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02-Nov-2020, 04:04 pm

From Swansea target to Liverpool starter: Why Nat Phillips' 'incredible' story has Klopp smiling

Nat Phillips Jurgen Klopp Liverpool GFX

It really can be a funny old game sometimes.

A few weeks ago, Nat Phillips was on his way out of Liverpool. Now, he might just have played his way into Jurgen Klopp’s plans – for the short term, at least.

When you finish your Premier League debut with the Man of the Match award in your pocket, and with the praise of Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness ringing in your ears, you know you have done something right.

Klopp, too, was suitably impressed. “Nat was incredible,” said the Reds boss after his side’s battling 2-1 win over West Ham on Saturday evening.

Reports of Liverpool’s ‘crisis’ at centre-back, it seems, may have been slightly exaggerated.

After teenager Rhys Williams’ impressive showing against Midtjylland in midweek came another standout performance at the weekend. Phillips, like Williams, grabbed his opportunity with both hands. No wonder his manager was delighted.

He loves a goodstory, does Klopp, and Phillips’ is a cracker. Alex Inglethorpe, Liverpool’s academy manager, says that “some players take the stairs and some take the elevator” – well Phillips has clawed his way up the side of the building. His tale is a lesson to any young footballer in expecting the unexpected.

“Honestly mate, I never know what’s around the corner,” he toldGoalwhen we caught up with him back in March.

He can say that again.

Four years ago, the idea of Phillips in a Liverpool shirt looked a distant one. He was a free agent after leaving home-town club Bolton Wanderers, and had made the decision to move to America and complete an economics degree at the University of North Carolina.

Liverpool changed everything. He was recommended by an old coach, Andy Hughes, to Reds scout Andy O’Brien, completed a short trial during a pre-season training camp in Germany and signed his contract within a couple of weeks.

“Sometimes opportunities come up and you have to take them,” Phillips said, with characteristic understatement.

Still, few expected him to seriously progress towards the first team at Anfield. Even more so when he was loaned to Stuttgart in the 2.Bundesliga at the start of last season. The move was seen more as a chance to put himself in the shop window, as much asanything else.

But you never know what is around the corner, as he says. And in December, while waiting to fly back to England for Christmas, he took a call from Julian Ward, Liverpool’s head of loan pathways and football partnerships.

Klopp needed him, he was told. The club had a plan.He was going to return to Melwood, play against Everton in the FA Cup at Anfield and then head back to Germany for the remainder of the campaign. “I was stuck for words,” he remembered. “It caught me completely off-guard.”

Phillips played against Everton, impressing alongside Joe Gomez and helping an inexperienced Reds side to a memorable 1-0 win. The following weekend he was on the bench at Tottenham, and then it was back to Stuttgart to complete his loan spell.

There, he helped the Swabians secure promotion to the top-flight, making 22 appearances in total, often on the right of a three-man defence.

He had some excellent games – Liverpool staff recall him excelling in a top-of-the-table clash against Arminia Bielefeld just before lockdown came in March – but he wasn't always first choice. It was a good experience, necessary experience, buthe expected to be on the move again this summer.

He was part of Liverpool'sfirst-team squad for their pre-season camp in Austria, featuring against Stuttgart, of all clubs, as well as Red Bull Salzburg, but he and his representatives knew that a move to the Championship represented the likeliest summer outcome.

Interest was strong – “12 teams wanted him,” Klopp said on Saturday – with Swansea City, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest the strongest. Blackburn Rovers, Bristol City and Cardiff City also held preliminarydiscussions, whileGoalunderstands there were proposals from both Germany and the Netherlands too.

Liverpool were prepared to sell, accepting it would be in the player’s best interests. Phillips is 23, a couple of months older than Joe Gomez, but his senior club career has been limited to just 24 matches. Gomez, by way of comparison, has 143.

Phillips was not included in the Reds'squad list for the Champions League group stage and, due to an ankle injury suffered in training, did not feature in the squad for the early rounds of the Carabao Cup. Williams, instead, got his chance and was able to boost his reputation with a couple of stellar displays.

As the Football League deadline approache last month, Swansea made contact over a permanent move. The Welsh club were offloading Joe Rodon to Tottenham and needed a replacement. A fee of around £2.5 million ($3.2m) was discussed, with Phillips placed on standby, ready to jump into action when the word came.

In the end, nothing happened. Swansea finally sold Rodon late in the window, but signed Ryan Bennett from Wolves instead of Phillips. Nobody else came forward with an offer, and so the player, a little surprised and a little frustrated, remained at Anfield when the window closed.

He will be glad he did now. Virgil van Dijk’s knee injuryand the muscle problems suffered by Joel Matip and Fabinho, haveprovided an opening. Phillips, suddenly, is in the frame.

He certainly did his prospects no harm against West Ham. “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.”

There was a reassuring simplicity about his performance.“He knows his own game,” Klopp said, and that much was evident. Phillips passed the ball safely, attacked the ball in the air and took no unnecessary risks. "He was vocal as well," added Klopp.

“The manager now knows that he can deal with Premier League football,” said Souness, an impressed observer in the Sky Sports studio. “It’s opened up for him and he’s grabbed it with both hands.”

The man himself, naturally, was delighted, especially when told that Carragher had chosen him as Man of the Match. “That’s a huge compliment coming from a Liverpool legend like him,” he beamed.

"That's a huge compliment - especially coming from him!" ????

Nathaniel Phillips reacts to being awarded the Man of the Match award by @Carra23 after an impressive Premier League debut for #LFC! ????

Carragher, of course, finished his career with 737 Liverpool appearances under his belt. Phillips will not get anywhere near that number, but he is up to two now.

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