Second season syndrome is usually a term with negative connotations. Players shine brightly and briefly for one campaign before dropping off considerably the following year. But at Manchester City, the phrase is a more positive one. Manager Pep Guardiola has developed a reputation for giving his new signings a season-long crash-course in his brand of football before unleashing them on an unsuspecting Premier League. Players like John Stones, Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri were incorrectly labelled as flops before becoming vital cogs in the Etihad title-gobbling machine.
Jack Grealish is the latest to parlay a difficult first year at City into a successful second. The winger initially struggled with the transition from Aston Villa’s linchpin to one of many competing talents in Manchester. But this term, he looks like a player transformed. A constant creative threat, Grealish is contributing with goals, assists and as an important part of City’s complex build-up play.
Since the World Cup in particular, Grealish has been vital to City’s title charge. Dovetailing brilliantly with the likes of star striker Erling Haaland and the evergreen Kevin De Bruyne, the England man has been central to Guardiola’s ambitions. A year ago, the £100 million price tag that took Grealish from Villa Park to the Etihad was the defining thing about the player. But his expensive fee has been forgotten in the wake of his stunning recent performances.
One of Grealish’s England and City teammates could use this same sort of glow-up. It has been a disastrous year for midfielder Kalvin Phillips. The former Leeds United hero has not even had enough of an impact to be called a villain. Worse, Phillips has been insignificant at City.
Injury problems, including shoulder surgery early in his tenure, have been partly responsible for Phillips’ staccato progress. But Guardiola has also highlighted other issues with the player. After the World Cup, Guardiola accused his midfielder of returning to City duty overweight. If there is one thing the City head coach will not stand, it is players who lack the requisite conditioning to play his intense style of football.
After just 17 games across all competitions, the end of Phillips’ City tenure is already being speculated about. Liverpool’s midfield is ageing out and the floundering Yorkshireman is being linked with a move to Anfield. Moving to another of English football’s giants could be just the clean slate Phillips needs. The weak midfield at manager Jurgen Klopp’s disposal means he would likely get more game time than he currently enjoys at the Etihad.
West Ham United are another possible destination. Phillips’ England midfield partner Declan Rice is once again being linked with a move away from the London Stadium. If Rice does move to Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or one of his other supposed suitors, David Moyes will be in the market for a replacement. Perhaps Phillips is better suited to being a big fish in a smaller pond, with all due respect to Leeds and West Ham. Not every player is cut out for a title-challenging, European superclub.
But Phillips has not really been given a fair shake at proving himself at this level. Like Stones, Gundogan or Grealish before him this is possibly partly by design. As he has stated publicly, there are elements of the player that Guardiola wishes to change. But as demonstrated in the past, Pep has the patience to teach and mould a player until they fit what he requires. Giving up on Phillips after a season simply wouldn’t be how Guardiola usually operates.
Phillips has options. At the age of 27, some of his best years could well be ahead of him. Despite a stuttering first season in City blue, he still looks odds on to end it with a Premier League medal. If that’s all he gets out of his City spell, it’s more than most. But don’t be shocked to see Kalvin Phillips as one of the central figures in City’s squad next term. Guardiola has a knack for getting the absolute best version of second season syndrome out of his players.
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