Nat Phillips. The fulcrum of the Liverpool defence. Doubt many would have ever expected to be reading that.
I never expected there to be a situation where Phillips would become so significant to the wellbeing of Liverpool FC, nor that I would ever find myself utilising the word ‘fulcrum’. To be quite honest with you, until autocorrect educated me, I had fully expected there to be a letter b at the end of fulcrum…
Fulcrumb, if you will.
Liverpool have engineered themselves a situation where a home win on the final day, against Crystal Palace, should be enough to ensure Champions League football for next season, something that looked massively unlikely just a short few weeks ago, and you must applaud the most unexpected of heroes of the Reds’ cause.
Phillips has risen to this most ridiculous of occasions, a season where an entire central defence has evaporated, inclusive of the best defender on the face of the planet.
They fell like dominos once Virgil van Dijk was recklessly mown down over at Goodison Park after just five games. Joe Gomez then fell to a gruesome sounding injury on international duty – yes Gareth Southgate, I am looking at you – and then Joel Matip was out of the equation too.
Amid all of this, Fabinho had dropped back into central defence, only for us to find that combined with his own absences through injury here and there, no matter how good he was at being a centre-back we just could not cope with the loss of his influence in midfield.
It left Jurgen Klopp with no genuine option but to turn to what were essentially his fifth and sixth choice centre backs. While Rhys Williams has bridged the chasm between the National League North and the Premier League with a wonderful sense of nothing phasing him – even if it has phased supporters at times – Phillips has had the added duty thrust upon him in taking on the role of Liverpool’s central defensive alpha male.
Within this, Phillips has often struck the image of a man from a parallel universe, totally out of place in the surroundings he has found himself in; he strikes the image of somebody who has tipped up at Anfield to deliver photocopier paper only to be asked at the goods entrance if he fancied a game on Saturday.
Phillips’ battle at Turf Moor with Chris Wood was the living embodiment of his strengths. A duel that could easily have passed for a boisterous Friday night difference of opinion between two fellas in that pub you would never consider going in. All that was missing was a flying chair or two, some broken teeth, none of the witnesses being willing to help the police with their enquiries and a trip to A&E for both the victor and the vanquished.
As ‘uncouth’ as this style of football is meant to be to hipsters like me, it turns out that it is more like a guilty pleasure. It is as if the spirit of Martin Skrtel is alive and prospering in Klopp’s dressing room. No matter how ambitious we’ve all become in the kitchen during a global pandemic, egg, chips, and beans are always going to hit the spot too.
Mad blocks and goal-line clearances here, trying to spray the ball out of defence like Van Dijk and scoring goals there, it was the perfect performance from Phillips.
The 24-year-old has carved himself such a niche in Liverpool’s squad that it would be a far poorer place if we were to cash in on him. As much as I’d love us to go out and sign Van Dijk a compelling central defensive soulmate in the summer, I also want Phillips available to us next season.
Added to this, Williams’ contributions should not be undersold either. He has come in when asked and he has carried out the bespoke duties handed to him with a calmness that not many would be able to pull off.
While Williams’ inexperience has been clear at times, a long ball over the top has been a vulnerable spot, one that Crystal Palace will still be seeking to expose on Sunday, he has never seriously panicked.
The striking thing about Phillips and Williams has been their commitment to composure. Yes, sometimes they get caught out, but their ability to correct such situations and slam the door shut to potential dangers has been a huge part of Liverpool being able to put in this impressive sprint finish to the season.
Phillips and Williams are never going to be comparable to Van Dijk sauntering the pitch alongside Gomez, Matip or any new recruit that may or may not arrive this summer, but they have proved that they are more than capable options in their own right.
At one point this season, at our lowest ebb, many were lamenting that Dejan Lovren was no longer a Liverpool player. No disrespect intended to Lovren, but I don’t think he could have carried the burden that Phillips has shouldered so stubbornly.
Wherever his long-term future takes him, whether that is to remain amongst the reckoning of Van Dijk’s support cast or to lead the defence of another Premier League team, Phillips’ place as an Anfield cult hero will never be in question.