Can Klopp mould ‘monster’ Phillips into a Liverpool regular?
Since his first day at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp has been about turning doubters into believers. But when it came to Nat Phillips, the Liverpool boss initially appeared wholly reluctant to the conversion.
The Reds boss would have been happy to see Phillips leave Liverpool last summer, with Werder Bremen and Schalke interested in the centre-back following a couple of loan spells in the German second tier with Stuttgart. There was domestic interest too, plenty of it in fact, but none from Premier League clubs.
Assuming Phillips was on his way, Klopp left the Bolton-born stopper out of his Champions League squad in the first half of the season, before Liverpool’s luck with injuries evaporated entirely through the autumn.
Even amid the losses of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, Klopp sought other solutions rather than turn to the specialist centre-backs available to him. The Reds boss dismantled his midfield to fix his defence, which initially solved one problem only to create a multitude of others.
When Phillips was handed his Premier League debut against West Ham on Halloween, even then it appeared though his selection was made with Rhys Williams in mind and the need to keep the teenager fit for Champions League assignments either side of the Hammers’ visit.
F365 says: Five touches of the old Liverpool amid the new
But Phillips, four years older than Williams and a couple of months Gomez’s senior, seized an opportunity it was assumed would likely never come. He was named Man of the Match in a 2-1 victory which saw Liverpool return to the Premier League summit.
While Klopp enthused about Phillips’ performance, his praise was tempered with reservations over the centre-back. “He was spot on,” said Klopp. “He’s not easy on the eye, he’s not Messi but who cares? In the air, he’s a monster.”
The Liverpool boss repeated a similar tone after Phillips’ Champions League debut last week. “Oh my God! What a boy he is, what a player he is, what a night it is for him,” said Klopp, seemingly talking about a competition winner. “In the air he is a monster and you could see today that football-wise, he is not bad.”
Not bad. But Klopp appears to have come around to the fact that what Phillips offers is exactly what Liverpool need right now: a central defender who defends. A stopper who thrives in the muck and bullets, one who’ll head back a scud missile if you ask him.
Klopp is far from the first coach to shift his priorities when it comes to his rearguard. Liverpool, when they are flying, play on the front foot and a centre-back who’ll trip over the ball as likely as trap it is of little use.
Pep Guardiola is perhaps primarily responsible for the evolution of the central defender from a stopper to a string-puller. The City boss would play 11 midfielders if he could and admits his sides don’t practise tackling in training. At Barcelona, he moved Javier Mascherano into his backline. At Bayern, it was Javi Martinez. At City, he thought it unnecessary to recruit central defenders when Vincent Kompany retired, opting instead to play Fernandinho.
Even Guardiola seems to have reassessed his aversion to specialist centre-backs, with City belatedly buying a couple last summer, while City’s procession to the Premier League title has been built upon a solid foundation offered by Ruben Dias and John Stones, whose resurrection can be attributed to his sudden appetite to defend.
Klopp, after watching his title winners become bad champions, also appears to have had a re-think. The Reds are a long way from being back to their best, but they have at least strung a couple of wins together and it is no coincidence that clean sheets have been earned with centre-backs playing in central defence.
More than simply playing individuals in their specialist positions, Klopp has stumbled upon a partnership in Phillips and Ozan Kabak. Jordan Henderson was shuffled into the back four for his leadership, despite having as much central defensive experience in the Premier League as Mo Salah. But Phillips, even on his debut, was organising and talking his defensive partners through their duties.
That is one of the facets of Phillips’ character which has seen him ascend to the Liverpool first team. “There are two different ways of doing it,” said Liverpool academy director Alex Inglethorpe. “You can take the elevator or you can take the stairs.” Trent Alexander-Arnold flew up in the lift; Phillips has had to crawl up the fire escape on his hands and knees.
He left Bolton in 2016 and was two days away from taking off on a flight to undertake a scholarship in the United States. Phillips was intent on studying economics at the University of North Carolina with the MLS draft his ambition before former Bolton defender and current Liverpool scout Andy O’Brien got him to Melwood on a trial.
Phillips seized that chance and each one since. He spent last season in Germany, not in the Bundesliga like Ethan Ampadu, Lewis Baker and Jonjoe Kenny, but in the second tier, where he started fewer than half Stuttgart’s league games but still made a positive impression during their promotion campaign.
His form opened doors to the Championship, but instead, Phillips has found himself thrust into the Premier League and Champions League while becoming something of a cult hero to Kopites because of the novelty of his character and story. And, as Klopp says: “It is a really nice story.”
But it need not be a short one. Phillips is a graduate from the old school of defending, which makes him something of a quirk in the modern game, especially at a club like Liverpool, one so wedded to possession and attacking principles that the art of defending can often be somewhat neglected. Without Van Dijk, Phillips is perhaps the only defender left standing who’d willingly take a bullet if it kept Alisson from dirtying his Sondicos.
When Van Dijk returns and Klopp has a fully-fit squad at the start of next season, perhaps Phillips won’t feature. Maybe then he will be off, and if so, you can bet Premier League clubs will be sniffing, and Liverpool will be asking for considerably more than the £2.5million they would gladly have taken last summer.
But Phillips could yet be moulded into the type of defender Klopp covets. The defensive instinct he possesses is arguably harder to instil in a player than the ease and nous in possession that a fit-and-firing Liverpool would seek. Messi he will never be, but with Klopp’s reputation for improving individuals and Phillips ‘exceptional intelligence’, the Bolton Baresi can be useful to Liverpool for more than short-term cover.
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