Nathaniel Phillips was all set to start a new life in the United States to study economics on scholarship at the prestigious University of North Carolina and play football alongside pursuing a career at the MLS. And there was this last-minute call to join Liverpool pre-season and sign a new contract. He could have chosen the easier route to avoid the daring prospect of establishing himself as a Premier League professional football player. But the tall center-half rose to the challenge by joining Liverpool two weeks before he was supposed to fly to America. Rest is, as they say, is destiny.
The phone rang at an odd time at the Stuttgart Airport. Julian Ward. Nothing unusual there as Ward keeps checking in on the loanees as part of the football partnership manager's duties. But this call was surprisingly different. After speaking with Stuttgart, Liverpool arranged an immediate return as he was needed to be registered to play in the FA Cup third-round tie against Everton. The back four of Gomez, Phillips, Neco Williams, and Yasser Larouci put up a brave fight against the in-form Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin as young Curtis Jones snatched a brilliant winner for the underdogs of that day. However, this spell was short-lived as Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren returned from injuries. Phillips returned to Stuttgart, but those three weeks with the first team was a priceless experience for the young center-back.
The Red Warrior of 2021
Dejan Lovren left in the summer of 2020. There were options but not to the perfect liking of Klopp and his team. Klopp faced enormous backline challenges as Liverpool were plagued with catastrophic long-term injuries to Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip. The experiment with Fabinho and Henderson as center-backs was making them toothless in their attacks and creativity. Klopp had to bring stability in his midfield. Phillips started partnering with on loan Ozan Kabak post-January transfer window. Liverpool took 38 points from the 17 matches he played this season in the Premier League (Whoscored). His influence grew towards the final third of the season when 24 of those precious points came in the last eight games where Liverpool found redemption qualifying for the Champions League in their exhausting campaign.
So far, so good. But there are still questions on Phillips' ability to dislodge one of Matip or Gomez when they return from injuries. Liverpool also recently signed young talented French centre-back Ibrahima Konate. His no-nonsense, old-school English style safety defending has earned praise under challenging circumstances. Yet, his positioning, ball play, and lack of speed did not go unnoticed.
Contrary to popular belief, Phillips also not quite dominant in the air, with his aerial duel win rate 65.7% (Whoscored) way short of Van Dijk’s 73.1%. Undoubtedly, an experienced CB partner would bring out the best in him, but competition may inhibit such prospects. Other Premier League clubs have also monitored his growth where his defending may suit their style of play. Interests from Burney and Crystal Palace are floating in the transfer rumour mills. Liverpool will be less likely to ignore his growth if a suitable bid matches their valuation estimated to be around 10m pounds and carve out a path for a career in professional football at an elite league.