Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak currently represent Liverpool’s 20th different centre-back pairing of the season. The duo have performed admirably in their past two games against a somewhat underwhelming RB Leipzig team, and then against a Wolves side which must have felt begrudged not to equalise.
It is of course no coincidence that Fabinho’s move back into his more traditional ‘lighthouse’ role has also sparked a defensive improvement. Perhaps some of the Brazilian’s excellent performances as a stand-in central defender led many to forget that in his natural position he is the best in the Premier League, if not Europe.
Of course, two games does not make Liverpool’s latest duo the answer to their problems. But it is a reminder that a solid pairing playing consistently together can only get better with time, particularly when their places are unlikely to be under threat for some time.
It’s been well-documented this season that, in spite of the acquisition of Thiago and the sensational Diogo Jota, Liverpool’s decision to not sign a fourth-choice centre-back has backfired.
Nobody, of course, could have predicted an injury crisis on quite the scale which has seen Liverpool’s three best centre-backs out for such an extended period of time. Virgil van Dijk’s was simply bad luck after a horror challenge, whilst Joe Gomez was also unfortunate after managing to play more consistently over the course of the title-winning season.
To rely on Joël Matip, though, whose injury record is well documented, was a mistake. Perhaps a little naïve. Whilst many fans would be quick to point out the flaws in Liverpool’s last fourth-choice central defender, Dejan Lovren, the Croatian made nine starts in the Premier League last year, was a World Cup finalist and was arguably his side’s best player on a heart-breaking night in Kyiv in 2018. It wasn’t exactly a bad pedigree for somebody who you were unlikely to have to call upon that often.
For many, Liverpool’s board still have a lot to answer for despite recent defensive improvements. It took a season-ending injury to an already injury-prone player before they decided investment was necessary and even then the manager was thrown under the bus slightly, being given one player from a mid-table Championship club and another from the bottom of the Bundesliga as the answer to his crisis.
Of course, we should not have expected major investment, but perhaps something more substantial was necessary for the manager who has taken the club back to such incredible heights. Klopp does have a remarkable record of improving players though and it was, and is, important to get behind the new boys regardless of where they may have come from.
In perhaps the most bizarre of fashions, the manager may slowly be moulding his latest pairing into viable options for the future – and that’s without Ben Davies having even made an appearance as of yet.
Just a few months ago, Nat Phillips was on his way out of Liverpool. He was on his way to Swansea where he was set to replace Tottenham Hotspur-bound Joe Rodon. Fans’ fondest memory of the Englishman was likely to be when he returned from Germany out of nowhere to compete in an FA Cup tie where Liverpool would emerge triumphant over their Merseyside rivals.
But that move to Wales fell through and, probably much to his surprise, he has gone onto make eleven appearances so far for Liverpool, including a colossal performance in the Last 16 of the Champions League.
In many ways, he is the classic Klopp player. The German seems to have an ability to tap into the idea that whilst other people have written his players off, he does not. After all, Andy Robertson and Georginio Wijnaldum were acquired from relegated clubs.Embed from Getty Images
Even Virgil van Dijk did not have an easy rise to the top. Mohamed Salah was written off by many as a Premier League flop whilst Diogo Jota was still paying to play football at the age of 16, just eight years ago. Phillips too was released from Bolton at a young age after the club entered financial difficulties.
Nothing encapsulates Phillips better than the image which emerged after the victory over Wolves. As Fábio Silva swings his boot upwards towards the ball, Phillips’ head is heading directly downwards. He gives not a care in the world for his safety – only that he needs to win that duel. And the next one. And…
His presence in the air is by far his greatest strength given that his ability on the ball does leave a lot to be desired at times. In many ways he is a more traditionally, no-nonsense ‘English’ centre-back – not just because of the Terry Butcher bandage he wears with such pride. Klopp has sung his praises and, whilst there may still not be a long-term future, his ‘aerial monster’ has increased his sell-on value if nothing else should the decision be made to move him on.
Refreshingly, once van Dijk, Matip and Gomez do return, Liverpool will actually have an influx of centre-backs. Barring another unprecedented injury crisis, there will simply not be ample playing-time opportunities for all of those further down the pecking order.
Van Dijk is so imperious that he will simply always play in league and Champions League games when fit. Young Rhys Williams could likely do with the benefit of another loan spell, perhaps in the Championship. The youngster performed superbly throughout the Champions League group stage, but a costly error against Manchester United cost his side a place in the FA Cup quarter finals, whilst he was only spared his blushes after an error against Aston Villa in the same competition, owing to the depleted nature of their team.
We shouldn’t be too harsh though. This is the same player who spent last season on loan at Kidderminster Harriers. As for Ben Davies, it is hard to see at this current moment where playing opportunities will arise. After two positive performances, Klopp must continue to stick with a consistent centre-back pairing in order to make one final push for a European place.
Of all the centre-backs, Ozan Kabak is likely the one with the long-term future. Given Matip’s injury record, he may even stake a claim for third-choice come next season – should Liverpool choose to make his loan deal permanent. After a somewhat shaky start, there was a maturity to his performance against Wolves. He provided a crucial clearance towards the end of the game and we should not forget that he is only 20 years old and has been asked to fill in during a defensive crisis in an already disjointed team.
The only benefit of an injury crisis for any team is that it affords other players an opportunity to step up. Remarkably, as things stand, Liverpool’s priority need no longer be a centre-back in the summer, but rather to raise funds to bolster their attacking options up top.
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