When the diagnosis for Virgil van Dijk read anterior cruciate ligament damage in October, the backroom teams of both Manchester clubs believed Liverpool’s season was spent.
Their most influential defender, the greatest sense of stability and control, was lost for the campaign and so it was a natural, understandable conclusion. But the Merseysiders kept going, until as predicted, they couldn’t – but not solely on account of ceding their MVP.
When Joe Gomez and Joel Matip were also ruled out of Jurgen Klopp’s plans by severe injuries, Liverpool’s surety, strategy and entire basis of their front-foot approach was toast.
To fight the fire, Klopp decided to field Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in the heart of defence to offer some progression to the team’s build-up play and to mimic some semblance of a spine.
Soon, they would also be sidelined and Liverpool needed to trust Nathaniel Phillips, who would have been at Swansea City had they not pulled out of a permanent deal on the eve of deadline day in the autumn.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and wisdom since March suggests that Klopp should have immediately turned to the 24-year-old. But Phillips has exceeded all expectations, covering any deficiencies in his game with a dogged determination to leave everything on the pitch.
At Turf Moor on Tuesday night, he typified the fight Liverpool have displayed to earn a Champions League lifeline. His goal offered a cushion in a taxing, uncomfortable encounter which was not accurately reflected in the 3-0 margin.
The centre-back’s clearance of James Tarkowski’s looped header was equally as vital as Burnley offered a torrid resistance.
Phillips made nine clearances, three tackles and two blocks as he morphed into a one-man force against their long diagonals. He contested a mammoth 19 duels – 13 of them aerial – with a success rate of 68 per cent.
Burnleyball was being resisted by his sheer will. “It was really tough game, one of the toughest I have had all season,” Phillips said. “My job is to stop goals. If I can score goals, it’s a bonus, but my job is clean sheets.”
Phillips has been core to Liverpool’s ability to keep it tighter at the back and construct a nine-match unbeaten league run with four wins on the spin that has seen them rise from the dead in the top-four conversation.
“I couldn’t be more pleased, to be honest. I never expected that,” Klopp admitted as his side skipped ahead of Leicester in the final Champions League place on goal difference with a round of fixtures remaining.
“It’s not that I take this for granted, I knew this season is for us an incredibly tough, tough season. I heard now that on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 14, was the last time we were in the top four because we didn’t win a lot of games since then. But now we are back on track – and if we win on Sunday then probably – it depends on the result of Leicester or Chelsea – then we are probably qualified for the Champions League. It’s insane that we came that close.”
That analysis is correct given the scale of Liverpool’s injuries this season and how it wiped away the fundamentals of their play. Their revival has been based on pure grit rather than groundbreaking football in a testament to their resilience.
Phillips has become an unlikely but deserved poster boy for Liverpool’s comeback in the campaign, especially as the severely weakened defence has been surgically targeted by the opposition for months.
Sean Dyche’s charges were still unsettling the rearguard even when the game was beyond them, which was owed to Phillips’ resistance.
“Burnley is really too strong because the way they play, the way they went for our centre-halves obviously, that’s so tricky to defend and the boys did really well,” Klopp said.
Swansea must be wrapped in regret about the decision they made in the recent past as Phillips helps Liverpool shape a path towards Champions League in their immediate future.