SOCCER

Manchester City sign Kalvin Phillips and Erling Haaland

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Kalvin Phillips all smiles after joining Manchester City
Photo: Getty Images

We all think the Manchester City machine keeps turning. It might change slightly here and there, update a part or get something cleaned up, but the overall automaton basically looks the same year after year. You can keep waiting for the team to come out of dominance, or for Pep Guardiola to get bored and some idiot somehow end up in the job, or just a whiff of bad luck, but that never happens. The destruction continues.

The news this summer, and since last spring really, is the arrival of Erling Haaland. City haven’t had a direct central striker since Sergio Aguero left, and in his final season or two he was just one of several contributors instead of the main cog he had been. City had always preferred to cut you from all angles rather than a known path. Haaland suggests a different approach, as does kicking Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus out of the squad to other Big 6 teams. Instead of the spiked amoeba that could take any form and knock you out of anywhere, it sure looks like City are going to have their wide forwards and midfield more inclined to just nurture Haaland.

And it can work. There’s a reason why Haaland is considered the best striker in the world under 25, non-Mbappé division. At the same time, however, this is a team that scored 99 league goals last season and added another 27 in the Champions League. That was three years ago, they had scored 102 goals with roughly the same lineup. Goals are not a problem for them, although they slightly change the way they go about it. Unless Haaland launches them to score 110 goals per season and he scores 40-50 personally, things probably won’t change that much (and all of that could happen!). In fact, it is more likely to fall, simply because of the ridiculous highs they have reached.

If City had a weakness – and it’s highly debatable if they had – it’s that they only had one defensive midfielder in Rodri. Fernandinho aged in a hurry and found himself with tire marks on his teeth every time he had to replace Rodri. So when Rodri was injured, or had the day off, or seriously attacked with pace, City could look a bit vulnerable. And that was only a little, as they only conceded 26 goals last season in the league. Again, there is nothing on the armor more than a crack. But, if Pep wanted to get tough – and we know he does – when Madrid slumped for leather in the dying minutes of their Champions League semi-final, they found more trail than they did. shouldn’t have. It’s those tiny margins that Pep has to negotiate to deal with (although removing Kevin De Bruyne was easily the equally sized culprit).

This is where signing Kalvin Phillips makes a real difference. Phillips may wonder if he not only changed teams, but also planets, given that he was the firefighter for a Leeds team managed by Marcelo Bielsa who had waves of raging attackers charging at him and now travels to City where he will see this maybe once a month. Maybe.

But Phillips might be a better defensive player than Rodri. The stats are skewed because Phillips had to do a lot more defending and work off the ball than Rodri, but he ranks as a better tackler and interceptor, and works harder to press the ball, according to FBref.com. Rodri is the superior player with the ball at his feet, leading most of City’s attacks with a quick and incisive pass to one of the five players in front of him. Combine the two, and you’d essentially have the perfect midfielder (or whatever Paul Pogba thinks he is).

Granted, whenever Rodri needs a day off or gets injured, City now have cover and a faster option when facing the few teams that aren’t afraid to attack them or stem those who counter them viciously (Pep must have had games against Spurs in mind with this signing). Phillips is more likely to brush them off at the pass than Rodri simply because of speed.

The question is of course how they will play together. Phillips has played a more advanced role with England than he has with Leeds, and could probably fit into a No.8 role alongside De Bruyne if that’s what he’s asked. . It could give City a little more steel in the center of the park than they had when Bernardo Silva or Phil Foden or Ilkay Gündǒgan while not losing too much creativity, if any at all (Phillips has shown he can also create, but more with the national team than Leeds).

Or it could be, just as Liverpool have been whispered to suffer, that City will at least occasionally switch to a 4-2-3-1 to better utilize a proper No 9, with Phillips and Rodri as double pivots and Haaland as center of the world up front, probably De Bruyne as a No.10 absolved of defensive responsibility. It will definitely be used as a change of pace when things aren’t working out. A shield from Phillips and Rodri will make City damn near impenetrable. And Pep has been more focused on making City an immovable object in recent years than an unstoppable force.

To be fair, City’s defense has about as much room for improvement as the attack. These are just minor tune-ups and tire changes for a conquering death machine. But while Haaland may require a bigger change to get the best out of him and the team, Phillips is much more plug-and-play and gives them flexibility just walking through the door. If Haaland is badly injured, it’s something he does or takes time to find his feet, there really isn’t a plan B. Phillips is both a plan A and a plan B.

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