“Really enjoyed the Bolton Baresi tonight,” was one Twitter verdict. “The dinosaurs could’ve used him to head the asteroid away,” was another. Liverpool fans, it seems, quite like Nat Phillips. And for good reason too. In a season where the Reds have been decimated by injuries defensively, the 23-year-old has emerged as an unlikely yet dependable hero for Jurgen Klopp, and he shone again inside Budapest’s Puskas Arena on Wednesday night.
Phillips has only made 10 senior appearances for Liverpool this season and his performance in the 2-0 win over RB Leipzig, which sealed a 4-0 aggregate win and the club’s place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, was typical of the battling centre-half.
It’s funny to think he was headed to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte five years ago, but rather than board a flight to the United States, the former Bolton Wanderers youngster signed with Liverpool instead.
Liverpool, and Klopp, are benefitting from that decision now with Phillips having been consistently reliable since his Premier League debut in the Anfield win over West Ham at the end of October.
While Liverpool have proven more vulnerable this season in the absence of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, the old-school-style academy graduate has only ever been solid for the Premier League champions.
“Oh my god! What a boy he is, what a player he is, what a night it is for him!” said Klopp in Hungary after the second-leg win over Leipzig. “That’s absolutely great. The concentration levels he shows me week-in, week-out since he’s playing for us is incredible.
“He’s doing the right things in the right moments. In the air he’s a monster and you could see it today, he’s football-wise he’s not bad. Really good. I couldn’t be happier for somebody than I am for Nate in this moment.
“It was a great game and not many get the honour to play a Champions League game. He has that now and he played a really good one and he won it. He has qualified for the last eight and that’s really special.
“A few years ago nobody would have thought that and I’m really happy he can experience that now.”
As “not bad” on the ground goes, Phillips is genuinely proving to be a real asset. In fact, right now, he’s actually now undroppable for Liverpool between now and the end of the season.
Though he’s technically limited on the ball, as Klopp alludes to, the Englishman is a real warrior at the back and throws himself at absolutely everything in the air. He’d rise to meet a double decker bus if you crossed one into the box.
Alongside the on-loan Ozan Kabak, Phillips was simple but effective and neither he or the Turk took risks but defended with grit and determination and made a combined four tackles, two interceptions, seven clearances and one block.
The Schalke defender’s superior abilities in possession mean he and Phillips form a combination of complementing styles, while having Fabinho in front of them in defensive midfield gives them an extra layer of security.
Against Leipzig, Thiago Alcantara was much improved while Gini Wijnaldum also fared well, with the presence of the Brazilian holding midfielder massive for the entire spine of the side.
Phillips was also solid against Sheffield United and Fulham, even though Liverpool lost the latter as their losing streak at Anfield stretched to a sixth game.
Against the Cottagers, the No 47 – who missed last Thursday’s defeat to Chelsea – was noticed wiping blood from his bandaged head, having also worn black dressing in Leipzig which Rio Ferdinand joked made it appear as if he was wearing a durag.
Add ‘Durag Nat’ to the ever-increasing list of affectionate nicknames for the Bolton-born centre-half, then.
Phillips is out of contract in the summer but while his minutes will decrease next season if he pens a new deal, he is a valuable and reliable fourth or fifth choice option to have and is proving he should at least be offered an extended contract.
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At the very worst, Phillips – whether he leaves this summer or in a few years – has proven he could start week-in, week-out at Championship level or maybe even for a defensive-minded top-flight team, one setting up in the way Burnley do.
In the mean-time, the defender is making himself invaluable to Klopp. Liverpool need him and Kabak to stay fit to allow Fabinho start their remaining league and European matches in midfield.
Maybe, just maybe, if they can keep that spine then it’s not impossible that their season might have a happy conclusion after all.
Manchester United legend Ferdinand said on BT Sport post-match: “With that defence… if Van Dijk and Gomez ain’t there they don’t win the Champions League, for me, at all.”
Phillips has relished the challenge of starting matches for Liverpool at the highest level this season. He’ll be given a blank cheque if he can continue to plug the gaps and put Klopp’s side in contention for European Cup No 7.