Nathaniel Phillips’ performance against West Ham last week gave Liverpool fans a much needed boost. Concerns over availability of defenders have grown in recent weeks. Here, Priyasha Bhowmik takes a look at how things could improve and how Phillips could slot into Klopp’s plans for the season.
Liverpool’s centre back problem this season is no new matter.
After long time serving player, Dejan Lovren’s 10 million pound transfer move to Russian club, Zenit St. Petersburg, the Merseyside club embarked on a brand new season with only three senior centre backs; Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, the latter two being injury prone.
However, the club had confidence. Virgil van Dijk had played every second of Premier League football last season, and every game the season before.
His injury record for Liverpool was almost, if not, perfect.
Surely both Matip and Gomez can’t be injured at the same time and be unable to partner the imperious Dutchman at the heart of the Liverpool defense?
The injury crisis begins
Alas. Tragedy struck in the form of an unexpected and longtime van Dijk injury, who won’t be seen donning the red kit on the pitch again at least until May 2021.
That very game, Matip picked up a knock as well and hasn’t appeared for the Reds since.
The Cameroonian is back in full training along with long time absentee, Naby Keita, both of whom were named on the bench during Liverpool’s 5-0 bashing of Atalanta.
Fate struck again and temporary centre-back Fabinho got injured as well.
Down to one centre back again. We really can’t catch a break this season.
Liverpool then were looking to face an in-form West Ham at Anfield with Jordan Henderson and Gini Wjinaldum as centre back options within the first team.
Rhys Williams was an option too. The 19-year-old had made his Liverpool competitive debut against Lincoln back in September and was substituted for Fabinho against Midtjylland, putting in more than just a convincing performance.
Step up Nathaniel PhillipsEmbed from Getty Images
However, Williams was not in the starting lineup against the Hammers, Henderson and Wjinaldum were, but it was in the midfield as usual.
23-year-old Nathaniel Phillips was set to partner Gomez, a surprise for many.
The Englishman had made his first team debut for Liverpool in January of this year in a 1-0 win over Everton in the FA Cup.
He was then sent back to 2. Bundesliga club VfB Stuttgart (now in the Bundesliga) to serve the rest of his loan.
His future was up in the air in the summer transfer window, a move to the Championship seemed likely, but no such transfer happened and Phillips is still very much a Liverpool player.
Phillips’ inclusion in the starting lineup was met with mixed opinions. Those who watched him in the 2. Bundesliga were fairly confident of his abilities and had belief in him.
A surprisingly able deputy
The rest were skeptical and would have preferred a more veteran option, like Henderson (who played CB in the FIFA World Cup in 2019), or Rhys Williams whose recent performances were met with praise.
For Phillips’ sake, and Liverpool of course, the latter portion of people were proved heavily wrong.
He put in an absolutely cracker of a performance last Saturday in the 2-1 win over the East London club, being unlucky to not get the clean sheet due to a very unfortunate Joe Gomez error.
He stood his ground and hardly put a foot, or a tackle, wrong the entire night. Phillips’ statistics after the match stood like this:
• 81% passing
• 66/81 passes
• 2 accurate long balls
• 1 chance created
• 6 ball recoveries
• 9 clearances (1st)
• 5 aerial duels won (1st)
• 2 interceptions (2nd)
Incredible, right? Especially for a young centre back making his Premier League debut, filling in the shoes of the defender in world football.
Boy, did he step up when he was asked to.
An heir to van Dijk’s throne?
The most eye catching stat here would be the five aerial duels won by Phillips.
Virgil is renowned for his aerial ability at both ends on the field. He was even Liverpool’s fourth highest scorer last season, contributing five goals last season.
His absence took away from Liverpool their aerial strength, the Reds now looking vulnerable at set pieces and corners.
The defence now lacked someone who could make headed clearances with as ease as van Dijk used to do.
Luckily enough, even in the 2. Bundesliga, Phillips was known for being strong in the air and it was more than evident in his display against West Ham.
His near perfect performance got him Man Of The Match as well. No doubt this attribute of his would bring relief to Liverpool fans, who are no doubt tired of seeing missed chances from scoring from corners or sub-par headed clearances.
Liverpool legend, and a former centre back himself, Jamie Carragher, declared him his MOTM as well.
The young defender was beaming when he found out, saying it was a huge honour to receive such praise from a Liverpool legend.
Before moving on with his Liverpool career, let’s take a peek into his 2. Bundesliga stint at VfB Stuttgart.
Nathaniel Phillps arrived at the Liverpool academy from Bolton Wanderers in 2016.
He started training with the first team in 2018 and was loaned to Stuttgart in 2019.
Making a name for himself in GermanyEmbed from Getty Images
He made his professional debut for the German club in the first round of the 2019/20 DFB-Pokal, as a halftime replacement for Holger Badstuber in the away match against 3. Liga club Hansa Rostock.
He kept a clean sheet but was booked in the 61st minute.
He made his 2. Bundesliga debut later that season on 17 August, 2019 against FC St. Pauli, another appearance off the bench.
On 1 January, he was recalled from his loan but was sent back 13 days later after the defender crisis at Liverpool got resolved.
He played just one game for his parent club and kept a clean sheet. Phillips continued to play for Stuttgart till the end of the season, finishing second in the table, winning promotion to the Bundesliga.
Phillips had earned an average match rating of seven in the German second division, which was the second highest in the league for a defender.
He had made a total of 19 appearances in 2. Bundesliga and three in the National Cup.
His last appearance came on 17 June in a 5-1 win over Sandhausen, Phillips missing the win over Nuremberg and being an unused sub on the bench on the final day of the season against Darmstadt.
Phillips’ best run at the club came between December and early March, with him playing 10 league games out of a possible 11.
Nat played considerably less after the restart of football, but was enough for him to rack up 1,600 minutes worth of action over all 23 matches he played for Stuttgart in 19/20.
All in all, the young player had a pretty good spell in Germany.
Being unregistered for Champions League, Phillips missed his side’s trip to Atalanta. He is registered for the Premier League though, as we already know.
What next for Nat?Embed from Getty Images
Joe Gomez has cemented his place, especially after a run of solid games since van Dijk’s injury.
Joel Matip has returned to full training and no doubt, unless another injury springs out of nowhere, would be accompanying him, specially after playing the full 90 minutes against Manchester City.
Impressive as Williams and Phillips were, Klopp would perhaps, and rightly so, stick with the senior centre backs.
With Fabinho returning from injury after the international break, Liverpool’s defender crisis may get better.
Joe Gomez is in great form. Matip and Phillips have a gift of being good in the air.
Williams, although just 19, is gathering considerable first team minutes.
With Matip’s unfortunate injury woes, and the strenuous schedule, we might be seeing a lot more of Nathaniel Phillips.
Of course no one can replace Virgil van Dijk. But with the surprisingly competent back up options and the transfer window drawing closer, Liverpool might just about manage. Interesting times lie ahead!