Liverpool have found themselves a new cult hero.
In a season of surprises at Anfield, it is the rise of Nat Phillips which has been the most pleasing of all.
From nowhere, the 24-year-old has emerged as one of the Reds’ key men, a central figure as Jurgen Klopp’s side have sought to salvage a campaign which at one stage looked as if it would end in ruin.
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What a story. Phillips, by his own admission, is used to the unexpected – “Honestly, mate, I never know what’s around the corner!” he told Goal last year – but even he couldn’t have foreseen this.
From backstage to centre-stage, in the blink of an eye.
Reds supporters have certainly taken him to their hearts. This week Phillips was presented with the ‘Embodiment of Liverpool’ award, on behalf of the influential fans podcast The Anfield Wrap.
Voted for by supporters all over the world, the award celebrates the player who most encapsulates what a Liverpool player should be. It was won by Andy Robertson in 2019 and by Jordan Henderson last year. Decent company, you’d have to say.
It’s not been a bad week for Phillips, all things considered. Two games, two wins, a clean sheet, a man of the match award, a goal-line clearance and a first professional goal.
The rise continues.
On Sunday, he will play in the Premier League at Anfield in front of supporters for the first time. He is guaranteed some reception, especially if he can help Liverpool beat Crystal Palace and secure Champions League qualification.
That, really, would be a fitting end to a breakthrough campaign. In another world, Phillips would have been playing for Swansea in the Championship play-offs, yet here he is, at the sharp end, delivering under pressure for the six-times European champions.
No wonder Klopp loves him. The Reds boss sees a bit of himself in the Bolton-born centre-back, a late developer who through determination, dedication and sheer hard work has made himself into a player. Phillips may not ever be Liverpool’s first-choice, but he has shown he belongs in the Premier League.
“Nat’s greatest quality is his resilience,” says one Anfield source. Give him a challenge and he will confront it head on. Literally.
“If a double-decker bus came into the box, he’d head it away,” said Kop legend Jamie Carragher at Turf Moor where Liverpool beat Burnley this week. He was only half-joking.
Carragher, like Klopp, has been struck by Phillips’ courage, by his composure and by his aerial prowess. He is, in every sense, an old-school centre-back, who relishes the dirty work. “I love defending,” he told Goal . “I always have.”
His team-mates love him. ‘Chiellini’, they called him when he shaved his head in February. ‘The Bolton Baresi’ is another training-ground nickname. Phillips enjoys the Italian comparisons. Proper defenders.
Liverpool staff have been impressed by the improvements he has made this season. It is not easy to play centre-back for Klopp, with an aggressive high line, attack-minded full-backs and a need to dominate the ball in just about every game.
Training sessions, which are largely geared around fast transitions, quick possession and relentless pressing, can make even the best defenders dizzy. Concentration, fitness and intelligence are vital.
Phillips, by his own admission, will never be the quickest or the most elegant, but his positional play has developed and so has his distribution. His season on loan with Stuttgart in the Germany's 2. Bundesliga helped him massively in that regard, and he has continued to get better at Liverpool. After 16 Premier League appearances and three in the Champions League, he looks comfortable at the level.
It will be interesting to see what happens after this season. Phillips still has two years left on his contract, though he can expect an improved offer in the summer. Liverpool are good like that; when a player delivers for them, they get rewarded. Phillips has certainly delivered.
Whether he will get the chance to do so next season, though, is another matter. Liverpool should have Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip available in July, while links to RB Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate are strong. Ozan Kabak wants to stay and Ben Davies, the Reds’ other January signing, is desperate for a chance to shine. Beyond that, youngsters such as Rhys Williams, Billy Koumetio and Sepp van den Berg wait in the wings.
Phillips himself is relaxed about the situation, happy with his contribution this season but realistic about the challenge he faces going forward. He appreciates the awards and the praise and the attention, but he knows where he stands once Van Dijk and Co. are back playing. There is no ego.
Some would argue this is the perfect time for Liverpool to cash in, when his stock is high and when the world has seen he can cut it in the Premier League. There would certainly be a market, if the Reds wanted to sell. His value has rocketed in recent months.
Others would say he has earned the chance to fight for his place, and that his performances in adversity show he can be trusted with a squad role next term.
After all, if he can do what he’s done this season, in a patched-up team, what might he look like with Van Dijk beside him and Thiago, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in front of him?
And on top of that, he's low maintenance, a relatively low earner and a consummate professional, who can be relied upon whenever needed.
Whatever happens, he can reflect on a job well done this season. If Liverpool are to make the Champions League – and they really should now – then he will have played a huge role. A starring role.
And seriously, who would have predicted that back in October?
Swansea's loss was very much Liverpool's gain.