They are wasting no time at Manchester City or Leeds United, two clubs who have chosen to front-load their summer 2022 transfer windows. The expenditure is higher on one front, naturally, but neither of them are dithering over the planning for next season.
Indeed, City’s were so organized that Julian Alvarez’s arrival from River Plate in Argentina was prearranged at the beginning of the year, and on Monday white smoke billowed out of the Etihad as Leeds-born Erling Haaland finally completed the formalities of his move back to England .
Over in Leeds, meanwhile, they have already set aside £ 35 million to sign Red Bull Salzburg duo Brenden Aaronson and Rasmus Kristensen, and Bayern Munich’s Marc Roca is waiting only on the club to wrap up the fine details of his proposed £ 10 million switch : he’s ready to come to the Premier League from a side who are willing to sell him. That deal should be sealed before the end of this week, with Roca aiming to fly in on Thursday night to undergo a medical the following morning.
Roca is seen as a solution to Leeds’ perennial shortage of central midfielders but the word coming out of Elland Road is that the Spaniard has not been identified as a replacement for Kalvin Phillips.
Phillips is a separate entity altogether, a player who would spark a fresh recruitment drive at his position if he was to depart in this window. All the signs are that City are about to force Leeds along that road by doubling down – or tripling down – on the. 65 million they have spent on Haaland and Alvarez with a substantial bid for Phillips too.
Sources on both sides of the Pennines believe an offer for Phillips from City is coming, with the 26-year-old’s close-season international commitments with England complete after Tuesday’s dismal 4-0 defeat against Hungary and his mooted switch of agents in the process of taking place. City visualize a closing agreement of between £ 45 million and £ 50 million and there is confidence in Manchester that Phillips would push to take the opportunity to join them if it is presented.
Fernandinho is leaving the Etihad at age 37 after nine trophy-laden years’ service and Phillips, one of England’s foremost defensive central midfielders, has been tracked by City for several months. Discussions about recruiting him became more intense after Fernandinho revealed in April that he would move on when his contract expired this summer.
City manager Pep Guardiola wants competition for Rodri – ensuring the depth of squad that allows the club to continue competing on four fronts each season – and Leeds were increasingly aware of mounting interest from the Etihad in the final weeks of last season.
The landscape has changed in the time since, as a result of Leeds surviving the Premier League’s relegation battle – an outcome that was far from certain with a fortnight of the campaign to go.
Phillips fell into the same boat as team-mate Raphinha, as a player Leeds could not hope to sell for his maximum value if they dropped back into the Championship and one City would be able to acquire for less than his true market price. Sources have told The Athletic that Phillips’ contract, like Raphinha’s, contains a relegation-related release clause.
As it is, Leeds are now in a position to hold out for a higher fee, but City have the funds to acquire Phillips regardless – despite their outlay on Haaland and Alvarez.
City are yet to table a formal offer for Phillips and there is understood to have been little contact between them and Leeds in the three weeks since the club season finished.
Leeds did not come into this window expecting to lose the local-lad and academy product, or at least, not in the way that they did Brazilian star Raphinha, but while some close to Phillips say he would never have countenanced an approach from Manchester United , his hometown club’s bitterest rivals, City would be a different proposition; the Premier League champions, one of Europe’s wealthiest clubs, a side managed by Guardiola and a free transfer of politics and poison that would surround a Leeds player leaving for Old Trafford.
City would tick the right boxes. It’s a move Phillips would be open to, and a move Leeds would struggle to resist.
Phillips has been with England for the past three weeks and, in the meantime, City have held off on playing their cards.
Leeds believed it was possible that Phillips, a midfielder transformed during the Marcelo Bielsa era, might agree a new contract and give them one more year, but timing is crucial.
He turns 27 in December and has a fairly short window in which to secure a big move. Unless Leeds tie him down to new terms beyond his current end date of summer 2024, he will never be worth more money than he is now. Though his salary is among the highest at Elland Road, it would take a substantial increase for Leeds to reflect his status as a full England international – yet no effort at all on City’s part to enhance his present wages significantly.
City have Romeo Lavia, a talented 18-year-old Belgian, coming through the ranks, but the feeling at the Etihad is that he is not quite ready to step up and compete with Rodri for first-team minutes. With the departure of Fernandinho, Rodri is the only player in the squad without an alternative behind him and Phillips’ role under Bielsa – a deep-lying holding midfielder – means he is well-suited to provide competition.
There would also be the opportunity to play Rodri and Phillips alongside each other, with the latter charged with getting forward, as he has in an England shirt beside Declan Rice.
Guardiola maintains strict standards on weight and intensity, two things his managerial idol Bielsa pushed to extremes during his three-and-a-half year reign in Yorkshire. The regime at the Etihad is one that Phillips would be able to slip into comfortably: a possession-based model of play.
Leeds ‘precarious league position and Phillips’ impending agency switch left his situation on hold as the season drew to a close.
He has been represented by Palm Sports Management (PSM), a West Yorkshire-based agency, throughout his professional career but, as The Athletic reported in April, he has been looking at alternatives with his contract with PSM due to run out this month. Stellar, who handled Jack Grealish’s transfer to City from Aston Villa last summer, are frontrunners in the race to secure his business, with a decision expected to be made this week.
Though City have held off on bidding until after Phillips changes stables, an offer should not be long in coming once he does.
Phillips’ intention was never to push for a move for the sake of it. When Villa and West Ham made inquiries about him in January, Leeds rejected both approaches, and were put under no pressure by the player to pursue them. There was no assumption either that Phillips would go when last season finished, unless Leeds were relegated, but the club knows that if City come calling and meet their valuation, all bets are off.
They have left no doubt that in targeting Roca, they were looking for an extra midfield body on top of Phillips.
Losing Phillips would mean that at least one more addition in that area is essential, helped by the receipt of a large fee in return for parting with him.
The importance of getting that replacement right would be critical. While Leeds’ tactics are changing following Bielsa’s sacking and the appointment of Jesse Marsch, over the past four years the difference in results with Phillips in the line-up and without him has been incredibly stark.
This, in reality, was how it was always likely to go for Leeds; the balance of power in the Premier League meaning that clubs in their position have to think seriously about what is best for them. A handful of teams recruit in the most elite bracket, but beneath them there is a long-established model of income earned by selling valuable assets offering a chance to reinvest and, ideally, enhance the squad those assets leave behind.
Leeds are moving in different circles to City, as Guardiola’s focus on Phillips and the weeks ahead are set to demonstrate.
They are waiting now for City to show their hand.
Additional reporting: Pol Ballus and Laurie Whitwell
(Top photo: Harry Langer / DeFodi Images via Getty Images)