Nat Phillips was picked as the man of the match award in Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over West Ham on Saturday last.
The performance — and individual plaudits — represents somewhat of a redemption for the 23-year old centre-half.
With 12 Championship clubs chasing the Bolton natives’ signature in the summer, Phillips — who had been deemed surplus to requirements at Anfield — saw the writing on the wall for his Liverpool career.
However, a move never materialized — with Swansea City’s antics leaving a sour taste in the mouth of the Reds hierachy for pulling out of a deal to sign the defender at the 11th hour — and the former Stuttgart loanee stayed put.
Injuries to all three of Virgil van Dijk — who will miss most of, if not all, the season — Joel Matip and Fabinho, who has been deployed as an auxiliary central defender, meant there was a vacancy for Phillips to play against the Hammers.
Not to the extent that he will probably have a long term future at the club, but the 6’3″ centre-back’s performance showed that he can be a reliable option for Liverpool until the January transfer window when they will surely dip into the market and acquire another defender.
Marking the equally totemic Sebastien Haller, Phillips acquitted himself well. The former Bolton Wanderers academy player completed 5/9 aerial duels — the most on the pitch — won two interceptions and made two clearances. On the ball, the bearded defender isn’t as progressive as what the Reds’ faithful have become accustomed to with their defenders, but he still found the target with 81% of his passes and created one chance.
The Hammers’ approach on Saturday — going long and direct towards a big forward and looking to win the second balls — is commonplace for teams looking to avoid Liverpool’s well-orchestrated press. But such an approach is meat and drink for a towering defender like the 23-year old, whose aerial success rate last season on loan with Stuttgart in the Bundesliga 2 was the best in the division. Therefore, until January at the very least, Phillips will be a serviceable option in a position where injury has deserted the English champions on many occasions.
Without van Dijk and his accurate, quarterback style passes from the back — the kind that Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was at pains to praise after the Gunners’ recent 3-1 defeat at Anfield — Jurgen Klopp will have to change his approach to suit the players he was available.
Luckily for the German, though, Thiago can help mitigate any of Phillips’ shortcomings when it comes to playing out from the back. With the Spaniard and his Harry Houdini brand of space manipulation offering himself for the ball — for context, he received the ball successfully 96% of the time at FC Bayern last season — the creative burden on the defender’s shoulders will be lessened. Phillips can pass short and pass safely, safe in the knowledge that Thiago will be available and comfortable in receiving the ball.
Perhaps the factor that will prevent the former Huddersfield Town trainee from making the long term grade with Liverpool is his lack of pace. A common thread between van Dijk, Gomez, and Matip is their fleet of foot and this is an attribute that Phillips lacks.
But the Reds can adapt to this and lower their line of pressing engagement and play a more possession focused, less physically intense style of football.
With a compressed season meaning a ridiculous volume of games in a shorter than normal period, it is unreasonable to expect teams — and this has already been borne out in the Premier League campaign — to play to the best of their abilities often, and Liverpool can adapt to this.
Whether it’s been winning games through set-pieces, counter-attacking football, or possessional dominance, the Anfield team has shorn in recent years that they have many weapons in their arsenal. With Phillips helping to man their defense, the Reds can — until January at least — adapt and keep their goals for the season alive.