international with huge shoes to fill at the Etihad.
We take a closer look at what the industrious Yorkshireman will bring to Pep Guardiola’s star-studded squad and ponder if he can take his game to the next level under the Spaniard’s tutelage.
Phillips’ imminent departure from Elland Road is the news that no Leeds fan ever wanted to hear.
Born and bred in the city, he joined the Whites’ academy aged 14 and has breezed through the ranks at his boyhood club in effortless fashion.
Since making his senior debut in April 2015, the midfielder has notched up 233 appearances across all competitions, won countless individual awards and established himself as a cult hero among supporters.
The role he played in securing the club’s long-awaited Premier League return was pivotal, while his transition into a top-tier regular in the two seasons since has been seamless.
Even since becoming a fixture in Gareth Southgate’s England side, there has been no indication of Phillips pushing to leave for bigger and better things.
City’s interest has changed the landscape, however.
It is not every day the champions of England come knocking at a player’s door but the Citizens are long-term admirers of Leeds’ talismanic No23.
Ever since their long-serving skipper Fernandinho hinted he would not be extending his contract back in April, talk has been rife about his potential replacement.
Such was the Brazilian’s stature at the Etihad, any new arrival needs to be capable of hitting the ground running — and Phillips’ Premier League experience certainly sees him tick that box.
Crucially though, he also boasts adaptability.
While he has impressed in an expansive and somewhat chaotic Leeds set-up in recent years, a run to the Euro 2020 final playing next to Declan Rice saw him thrive in a far more rigid system too.
Working under one of football’s sharpest tacticians in 51-year-old Guardiola, he will need to embrace yet another style of play — and all the evidence suggests he is up to the task.
It is one of Guardiola’s managerial idols Marcelo Bielsa who has helped mould Phillips into the player he is today.
The wily Argentine, 66, may have parted ways with the Whites in February but the seismic impact he had on his old playing squad’s technical development remains clear for all to see.
Under Bielsa, Phillips transitioned from an all-action, box-to-box midfielder into a disciplined destroyer.
Recent seasons at Elland Road have seen him screen the Whites backline, breaking down opposition moves with aggressive interceptions before setting attacks in motion from deep.
In a struggling side last term — and despite a spell on the sidelines with a hamstring injury — no central midfielder in the Premier League won possession back more in the defensive third (4.29) or central third (5.36) per 90 minutes than the 26-year-old.
Bielsa carefully identified Phillips’ strengths and crafted a regime and role to maximise them. Now, Guardiola looks set to reap the rewards of his progression.
Work in progress
Of course, there will be significantly more demands put on the Yorkshireman playing in a side of City’s quality and approach.
Guardiola has crafted one of the all-time great teams in terms of ball retention, meaning Phillips will need to significantly improve his passing to become a regular starter.
Taking last season as an example, Guardiola’s midfield metronome Rodri recorded a league-leading accurate pass percentage of 91.76%, with fellow central midfielders Ilkay Gundogan (91.17%) and Bernardo Silva (89.62%) also in the division’s top ten.
Phillips, in comparison, saw only 81.96% of his passes successfully find a team-mate, placing him in 45th.
That is not to say he is not capable of hitting such heights but it is an adjustment that is bound to take time.
Much like he did with Jack Grealish following his £100m arrival last term, expect Guardiola to slowly bed in his new addition over the course of a gruelling campaign.
Though Phillips would quite happily have seen his career out with his boyhood side, this move really does appear to make sense for all parties.
It is questionable whether he could ever reach his true potential at Elland Road and the opportunity to challenge for titles, develop under Guardiola’s watch and earn a significant pay rise is virtually impossible to turn down.
From a Leeds perspective, £45m will represent a club-record windfall and allow Jesse Marsch to properly stamp his mark on a squad that only just managed to survive relegation last term.
Finally, while many may question whether City really need a player of Phillips’ ilk, having him in their ranks unquestionably adds another string to their bow.
Only last month, an underwhelming Real Madrid side ground their way to unlikely Champions League glory.
At the heart of their success were the often unheralded performances of gritty Brazilian Casemiro, with the 30-year-old enforcer a near ever-present at the base of an otherwise attack-minded midfield.
If Guardiola can maximise Phillips’ refined skillset in a similar style to the Madrid star, he could prove to be one of their savviest acquisitions in years.