If you were familiar with centre-back Nat Phillips, and not as many people knew about or watched him prior to this season as they claim to have, you will know that he was passed over early on this season as an answer to Liverpool’s defensive issues.
On Wednesday night, Phillips put in another sterling performance for Liverpool, this time in the Champions League, at centre-back against RB Leipzig. Sure, Leipzig didn’t trouble Liverpool’s goal too often, but the Germans did have more chances of getting a goal than BT Sport’s pundits would have had us believe — especially at the end of the first half.
Phillips is a rock at the back standing at 6ft 2in tall. He isn’t afraid to head the ball or throw his body in the way to block a cross — or attacker. Against Leipzig, he routinely headed balls away and cleared dangerous attacks. According to Whoscored.com, Phillips won two aerials, made three tackles, made five clearances, and completed 71% of his passes.
It was Phillips’ first game in the Champions League this season after being left off of the team’s roster for the tournament in September. Phillips’ performances have outpaced Rhys Williams, the young centre-back everyone praised just a few months ago. We haven’t really seen Williams since a disaster of a game in the FA Cup versus Manchester United.
Phillips would have been sold or loaned out had Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez not been injured — at least that is the belief. Now, The Times is calling Phillips Liverpool’s player of the season. It is a wonder just why it has taken this long for Phillips to gain the belief of Jurgen Klopp. The good news is that Phillips has won over his manager and is now an irreplaceable player with Van Dijk, Gomez, and Joe Matip out.
Yet, what becomes of Phillips next season? The jury is still out on Ozan Kabak. He has looked mistake-prone at times after joining from the Bundesliga’s worst defensive team, Schalke. It should be noted that Kabak has looked far better playing in the Champions League than in the Premier League, but that could be said about Liverpool’s entire squad.
Klopp’s decision to start Phillips and Kabak together against Leipzig allowed Fabinho to move back to the base of the team’s midfield three. Liverpool’s midfield hadn’t looked that comfortable since October.
Phillips has made himself a vital piece to Liverpool’s team. It may not keep him around next season as plenty of clubs in the Premier League will want to take him off Liverpool’s hands. However, Phillips shouldn’t be tossed to the side and a role as a back-up centre-back should be his — although he will most likely want a place in the starting XI each week. Unfortunately, with Van Dijk, Gomez, and Matip returning, Phillips may have to do with the occasional appearance, if that.
The 23-year-old has been great for the Reds, but against teams with better attacking quality — sorry Leipzig — could be exploited for his glaring weakness: pace. Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, and others could take advantage of the big centre-backs’ lack of speed as the Champions League wears on.