Having barely featured in his 18 months at Manchester City, Kalvin Phillips needs to start playing regularly again. A move to West Ham appears ideal for him, and it will suit David Moyes and Gareth Southgate, too.
Just 18 months into the six-year contract Kalvin Phillips signed at Manchester City in July 2022, he is off again, having failed to convince Pep Guardiola – seemingly at any stage of his City career – that he was worthy of any kind of role, prominent or not, with the champions.
So, with only one more competitive start (six) than he won trophies (five) with City, he is finally off, heading to West Ham on loan for the rest of the season.
It’s been obvious for the entire time he’s been at City that Guardiola doesn’t trust him. Quite why, exactly, has been less clear, even after the City manager’s recent attempt at an explanation.
“It’s just because I visualise some things and visualise the team and things – and I struggle to see him,” Guardiola said last month when asked why Phillips is so rarely used.
He did, at least, admit that his reasons for Phillips’ continued omission were purely footballing, saying: “The only thing I can say about him is I am asking for good personalities and characters and he is a perfect example. He trains really good and he’s a lovely guy and character.”
Phillips, 28, was in danger of letting his career peter out. His stock had been so high in 2022 that the champions were willing to spend £42 million on him, but having played so little football for City, it might not be all that surprising if this was a case – one we’ve seen many times before in the Premier League – of a player’s talent going to waste. The further he got into that six-year contract, the more likely that scenario became.
But Phillips has always been the model professional, and in a team that suits him a little more than City’s apparently did, he has the attitude and ability to play at the top for a good few years yet.
West Ham looks like just the place to rediscover the form that earned Phillips his move to City in the first place.
In some senses, David Moyes isn’t quite the perfect manager for Phillips, a ball-playing defensive midfielder who would rather be on the ball than chasing it. It is more than a little reductive to say Moyes doesn’t want his team to have the ball, but he certainly prioritises defensive shape and resilience over ball retention. West Ham have the fourth-lowest average possession share in the Premier League this season, seeing just 40% of the ball.
There is more to that statistic than meets the eye, though. West Ham do indeed tend to let their opponents have the ball, but their possession numbers are skewed by a few extreme games. They alone account for four of the 19 occasions on which a team has had 26% possession or less in a Premier League match this season.
But they have also dominated possession in some games this season, too. Against Everton in October, they had 63.7% of the ball, just a few weeks after they had 22.0% of the ball against Brighton.
They also, however, tend to get their best results when they have very little of the ball. Improving when they dominate is a priority, and signing Phillips is an attempt to do just that.
Moyes’ side have won the four games this season in which they have had their lowest average possession: 3-1 at Brighton, 3-1 at home to Chelsea (24.4% possession), 2-1 at Tottenham (25%), and 2-0 at Arsenal (25.9%). The Brighton game also brought their highest xG total in a league game this season.
They lost the aforementioned game against Everton, with their lowest xG for the season. And although they won 2-1 at Luton with 61.3% possession – their second-highest share of possession in a game this season – they dropped points at home to Crystal Palace with their third-highest possession share, drawing 1-1.
This has been an issue for West Ham for a while. Their struggles in games when their opponents allowed them to dominate the ball were part of the reason that fans grew impatient with Moyes at the end of his first spell as manager, as well as at times in this current spell. The Manuel Pellegrini experiment and Moyes’ recent success have proved that the grass isn’t always greener.
West Ham are having a very, very good season right now. They are sixth in the table and still in with a chance of breaking into the Champions League places, particularly if the Premier League is awarded a fifth spot in Europe’s premier competition next season. Dropped points at home to teams like Everton and Crystal Palace are arguably what’s separating West Ham from the top five.
So, if West Ham are to move up the table – they might not get a better chance to qualify for the Champions League than this – turning results like a defeat to Everton and a draw against Crystal Palace into wins might just be the easiest route to bridging that gap.
Phillips’ passing ability will certainly improve his side when they have the ball, so he could be key to making them a better side against teams who sit back. He is at his best in front of his team’s defence, circulating possession, and moving the ball quickly and efficiently to more attack-minded players.
He has an exceptional passing range, and although he is considered in possession, he also isn’t scared of mixing it up and taking risks. In the 2020-21 Premier League season – Leeds’ first back in the top flight and the campaign in which Phillips played his most prominent role at the top level – he ranked way down the league for successful passes per 90 (44.1), but he was also sixth out of 176 players to play at least 2,000 minutes for successful switches of play per 90. With 5.0 accurate long balls per 90, he ranked seventh among outfielders in that group.
That long-ball ability will be most useful in trying to isolate tricky players such as Jarrod Bowen and Mohammed Kudus against defenders – something that West Ham need to do more effectively in games when they have lots of the ball – but would also be of great use to help West Ham break up the pitch at speed. Phillips has the ability to play long balls in behind the opposition from deep inside his own half.
He is also an elite ball-winner, and brings extra protection to the defence, with a game intelligence and tactical understanding of his out-of-possession role that the managers he has played his best football under, namely Marcelo Bielsa and Gareth Southgate, value extremely highly. In 2020-21, he ranked sixth among players with 2,000 minutes to their name for the number of times he won possession per 90 (7.9), and 12th for tackles per 90 (2.7).
Sitting so deep, West Ham naturally give up lots of territory, and therefore concede more chances than teams who defend on the front foot. Only rock-bottom Sheffield United have allowed their opponents more shots in open play (264) and in total (364) in the Premier League this season than West Ham (253 and 355), while only Sheffield United (42.7 xG) and 18th-placed Luton (40.8) have conceded more expected goals than West Ham (38.3).
According to our expected goals on target model, only Luton’s Thomas Kaminski (6.5) and Tottenham’s Guglielmo Vicario (5.7) have prevented more goals with their shot-stopping this season than Alphonse Areola, suggesting they rely too much – or at least more than most – on their goalkeeper.
Phillips provides another option in the deepest midfield role, where summer signing Edson Álvarez has been first choice this season. When he is out, though, Tomás Soucek is forced to play in a more defensive role than he is best suited to. It’s no coincidence that West Ham conceded 21 shots and 2.51 xG in Sunday’s draw with the league’s lowest scorers, Sheffield United, with a central midfield of Soucek and James Ward-Prowse. Both players prefer to play ahead of a number six with the freedom to get into attacking positions, as their combined return of 16 goal contributions (nine goals, seven assists) this season suggests. Phillips’ arrival could have the dual benefit of helping West Ham reduce the quantity of shots they concede, while also helping to get more from Soucek and Ward-Prowse in an attacking sense.
From Phillips’ perspective, meanwhile, it is time for a move and time to play regular football, both to resurrect his career and increase his chances of starting for England at this summer’s Euros. Phillips has remained key for England throughout his City career, but even Southgate admitted late last year that the midfielder needs to be playing regularly in the second half of this season.
This is a deal that suits everyone. The prospect of seeing Phillips back to the player we saw at Leeds is a genuinely exciting one.