West Ham's big new midfield signing could struggle - or he might just supercharge their season

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As West Ham prepare to sign Kalvin Phillips from Manchester City, we look at what the England man can offer to David Moyes.

With Kalvin Phillips close to completing a loan move to West Ham United – subject to his medical, which takes place this week – there are two questions that need addressing. The first is whether the midfielder West Ham are getting is the same dynamic midfielder that broke into the England squad while he was playing for Leeds United, and the second is what he adds to a rock solid midfield which has three thus-far nailed-on starters.

The first question is tougher to answer. Phillips’ combination of accurate passing, smart off-ball movement and dribbling ability was enough to earn him a big move to Manchester City and a £140,000 weekly wage (which West Ham will cover while he is on loan at the London Stadium), but he never made the cut in Pep Guardiola’s starting eleven. After 18 months of relative inactivity, can he still be the same player?

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We won’t have a clear answer until he laces up his boots for West Ham, but he has struggled to get into games when he has played for City. Granted that he has mostly been reduced to cameo appearances, but while his underlying numbers this season have been rock solid – 90% passing accuracy, two ball recoveries per match, and so on – he hasn’t shown the same ability to break the lines and get the ball forward swiftly in possession that he did when he was named man of the match for England’s opening Euro 2020 match against Croatia, for example.

His role in Guardiola’s system may explain that to some extent, of course, but so might a drop in confidence or simple rustiness caused by his minimal playing time. He can ill afford to take a long time to get back up to speed at West Ham – David Moyes has a strong midfield triumvirate already in James Ward-Prowse, Tomáš Souček and Edson Álvarez and Phillips will need to establish himself firmly if he wants to displace one of those three for the rest of the season. If he fails to do that, his place in England’s squad for Euro 2024 would also be in serious jeopardy given the form of players like Conor Gallagher, Rico Lewis and the as-yet uncapped Curtis Jones. All three can stake a strong claim to Phillips’ spot in the final 23.

But if we assume that the Phillips that emerges from the gently drifting clouds of bubbles and onto the field of play in East London is much the same man that was so beloved at Leeds, then he could make a huge difference to the way West Ham play, and could offer some variation in the way they use the ball.

West Ham’s current midfield can basically be summed up as two rock solid defensive midfielders who excel at shutting down opposing attacks and turning the ball over, and one playmaker with a superb passing range who can get the ball downfield to the forwards with accuracy. So far, it’s been a pretty effective set-up, but Ward-Prowse has really been the only consistent attacking outlet for a sturdy but deep-set midfield three.

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Souček and Álvarez have both done their job very well so far, but while their capacity to win the ball back exceeds Phillips’ abilities, they don’t offer many options in terms of launching attacks themselves. Souček is an excellent shield for the front three and a lethal threat from set pieces, but is a poor passer and rarely even attempt to carry the ball forward. Álvarez, meanwhile, is better with his distribution but lacks dynamism, for all that he makes a ton of tackles. Phillips is a different kettle of fish.

Phillips isn’t just a more accurate passer of the ball than either, but gets the ball forward much more effectively. Even while stuck with occasional substitute appearances at City, he has managed to average just under six successful progressive passes per 90 minutes – that is, passes which get the ball forward into the box or at least ten yards further upfield. Those numbers actually better those of Ward-Prowse, too, although the former Southampton man creates more chances with his killer balls.

Phillips would also instantly become the best dribbler of the ball in the West Ham midfield as well, assuming he hasn’t lost a step during his Mancunian exile. His ability to carry the ball forward isn’t quite as impressive as that of the departed Declan Rice, but he has a similar playing profile and offers a pretty respectable like for like replacement for West Ham’s best player. He could easily give them some of that drive down the centre of the pitch that they have missed since Rice moved to Arsenal.

And that has been an area of weakness for West Ham this season. They have been efficient and effective when they get the ball out wide but have struggled to create chances though the middle thanks to that lack of creativity and attacking vigour. Phillips wouldn’t change that completely, but he could offer an additional dimension going forward that is lacking. Looking at West Ham’s player heat maps for the campaign to date, the area traditionally occupied by a number ten is almost completely ignored. Knowing that the threat comes almost exclusively from wide areas makes the Hammers more predictable and easier to defend against, so any variety is probably beneficial.

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If he can find his best form quickly and break into the starting eleven, it is most likely Álvarez’s place that is under threat. Souček is the best defensive midfielder they have, and Ward-Prowse’s long-range passing and set pieces are indispensable. The Mexican midfielder, by comparison, is rock solid and wins plenty of possession, but may not be able to make as much happen as a fully fit and firing Phillips.

All that remains, a few pieces of paperwork and what should be a routine medical side, is to wait and see whether Phillips emerges blinking from his time at City as the same player that he once was. If he can hit the high notes from the starts, then it could be brilliant news for both West Ham and the national team. If he can’t, then he could be waiting a long time to get another chance at a major international tournament, and West Ham can simply carry on as they are.

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