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Nat Phillips – Stick or Twist

Nathaniel Phillips, the towering central defender who has been thrust into the Liverpool limelight this year, is becoming quite the cult hero at Anfield. The Bolton born defender has had a more than respectable season, and the end will no doubt bring the choice of whether to stay, or leave the mighty reds.

It’s a strange season where Virgil Van Dijk & Joe Gomez have missed much of the year through long term injury, with Joel Matip seemingly always hurt. Dejan Lovren was sold the summer prior, leaving reason to believe a further body was needed to enforce that area. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit and the transfer strategy had to be adjusted to react to the financial constraints caused. With Fabinho entrusted as an emergency back up to the starting quality three (and Virgil seen as unbreakable), it was deemed an acceptable risk not to add reinforcements.

Fast forward to May 2021…

The reds have, so far, had to use 19 separate central defensive partnerships across all competitions, as we close in on the final days of the season. Nat Phillips has now become the senior and ever present within the reds’ back line, after Ozan Kabak caught the defensive injury bug. Kabak has recently joined his teammates on a busy treatment room table, and his season is at an end. With Kabak’s season over, Rhys Williams has been entrusted to marshal the Liverpool defensive line, alongside the resilient Nat Phillips.

To say this is the most inexperienced back line in the league may not be an exaggerated statement, but the penny dropping on Fabinho’s midfield necessity has made the selections a must.

The power & control that Fabinho brings to the middle, what he allows the world class Thiago to do, is why the decision has now been settled upon. It can be argued that this selection choice should have happened earlier, that defenders (regardless how inexperienced) should be playing in their given position, allowing the midfield to dominate the game. Dominating of the games of late has most certainly been the case, and Klopp’s trust in Nat Phillips to run the defense is both heartening and sensible.

Nat Phillips is not of the level of the starting centre backs at Liverpool, he is in no way suited to the high line and has troubles when space behind him is exploited. He is a player that could not find a club in the summer after a season at Stuttgart. Nat has become vitally important to Liverpool’s top 4 chase in the closing months, and his career path has ascended as a result. There are key components to Nat’s game, that make him a cult hero. He heads everything in sight and on at least one occasion per game, simply runs into an opposition attacker, leaving them strewn on the floor. He is a simple, head & kick it defender, however this is sometimes what is needed, and certainly all Klopp have to work with.

This season, this once in a lifetime pandemic fueled era, could see Nat Phillips build a more substantial career than would have been predicted last summer. From a nostalgic point of view, Nat deserves the option to stay at Anfield. Divock Origi scored the goal that secured the reds’  most recent Champions League trophy, and this no doubt saw his stay lengthen. The niceties of football aside, players have to know what’s around the corner in order to sustain their careers. For Nat Phillips, VVD, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Ozan Kabak & possibly Ibrahima Konate all lay around that corner. Now, given Phillips’ good form, many loyal to the player will demand he starts next season. This will not be the case if the above mentioned become available, and it’s a multi layered reason, as to why.

Trent Alexander has seen his form dip through the season, much because of the COVID-19 irregularities we all see, but also because of the disruption at the back. Trent often has to drop deeper position to cover Phillips, and attempt to sweep if Nat is by-passed. Trent’s game has had to alter due to Nat’s limitations, and the alterations required to make them more solid. If any of the missing parties were playing, Trent is sent packing, with VVD and co more than happy to push high & control without cover. The simple answer is that Nat will tumble into the back up role next season, as Liverpool will inevitably look to challenge for the title, recharged.

Liverpool owe Nat Phillips the chance to stay, this should be a must. But equally so, they should offer him a viable career path, one that a 24 year old needs. To have played less than 50 senior games at this age points to a late bloom, and thus a need to take of advantage of his current position. With Nat’s stock never so high, Jurgen Klopp should quietly inform his Bolton born defender the limitations on appearances after this season. The current valuation aside (Liverpool could probably get 10m this summer), his sale would no longer restrict him to interested parties within the Championship, but of certain parties within the Premier League.

A standout season for Nat Phillips, one of footballs giants, will have alerted many a bottom half team as well as some promoted sides, to his talents. Players such as Phillips have a desirable skill set that can suit certain teams perfectly. Premier League teams who incorporate a low block, can certainly gain from his last ditch defending and aerial ability. To eradicate that space in behind (through a low block side), added to a good season under Klopp’s guidance would make a transfer to many a struggling side sensible.

In the final week of the season, all consideration must be put upon the now & the need for points. If Liverpool were to secure Champions League qualification (despite all the injuries), the feat must be regarded as a success. Nathaniel Phillips should rightly hold his head high, whatever the final league position. Once the seasons dust has settled, he should then look beyond, to build a career that can flourish & suit his game.

If Nat were to stay, he would be embraced and applauded at every sight. If he chose to leave, he would be looked upon similarly, and his career would be followed with the knowledge of how he was once able to help Klopp weather the storm.

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