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Why is Nathaniel Phillips still being underestimated? A cult hero at Liverpool but so much more than a meme 👊
Fifth-choice at Liverpool... but don't let that fool you
Imagine after posting a solid display at the San Siro - critically, having not kicked a ball since late October in a 45-minute spell against Preston North End (there was the extremely brief cameo in extra-time at the Wanda Metropolitano but we can’t count that) - being rated as ‘not good enough’ for the Premier League.
Yet, this was Gabriel Agbonlahor’s verdict on Nathaniel Phillips, with the former Aston Villa striker relegating the defender to the level of the Championship.
“I’ve watched a bit of him now at Liverpool and he’s not good enough,” the 35-year-old told Football Insider. “For me, he’s a Championship player at best, he’s not good enough for the Premier League, especially at the top end.”
Fair enough, Liverpool’s mostly second-string were hardly facing a full-strength AC Milan outfit at the San Siro, but this was a game the Reds largely coasted through.
Had you been squinting at the television screen throughout the entire proceedings, you could have easily been fooled into thinking Jürgen Klopp had fielded an entirely unchanged XI to that which had nabbed a late victory against Wolves at the weekend.
To hammer home the significance of the performance in Italy, a great deal is made of the strides Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has taken after enjoying a run of fixtures and triple the playing minutes (862) that he was handed last term (286).
The 28-year-old did not slip seamlessly back into the first-team but has ultimately flourished as circumstances forced Klopp to increasingly utilise the former Arsenal man.
By comparison, Phillips had no need to gradually dip himself into the water, instead thriving on his return to first-team football.
Speaking on The Redmen TV (the starting inspiration for this piece), Ste Hoare rightly identified the near-memeification of Phillips and the danger it posed to the 24-year-old’s perceived status in the game.
Describing the defender as ‘no-nonsense’ and getting tattoos of him splitting bricks with a header is all fun and games until you have commentators like Agbonlahor completely, and unfairly, dismissing his quality.
That’s not to have a stab at Liverpool fans, of course, who are under no illusions about just how good of a footballer Phillips is.
Just ask Jurgen Klopp, who compared the centre-half’s upward trajectory to the development of Robert Lewandowski at Borussia Dortmund: “I have to mention Nat Phillips. People often ask me which player made the biggest improvements under my leadership, and I say Robert Lewandowski.
“That's probably right, but not far off that is Nat Phillips, just in a completely different department.
“I remember when I saw Nat Phillips first. I spoke to him after the game and he's one of the smartest players I ever worked with. I told him, 'You know you are not the easiest on the eye, eh?'
“He improved in pretty much everything since, and he's not playing. Life is sometimes not fair and I can't blame him.
“We cannot keep him forever, that's clear. We needed him, just to be safe, for that half-year. We will see what happens in the window. He was fine doing it because he's a great guy.
“His development is absolutely insane. You saw it last year, you would have said, "Nat Phillips, oh my god, he plays in the last line?"
“People love him because of his heading but with his feet he is unbelievable. He's a late starter, but his development is unbelievable. I would sign him for any club except Liverpool, because we have him.”
That’s quite the compliment to pay a player who only featured for half a season when our options in the centre of defence were wafer thin.
Should Nathaniel Phillips call time on his Anfield career as early as January, now that the spectre of injuries appears to have fully passed away from the defensive department, not a single Liverpool fan will hold it against him.
He’ll forever be appreciated in Merseyside for his contributions in a season that will sadly not be remembered as one in which we really kicked on from our title-win the term prior - all thanks to injuries.
But neutrals shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the No.47 can’t survive in the English top-flight outside the vacuum of the perceived memeified status he holds at Liverpool.
Whoever has the pleasure of kitting Phillips out in a brand new jersey will have gained a quality centre-half that we’ll genuinely miss amongst the star-studded ranks of our backline options.
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