Liverpool started the season with a centre half pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez. They look likely to end it with a pairing of Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips—something not a single one of the 7.876 billion people on Earth would have guessed when it started.
Phillips started the year as an afterthought, sixth on the depth chart at best. Kabak started it playing for Schalke in the Bundesliga and arrived in January as an emergency loan signing. Still, as unexpected a partnership as it is, it’s shown signs of promise in recent weeks.
“Nathaniel is an example where determination and respect can bring you,” reflected assistant manager Pepijn Linjnders this week. “Ozan is a big talent, so much progression is still possible. He adapted fantastically inside our club from a context like Schalke.”
Of the two, though, the bigger story is probably Phillips, who looked most likely to be headed to a Championship side over the past summer only for any potential moves to dry up and for the player to stick around with the Reds as emergency centre half depth.
What his long-term future holds is anyone’s guess—and there remain questions about his suitability for Liverpool’s high line given he’s not the fastest defender—but if the Reds win anything this year or even make the top four he will be remembered as a cult hero.
“He puts his head where other players don’t put their feet,” Lijnders noted. “He has a heart like a lion. Probably if I need to survive in a jungle, the first two people I’d choose are Nathaniel and [James Milner]. [He has the] passion, the ambition, the love for the game.
“Luckily, we have many stories like that already. The willpower and character was the base of many of our boys to win with us. That gives me confidence that we will be back.”