It is both the signing that Manchester City did not particularly need to make and the one that solves the most pressing issue left to address in Pep Guardiola’s squad. Maybe that is the luxury of being Premier League champions in four of the past five seasons. If it ain’t broke, you can pay an initial £42m for a player who is unlikely to start every week. But then Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain know full well that if a third consecutive league title is to be delivered to the Etihad, Kalvin Phillips’ role could be pivotal. Literally.
Phillips is a City player and, like his club, international and agency stablemate Jack Grealish a year before him, will go from being an integral part of one side on the Premier League’s mid-to-lower rung to being a squad player – for now – at its summit. After injury limited him to only 20 league appearances in all competitions last season, he may end up round the same mark this year even if he stays fully fit. That is not a reflection on the 26-year-old’s ability but on how City’s first-choice holding midfielder has become borderline irreplaceable.
While Bernardo Silva sparkled in the first few months of last season, Kevin De Bruyne’s form from Christmas onwards was among his best in a City shirt and Joao Cancelo continued to redefine the role of the modern full-back, Rodri was arguably City’s player of last season. The level of command, control and consistency that the Spaniard showed in Guardiola’s deepest-lying midfield position was exemplary, confirming him as one of Europe’s best in the role. And by nature, much of his work went unnoticed except for the few occasions when he was absent.
Take for example when Fernandinho deputized for him at the pivot on Boxing Day, City almost surrendered a 4-0 half-time lead to an injury-ravaged Leicester City, eventually running out 6-3 winners. Guardiola bemoaned the champions’ lack of authority in the middle of the park, even when leading comfortably. It was a similar story in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool four months later, when the Brazilian – as loyal a servant as City have known in recent years – looked every bit a player three weeks shy of his 37th birthday.
Fernandinho has returned to his former club Atletico Paranaense, as he revealed he would in April. Rodri’s injury history does not give much cause for concern but he is liable to sit out at least a few times a season and going into this window, the biggest threat to City’s forthcoming title defense was a long absence to their holding midfielder with no cover to fill the most specialized role in Guardiola’s side. With Phillips on board, that is no longer a major risk, even if the question of how City’s newest signing will adapt is still relevant.
It has become an article of faith that it takes at least a season for new signings to settle in at the modern City, and not only those in the multi-talented and heavily rotated attack. Rodri himself struggled during a difficult first season and Phillips will face the same period of adjustment. He also has the added challenge of adjusting to Guardiola’s highly structured positional play after three-and-a-half seasons spent perfecting Marcelo Bielsa’s unique brand of man-to-man marking. Much is made of the two coaches’ mutual respect and shared principles but there is a huge contrast in how they defend.
And yet, there is plenty of reason to believe that Phillips can make a success of this chance given how his stock has risen since Leeds’ return to the Premier League under Bielsa and his emergence as a regular at international level with England. If he struggles to adapt at any stage or feels suddenly homesick, he can find comfort in the fact he is joining a Yorkshire-born contingent in the City dressing room that includes Kyle Walker, John Stones and a fellow Loiner in Erling Haaland.
His versatility should not be underestimated either. If opportunities are not always forthcoming in the Rodri role, he has shown an ability to operate higher up the pitch. That was his role at Leeds pre-Bielsa – Phillips was surprised to be told he was a ‘four’ by the Argentine in their first team meeting after a career as a box-to-box player – and he has reprized the role under Gareth Southgate at times, memorably setting up Raheem Sterling’s opening goal against Croatia when given license to roam at last summer’s European Championship.
City have a well-rounded player and their spending will not end here. The champions are expected to ramp up their well-publicized interest in Brighton’s Marc Cucurella to address the long-standing lack of a recognised, reliable left-back. Equally, Gabriel Jesus’ exit and the likely departure of Sterling will leave a forward line that looked a little bloated at the start of the summer suddenly in need of reinforcement. An unprecedented quadruple has felt possible at the start of every one of Guardiola’s six seasons in east Manchester, only to be undone by a lack of depth. That was the case in that aforementioned FA Cup semi-final.
There is still work to be done around the edges this summer, then, to ensure the well of talent does not run dry when deep into the spring once again. But whereas most of those other holes can be filled one way or another, City have now insured themselves against the threat of losing arguably their most important, most indispensable player. Even if Phillips is not immediately a regular starter, arrival only makes it even harder to locate the pressure point in Guardiola’s squad, and only makes a fifth Premier League title in six seasons seem even more likely.