England manager Gareth Southgate is not in the habit of pushing his players into transfers but there must be part of him desperate to make an exception for Manchester City midfielder Kalvin Phillips.
Back in June, Southgate joked about how some members of his squad were “tapping each other up” ahead of a summer in which Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, James Maddison, Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson all changed clubs to begin a new chapter in their careers.
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Phillips has stayed on the same page, creating a troubling distance between the importance he has for country compared to his club. That creates a tension that will eventually be unsustainable for Southgate given no manager would continue to pick a player so irrevocably marginalised on the domestic front.
On that basis many would have dispensed with him long before now, but Southgate is of the view that Rice and Phillips are England’s only viable options to operate as a single pivot in the 4-3-3 shape that had for a long time appeared his preferred approach. Yet England’s 3-1 win over Italy on Tuesday night came in a 4-2-3-1 formation which replicated the system used to impressive effect in September’s 3-1 win against Scotland, maximising Bellingham’s burgeoning talent in a more attacking No. 10 role.
This midfield composition also enables Southgate to reprise the central axis of Phillips and Rice which helped steer England to the final of Euro 2020. That pairing became the focus of a widely held view that Southgate’s inherent conservatism was perhaps holding England back from realising their full attacking potential — explaining the switch to 4-3-3 after that tournament — but the two principal reasons to use Rice and Phillips in the same line-up arguably still apply.
England’s collection of centre-backs do not compare favourably to other elite nations, although there is hope that Marc Guehi, Levi Colwill and one or two others could develop in the coming seasons. And the country are yet to produce a deep-lying midfielder able to control games in circumstances such as the Euro 2020 final, when Marco Verratti and Jorginho helped Italy claw their way back.
Rice is clearly improving as a player — his £100 million summer move to Arsenal has exposed the 24-year-old to a new level of expectation — while the 20-year-old Bellingham is threatening to become a truly generation talent, if he isn’t already, with 10 goals in 10 games for new club Real Madrid.
Part of the reason Southgate has been so defensive regarding the criticism Henderson faced during this international break is the role he had in helping Bellingham settle off the field. Similarly, on the pitch, Southgate viewed Henderson’s discipline as a necessary counterbalance to Bellingham’s precociousness — so much so that the pair started in England’s 2022 World Cup quarterfinal defeat to France last December.
Yet that came in a 4-3-3 shape and if the benefit of moving to 4-2-3-1 allows Bellingham to influence the game in more central areas, roaming where he sees fit from a No. 10 position, then Southgate is likely to be tempted seek that balance in the Phillips-Rice axis in Germany next summer. The duo certainly helped control the game against Italy and Bellingham’s all-action contribution for England’s second goal, winning the ball before bursting forward to assist Marcus Rashford, underlined what a game-changer he can be in that position.
How much easier it would be for Southgate, then, if Phillips was playing regularly at club level.
The furore around Henderson would subside if he was a less-visible squad member — albeit clearly a valued member of the leadership group — and Phillips could assume the level of notoriety that led him to be voted England Men’s Player of the Year for 2020-21 (having started every game on England’s run to the Euro 2020 final.)
For that to happen, Phillips has to start actually playing football again and there’s little sign of that under Man City boss Pep Guardiola. The Premier League returns this weekend with City hosting Brighton and Guardiola can welcome back Rodri to his midfield after a three-game suspension.
But, despite being without his first-choice defensive midfielder, Guardiola opted to use Phillips solely in the game he cared least about — the Carabao Cup third-round exit at Newcastle — and then went with Bernardo Silva and 18-year-old defender Rico Lewis in the middle of the park away at Arsenal in the biggest game of the season to date. That followed on from Guardiola’s admission last month he had essentially failed to get the best out of Phillips since his £45m arrival from Leeds United in July 2022, saying: “We have our own specific way to play and [he] sometimes struggles in a few things, while the previous [Leeds playing style] was perfect [for him].”
Before that, Guardiola labelled Phillips “overweight” when he returned from the 2022 World Cup — a damning adjective that could follow him for the rest of his career — and this summer City made a late play to sign Rice before he left West Ham for Arsenal in another sign of Phillips’ marginalisation.
Phillips penned a six-year contract with City in summer 2022, but he has made only 26 appearances and started five times (twice in the Premier League) since. His total game time at club level this season stands at 167 minutes; after the game against Italy, Phillips has now played 188 minutes for England this season.
He understandably wants to succeed at City but Guardiola does not trust him. And he belatedly — reluctantly — seems to be getting the message.
“As a football player you always want to be playing,” he said on Tuesday night. “I want to be playing as much as possible, but I haven’t done that for a year-and-a-half. I always try and make sure I am ready for whatever comes. I want minutes, I want to go the Euros. We will see what happens.”
Asked about the need for more regular minutes, Phillips added: “I have agreed with Gareth on that. I know myself that I need to be playing games and competing every single weekend. It’s something I’m going to have to make a decision on over the next few months.”
Although he resisted summer interest, Bayern Munich, West Ham and Newcastle are among the clubs who have been linked with moves for him in January. A transfer would surely be the best thing for all parties involved. Not least Southgate.