Liverpool rising star Phillips: Salah, Mane, Firmino preparing me for first team chance

DUBLIN -- Nathaniel Phillips is still soaking it all in. The centre-half has the been the surprise package of Liverpool's preseason and, therefore, more than justified the huge "risk" he took as a teenager to join the club.

Phillips, 21, has featured regularly for Liverpool this summer. He was part of the 29-man squad that toured the United States after impressing in four earlier domestic warmup games.

Liverpool's first stop was in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they would play Borussia Dortmund. That particular destination was fitting for Phillips, who had underwent a whirlwind journey to reach this point.

Having been released from his boyhood Bolton Wanderers in the summer of 2016, Phillips had taken up the offer of a university scholarship in America. He was all set on studying economics, while continuing to play football in the hope of being drafted by Major League Soccer.

But Phillips did not make the move. He was surprised when the offer of a trial at Liverpool arrived that same summer and threw himself at it.

He would end up signing a contract on the day he was scheduled to begin his four-year scholarship.

The college? The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"The last time I was flying to America I was going to there to see where I was going to be living and studying. This time I was on a private plane with the Liverpool team and sat with these world-class players," Phillips told ESPN FC.

"It was just one of those moments where you're looking around and thinking: 'What's happened?'

"We trained at that university as well, so that was weird. I met the coaches there and had a chat with them. They were happy to see things had worked out for me.

"It obviously vindicated my decision. It was a risk, but it was a decision [where] there was no choice for me really. It was nice to go back feeling like I'd made the right decision.

"When I was there one of the drawing factors for the uni was that Premier League clubs were using the facilities because they were that good.

"I went back as a player for one of those clubs. It was just a nice moment for me."

The finale of the three-city American tour -- Liverpool vs. Manchester United at Michigan Stadium -- saw Phillips play in front of 101,254 spectators.

"I've loved every minute of it, to be honest," he said. "At the start of the season my goal was to try and get myself on to that tour.

"I managed to do that and I feel like I gave a decent account of myself while I was out there. Hopefully I can continue to improve.

"I feel like I've improved a lot since training with them. The manager has said the same as well, so that's nice to hear from him.

"I'm just looking forward to the season starting as well and going back to training with them."

Phillips believes, as does Jurgen Klopp, that his game has developed considerably since his promotion to Melwood late last season when injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip cropped up.

He has been spending the last few months coming up against the frontline of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in training on a daily basis. Elite defenders have struggled to contain that trio.

"It improves you so much as a defender," Phillips said. "There are moments in training where you've just got to hold your hands up if you get outclassed by these players.

"But you're only going to improve defending against these players and playing alongside them as well.

"If you can defend against that front three then you've got a chance, haven't you?

"Playing alongside Virgil [van Dijk] has helped me massively. He's earned so much respect from his performances and you know he's someone that you can trust -- he knows what's he talking about.

"As a centre-back you just want to learn from him because he's at that level you aspire towards.

"And he's friendly, he's really approachable, which makes it 10 times easier because he'll offer you advice and try to help you out."

There is one more opportunity for Phillips to impress before the 2018-19 campaign begins. It will be at Anfield this time as Liverpool conclude their preseason at home to Torino on Tuesday evening.

What Klopp has in store for Phillips this season is still unclear. One thing is for certain, though, the Lancastrian defender is enjoying every second of his turbulent ride.

He said: "Basically we'll see what the manager thinks is best for me.

"We've not really had a discussion [about this season] yet because I've just been taking every day as it comes and just enjoying my time doing what I'm doing. So I've not really looked towards that yet.

"Since I've started training with them [the first team], I feel that I've come on a long way.

"No matter I do, I'm really happy with the way things are at the moment. So we'll see what happens."