If you’re a footballing hipster whose lexicon consists of phrases like ‘fluid transitional pivots’ or whatever b*llocks they talk about, then this probably isn’t the article for you.
However, if you’re someone who thinks that football has been overcomplicated and we’ve all lost sight of the fact it’s a simple game where the objective is to score and not concede – welcome aboard.
Liverpool’s defensive woes this season have been fairly well documented. The Reds have fielded 932 different central defensive partnerships this campaign, with respective long-term injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez leaving their bid to retain the Premier League title in tatters – y’know, because their lack of goals has been due to their best defenders being injured.
Nat Phillips has been one of those tasked with stepping in to fill the void left by Van Dijk and Gomez, and it’s fair to say he hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the Liverpool fans thus far.
The former Bolton man has looked shaky and cumbersome at times during his ten outings in all competitions this season, though it’s easy to forget the immense burden that’s been placed on his shoulders considering his lack of experience at the top level.
Prior to this campaign, Phillips hadn’t played a single top tier game, with his only experience of first-team senior action coming during his time at Stuttgart when they were in the second tier of German football.
To be shoved into the limelight and expected to seamlessly replace one half of a centre-back duo that conceded just 33 goals in 38 games last season is outrageous, not to mention the fact he would be doing so alongside either a fellow novice or a midfielder.
The 23-year-old has certainly taken his time to find his feet at the top level, though his performance against RB Leipzig in the second leg of Liverpool’s last 16 Champions League victory suggested we’ve all been a little to quick to write off the youngster.
Phillips was the standout performer in his side’s triumph over Julian Nagelsmann’s side, repelling absolutely everything the German outfit launched into the Liverpool box in a bid to afford themselves a foothold in the tie.
To footballing purists, it may not have been a perfect display strewn with 40-yard diagonal balls, needless Cruyff turns that just make you nervous and a 99% passing accuracy, but to the rest of us who just appreciate solid defending it was as imperious a display as you’re likely to see.
Forget your dribbling stats and this weird clamour for defenders to be silky smooth and unflappable on the ball – a defender’s primary job is to defend, and Phillips did exactly that. Plus, when you’ve got players like Fabinho, Thiago and Georginio Wijnaldum in the team, are you really bothered if your defender does nothing more than keep it simple and give them the ball?
Sporting a Terry Butcher-esque headband like he’d already read the narrative of his performance before taking the field, Phillips hardly put a foot wrong as he kept Leipzig at bay and ensured his team would comfortably take their place in the last eight of the Champions League.
Now, we’re not suggesting that in 90 minutes of football Phillips has proven himself to be an elite level player, or that he deserves to oust Van Dijk or Gomez in the Reds’ starting XI when the pair eventually return. However, Phillips has shown he has the heart and the ability to play a key role for the remainder of the season as his side vie for a place in the Premier League top four.
Perspective is rarely offered in football – something which is partially understandable given the immense pressure and the amount of money involved – but given time to settle into life as a member of the Liverpool first team, Phillips is proving he is a much better player than the one we wrote off a few months ago.