Kalvin Phillips is back. And after seven weeks on the sidelines after shoulder surgery, he was… well, rather rusty.
But the most important thing for England right now, and ultimately for Manchester City, was that he was back on the pitch.
There was also more good news for Gareth Southgate: if Jack Grealish plays with that determination to beat a man and score goals, he will play a big part in what his country does in Qatar.
“Jack Grealish looks more like Rkid,” Liam Gallagher tweeted during the game, and there can’t be higher praise than that.
But back to Phillips. He is rumored to be part of Southgate’s World Cup squad after recovering well from shoulder surgery he underwent in September. The way some City players happily hugged Kyle Walker on the touchline before the game suggests he has also just received good news, despite being further along in his rehabilitation after hernia surgery.
Pep Guardiola said at the weekend that Phillips would be on the bench against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup here, while Walker would not, although he could not guarantee any minutes.
In fact, Phillips was expected to hit it off shortly after halftime. Given the amount of effort put into the win over Fulham on Saturday and the fact that City don’t have many senior midfielders, Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan started the change and Phillips and Bernardo Silva came to finish it.
Phillips’ rustiness was understandable, of course. Not only has he been out for seven weeks, he’s barely played for City before that anyway: he has three official appearances, two of them after arriving at the last minute.
In most cases against Chelsea, he was pretty orderly. He picked up the ball and gave it to someone else, but whenever he tried something more expansive, like a sweep ball to the right or a cross pass to the left, he often lost possession.
Twice, at least, Guardiola has been frustrated with him for not playing forward. The first time it did a small jump and extended 360 degrees, the second time it was a more discreet palm opening.
Even in Phillips’ meager minutes at City so far, however, he has shown he has those crosses in his locker.
Later in the game he produced a beautiful turn as he was under pressure to clear and be bound in space. It was more like that, and there will be more of that to come.
Most of City’s new signings need time and with one game more before the World Cup, Guardiola’s side are in no rush for him to show his best form.
For England, of course, it’s a different story. Southgate will be hoping Phillips will return to the pitch this weekend when Brentford come to the Etihad Stadium. Judging by the tough and tough games against the Londoners last season, Guardiola might not have the luxury of doling out minutes for fun.
This reflects Phillips’ different levels of status for his two teams at the moment. He is just working his way into this City team and with Rodri still very gifted, his day will come.
For England, their day will have to come much sooner: they kick off against Iran in 11 days and there are no friendlies until then.
Should Iran arrive too soon there would be more opportunities in the group stage and, they hope, beyond, but it has been far from ideal preparation for a World Cup. Still, it’s not as bad as it could have been either – look at Walker and, even worse, Reece James and Ben Chilwell.
Given the very tight window, he had to undergo surgery before the problem got worse and ruled him out of the World Cup anyway, but still in time to actually be available, being that ready is a feat in itself.
Another week later, he might have completely missed the mark. These are the margins in this particular football calendar.
“Anything can happen,” he said afterward. “I’m optimistic but I know that with the playing time I’ve had there is always doubt.
“I’m back in shape now, so hopefully I have a chance.”
Guardiola, inevitably, has slightly different motivations. “In the second part of the season we will need him because Rodri cannot play all the time,” he said. For England he is the Rodri, or at least one of them, along with Declan Rice.
Guardiola also offered a performance review. Minus the sideline frustrations, at least.
“Kalvin had a good 40 minutes, it’s been a long time, he hasn’t played and he played with an incredible personality.”
City can afford to wait a bit longer to see more of that personality. England hope it will come much sooner.
(Top photo: Lewis Storey/Getty Images)