Phillips’ struggles at Man City, West Ham have cost him England spot

From the high of being named England’s Player of the Year in 2021 to the low of being ignored by club and country less than three years later, the drop-off in Kalvin Phillips‘ career has been stark. And it could yet get worse before it gets better.

Struggling for games during a loan spell at West Ham United that was supposed to revitalise his career after a disastrous 18 months at Manchester City, the midfielder is in danger of missing out on the European Championship this summer after being overlooked by manager Gareth Southgate for England’s friendlies against Brazil and Belgium this month.

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Phillips’ downturn can be traced back to his £43 million move from boyhood club Leeds United to City in 2022. He didn’t get off to the best start at the Etihad Stadium when illness prevented him from attending his own unveiling and he went on to make only nine starts in all competitions over the course of the next year-and-a-half.

He did his best to keep smiling through a difficult first year at City, when he made just two Premier League starts and played just 593 minutes in total during the club’s historic treble-winning campaign. But sources told ESPN that things began to change a couple of months into his second season and the decision to allow him to leave on loan for West Ham in January was made, in part, after some City staff noticed a change in his usual bubbly demeanour.

Phillips had turned down offers to leave City the previous summer, choosing instead to stay and fight for his place. He did extra gym work and fitness sessions during his holiday to ensure he returned to City in the best shape possible ready to impress Pep Guardiola.

He didn’t start any of the first nine games of the season, but with Rodri suspended for the Carabao Cup tie at Newcastle in September he was picked in midfield alongside Rico Lewis and Mateo Kovacic.

City lost 1-0, and with Rodri absent for the next two Premier League games against Wolves and Arsenal, Phillips was left on the bench. When Rodri was suspended again for the trip to Aston Villa in December, Phillips didn’t get a single minute. He had been told during the initial transfer negotiations between City and Leeds that he was being signed to provide Rodri with competition — something he was happy to accept — but to be continually overlooked when the Spain international was unavailable was, according to sources, a crushing blow for him.

Phillips knew when he joined City that it might take time to understand Guardiola’s demands. Winger Jack Grealish arrived from Aston Villa for a then-British record £100m in 2021, but still took nearly a year to win Guardiola’s trust. Phillips, though, was nearing 14 months at City when Rodri got suspended and still couldn’t get in the team.

In Phillips’ mind, that signalled the end of his career at the Etihad and after talks with Juventus came to nothing, he settled on joining West Ham. It was a decision partly influenced by Southgate, who said it would help his England chances to stay in the Premier League rather than move to Italy.

West Ham manager David Moyes had tried to sign Phillips from Leeds in January 2022 and again last summer, when there were brief talks about being included in a deal for Declan Rice before he eventually signed for Arsenal for £100m.

But while Moyes finally got his man in January, the confidence which steadily drained from Phillips during his time at City has been hard to replenish. Making his West Ham debut against Bournemouth in February, the midfielder gave a goal away with his first touch. And, demoted to the bench for the trip to Manchester United three days later, he gave away another goal shortly after coming on, while in his next start against Nottingham Forest he was sent off in the second half after picking up two bookings.

Phillips has started one game since, against Burnley at the London Stadium, but was replaced at half-time with his team 2-0 down. In the second half, West Ham fought back to draw 2-2.

Southgate, according to sources, was desperate to include Phillips in his squad for the games against Brazil and Belgium but, in the end, decided he couldn’t justify it.

“I think he knows exactly what we think of him,” he told a news conference last week. “I think we’ve shown that support. A good version of him is a good player for us. That’s why we’ve supported him like we have. We don’t have many players of that profile. Unfortunately, his form hasn’t been good enough. He has all the attributes to force his way back in, and we’re very keen for him to do that.”

It was telling that since the initial squad announcement, Southgate has added another central midfielder, but it was to give Manchester United’s 18-year-old sensation Kobbie Mainoo his first call-up.

Phillips has been through a lot over the last two years, including being reprimanded by Guardiola for returning overweight from his post-World Cup break (which Guardiola later apologised for doing so publicly) and being so low after a substitute appearance against Leicester in April 2023 that he cried after the game.

“Man City played Leicester and I came on for like half an hour, but I was rubbish. I was rubbish” Phillips told Sky Sports in July. “I remember going home and I was just so upset with myself, I started crying. I got on the phone and messaged [former Leeds manager Marcelo] Bielsa and asked if I could speak to him. It was just good to see him and good to have a chat, and he basically told me that I’ve got the ability, it’s just down to being positive.”

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Is it the right time to call up Kobbie Mainoo to the England senior squad?

With Gareth Southgate opting to promote Kobbie Mainoo to the Senior squad, it could prove to be a chess move from the England Manager. (edited)

According to sources, the biggest obstacle to Phillips rediscovering the form he showed at Leeds and for England during their run to the Euros finals in 2021 is confidence. But rebuilding it is no easy task.

Despite that, he remains in Southgate’s plans. England staff are wary that, if they decide to play with Jude Bellingham as a No.10, there aren’t many other players who can effectively partner Rice. Phillips is also considered a positive influence on the squad and has a good character, which Southgate values highly — particularly when picking a group for a major tournament.

Mainoo’s rise at Manchester United has complicated matters, but he’s still a teenager with only 15 Premier League appearances under his belt. Southgate will certainly have more patience than Guardiola.

The City boss saw early signs that Phillips might struggle in his system, in particular when it came to receiving the ball under pressure in tight spaces. Rodri has excelled having learned the ability to stay still in key moments, whereas Phillips is considered more of a runner. Rodri, according to Guardiola, gives you control — something the City manager craves; Phillips is more chaotic. There’s a place for that in Southgate’s system, but not in Guardiola’s.

City have insisted that Phillips could still have a future at the club, but sources have told ESPN that the more likely outcome is that he leaves permanently at the end of the season. Reports have suggested that, at some stage, Rodri could return to Spain, but there’s little confidence Phillips can step up and take over when the time comes and it’s likely that Guardiola has already seen enough anyway.

Phillips’ first challenge is to rediscover some semblance of form for West Ham in the final months of the season and hope he can convince Southgate he should go to Euro 2024 in Germany. After a slow and, at times, sad descent, his future for club and country is uncertain.