We all think that the Manchester City machine just keeps rolling on. It may slightly change here and there, update a part or get something cleaned, but the overall automaton basically looks the same as a whole year after year. You may keep waiting for the team to age out of its dominance, or for Pep Guardiola to get bored and some bonehead to somehow end up in the job, or just a swath of bad luck, but it never arrives. The destruction continues.
The headlines this summer, and since last spring really, is the arrival of Erling Haaland. City hasn’t had a straight-up central striker since Sergio Aguero left, and in his last season or two, he was more just one of several contributors instead of the main cog he’d been. City had always preferred to cut you from every angle instead of a known path. Haaland suggests something of a different approach, as does the expulsion of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus from the team to other Big 6 teams. Instead of the spiked amoeba that could take any form and hit you from anywhere, it sure looks like City are going to have their wide attackers and midfield more bent to simply feed Haaland.
And that may work. There’s a reason Haaland is considered the best forward in the world under 25, non-Mbappé Division. At the same time, though, this is a team that scored 99 goals last season in the league and added another 27 in the Champions League. It was three years ago they scored 102 with just about the same roster. Goals aren’t an issue for them, even if they change slightly how they go about getting them. Unless Haaland kicks them on to score 110 goals per season and he bags 40 to 50 personally, things probably won’t change all that much (and all of that could happen!). In fact, it’s more likely to go down, simply because of the ridiculous heights they’ve hit.
If City had a weakness — and it’s very arguable if they did — it was that they only had one defensive midfielder in Rodri. Fernandinho got old in a hurry, and was left with tire tracks on his teeth whenever he had to fill in for Rodri. So when Rodri was hurt, or having an off day, or seriously attacked with pace, City could look a tad vulnerable. And it was only a tad, because they only conceded 26 goals in all of last season in the league. Again, there is nothing on the armor more than a chink. But, if Pep wanted to get fussy — and we know he does — when Madrid went hell-bent for leather in the dying minutes of their Champions League semifinal, they found more of a runway than they should have. It’s these minuscule margins that Pep has to negotiate to keep himself busy (though taking off Kevin De Bruyne was easily the same sized culprit).
This is where the signing of Kalvin Phillips makes a real difference. Phillips may wonder if he not only changed teams but planets, considering he was the firefighter for a Marcelo Bielsa-led Leeds team that had waves of unleashed attackers charging at him and now goes to City where he’ll see that maybe once a month. Maybe.
But Phillips might be a better defensive player than Rodri. The stats are skewed because Phillips had to do so much more defending and work without the ball than Rodri has, but he ranks as a better tackler, and interceptor, and works harder to pressure the ball, according to FBref.com. Rodri is the superior player with the ball at his feet, spearheading most of City’s attacks with a quick and incisive pass to any of the five players in front of him. Combine the two, and you’d basically have the perfect midfielder (or what Paul Pogba thinks he is).
Certainly, whenever Rodri needs a day off or gets hurt, City has cover now, and a quicker option when they play the few teams that aren’t afraid of going at them or to stem those who counter them viciously (Pep must’ve had games against Spurs in mind with this signing). Phillips is more likely to head those off at the pass than Rodri is simply due to footspeed.
The question of course is how they’ll play together. Phillips has played a more advanced role with England than he did with Leeds, and probably could fit into a No. 8 role next to De Bruyne if that’s what’s asked of him. It might give City slightly more steel in the center of the park than they got when Bernardo Silva or Phil Foden or Ilkay Gündǒgan while not losing too much if any creativity (Phillips has shown he can create too, though more with the national team than Leeds).
Or it could be, much like Liverpool has been whispered to be undergoing, that City will at least occasionally switch to a 4-2-3-1 to better utilize a true No. 9, with Phillips and Rodri as a double-pivot and Haaland being the center of the world up front, likely De Bruyne as a No. 10 absolved of any defensive responsibility. It certainly will be used as a change of pace when things aren’t working. A shield of Phillips and Rodri will make City damn near impenetrable. And Pep has been more focused on making City an immovable object the past few years than an irresistible force.
To be fair, City’s defense has about as much room to improve as the attack does. These are just minor tune-ups and tire changes for an all-conquering death machine. But whereas Haaland may require a bigger change to get the best out of both him and the team, Phillips is far more plug-and-play and gives them flexibility simply by walking in the door. If Haaland is hurt a lot, it’s a thing he does, or takes time to find his feet, there isn’t really a Plan B. Phillips is both a Plan A and B.