Pep Guardiola confirmed one starter and it was the player who never starts. When Rodri, in a moment that felt out of character, tried to throttle Morgan Gibbs-White, the main beneficiaries were not Nottingham Forest, who lost at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday anyway, but Kalvin Phillips.
For much of his time at Manchester City, the supposed Yorkshire Pirlo has been the Yorkshire Sergio Gomez, belatedly brought on when victory has long been secured. Yet it has been worse: Gomez was hired as a largely unknown left-back, Phillips as one of the players of Euro 2020, a footballer transformed by Guardiola’s managerial hero Marcelo Bielsa.
Yet when a defensive midfielder secured City the Champions League, it was Rodri, not Phillips. When a defensive midfielder was named the competition’s player of the season, it was Rodri, not Phillips. With the Spaniard now suspended, the Englishman is guaranteed that rarest of things – an appearance in the initial XI – at Newcastle on Wednesday evening. It will be just the fifth match he will begin for City: Rodri has started 61 in that time. He had only played eight minutes of football for City this season; after Rodri’s red card, he got 39 on Saturday. There could be 90 on Wednesday.
If, for Phillips, it is a belated chance to kickstart his City career: perhaps a brief one, too, as Mateo Kovacic is on the comeback trail, should feature for some of the match at St James’ Park and, if Guardiola does not trust the Englishman, might take on the holding midfield duties at Wolves and Arsenal.
But perhaps a chance in the Carabao Cup is a reward for Phillips’ obstinacy. He had the chance to leave in the summer, to admit defeat when West Ham came calling as they looked for a replacement for Declan Rice. City might have been willing sellers. Phillips was unwilling to go. “He decided to stay,” Guardiola said. “The club spoke with him. He doesn’t have much minutes, but he said: ‘No, I want to stay.” It is okay, it is perfect, he is a lovely person.”
Being a likeable figure does not necessarily make him Guardiola’s idea of a central midfielder. The City manager said that “of course” it meant a lot that Phillips was willing to stay and fight for his place. That position, however, tends to elude him. The reality is that both of his league starts in their colours came after they had already won last season’s title. Since he joined City have lost two of the four games he has started and only five of the 66 he has not. He began last season’s Carabao Cup tie at Southampton. That scarcely counted in his favour. “It was the worst game I played as manager of Man City by far, so I didn’t recognise anything about that,” Guardiola said.
It formed part of an awkward start for Phillips. He had shoulder surgery before the World Cup and was omitted after it when Guardiola deemed him unfit. If Bielsa’s idiosyncratic tactics, with man-marking all over the pitch, meant Phillips was reinvented from a decent Championship box-to-box midfielder to a seemingly world-class holding player, perhaps he has had to be deprogrammed from the Argentinian’s unique gameplan.
Certainly Guardiola accepted he has got less from Phillips than the former Leeds manager. “Marcelo gave Kalvin the best of Kalvin in his career,” he said. “I’d love to have done with Kalvin what Marcelo has done to him. It is what it is. We have our own specific way to play. He sometimes struggles in a few things while the previous one was perfect. But he is open-minded and always wants to learn.”
Rodri may be the ideal tutor, the player who has perfected the role in front of the back four for Guardiola, who occupied it himself for Johan Cruyff at Barcelona. “Rodri has been missed and his consistency is really important, he knows everything in the game,” Guardiola said. “Of course being outside, sitting [on the bench], seeing players in training sessions and what we are looking for in the training sessions and the meetings helps a lot. But every player has his own specifics. We bring Kalvin here for his quality. There are no twins in football. Everyone has their own personality. He has to be Kalvin Phillips.”
Being Kalvin Phillips must have been a strange experience in the last 14 months. He has become one of football’s most decorated substitutes, winning everything, but with a watching brief. The two best performances of his time at City have come for England: in March’s away win in Italy and this month’s victory over Scotland in Glasgow.
He has been the £45m afterthought, the player Guardiola usually only turns to long after the outcome is decided. And now, perhaps for one night only, perhaps for the crucial clash at Arsenal, the Yorkshire Pirlo has to prove he can be the Yorkshire Rodri.