Prior to this season, Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams had the same amount of top-flight football experience as you and I: zero.
The highest rung of the football ladder that Phillips — who was close to accepting a footballing college scholarship in the United States before joining the Liverpool academy — found himself on was the German second division with VFB Stuttgart. Williams, meanwhile, played his trade in the non-league with Kidderminster Harriers.
Therefore, it was entirely brave of Jurgen Klopp to select the English duo in the heart of his defence in the Reds’ key 4-2 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Thursday last.
The German could have easily elected to play Fabinho at centre half, as he has so often during this injury-ravaged season. Instead, the Brazilian was selected in his natural, holding midfield role alongside Thiago Alcantara and Georginio Wijnaldum in a midfield given the licence to create and attack.
With Williams, who was exposed in this high lined system in the FA Cup clash between the team’s in January, and Phillips anchoring the defence, it seemed probable that Klopp — wary of United’s pace on the counter-attack — would drop the defensive line and instruct his team to play on the counter-attack and cede possession of the ball to the hosts.
Liverpool employed the completely opposite approach, though, and looked to attack at every opportunity and press and harangue their opponents any time they had the ball. Even the defenders had a telling say as Phillips — who unluckily deflected home Bruno Fernandes’ speculative shot for the games first goal — bagged himself an assist.
The final stats reflect this brave strategy with the Reds enjoying more shots, more shots on target and more shots in the box than their opponents. The away team also had a superior XG, 2.76 to 2.07, than the Red Devils.
In previous trips to the home of their eternal rivals, Liverpool have — despite the fact that, as shown by the league tables, they have been the better team for almost the entirety of Klopp’s stint at the club — have played conservatively and safely at Old Trafford. 0-0 has been a common result as United have predominantly sat deep and defensively and the Reds, showing respect way out of line with the reality of their opponents standing as a team, never really put the foot down in an attacking sense
With the gun pressed to his head and the need to win to secure Champions League football next season clear, the German eked out his first win at Old Trafford — which represented the Anfield clubs’ first since 2014 — and the manner of the performance should fill his players with confidence ahead of the final three games of the season.
Given the razor-thin margins that could separate the teams vying for a fourth-place finish come the final Premier League totting up, goal difference could be a determining factor for Champions League qualification.
With that in mind, it would be mightily encouraging to Klopp and co that the poor finishing that has undermined the Reds this season — a fact that seems to be lost because of the narrative surrounding the defensive absences — has begun to turn around.
All three of the starting forwards, Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino(2) and Mohamed Salah, scored and — if it wasn’t for a bad miss from Jota — they could have even added even more to the final scoreline. The goals all came from close to the six-yard box and showed the instinct and composure of players playing with a newly refound confidence.
Against West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Crystal Palace — Liverpool’s final three opponents this season — chances could be at a premium against team’s who looked to sit deep and frustrate. But on the evidence of the United victory, Jota, Firmino and Salah would be well placed to may hay from any openings that may arise.
In what has been a tough season for the Reds, many have questioned some of Klopp’s decisions, but in the biggest game to date with the pressure of the world on his shoulders, he crafted a brave game plan that could well ensure his team are competing at European football’s top table again next season.