Rhys Williams, Sepp van den Berg, Nathaniel Phillips and Billy Koumetio among the leading young centre-backs at Liverpool who Jurgen Klopp could play with Virgil van Dijk out long term and Fabinho injured on Tuesday night
Virgil van Dijk’s long-term injury has given Jurgen Klopp plenty to ponder in terms of his selections at centre-back over the coming weeks, and with Fabinho also going off on Tuesday night against Midtjylland, he may have to turn to youth.
Fabinho had started the three games following Van Dijk’s injury, but the Brazilian went off in the 2-0 win over Midtjylland with what looked like a hamstring injury.
t is unclear whether Joel Matip will have recovered from a muscle injury to play against West Ham at Anfield on Saturday, but when he returns, Matip and Joe Gomez are set to be Liverpool’s first-choice pairing. Nevertheless, Dejan Lovren’s departure in the summer leaves the club short on experienced alternatives.
With Premier League and Champions League games coming thick and fast over the next month or so in this condensed season, Klopp admitted on Tuesday he would need to dip into Liverpool’s academy to bolster his backline.
Here, we look at some of the standout young defenders in Liverpool’s ranks…
Liverpool’s upcoming games
- Oct 31: West Ham (h)
- Nov 3: Atalanta (a)
- Nov 7: Man City (a)
- Nov 25: Atalanta (h)
- Nov 28: Brighton (a)
- Dec 1: Ajax (h)
- Dec 5: Wolves (h)
- Dec 9: Midtjylland (a)
- Dec 12: Fulham (a)
If Liverpool are to look to their youth ranks for cover at centre-back, it seems Rhys Williams is likely to be the first player Klopp would turn to. The 19-year-old, who replaced Fabinho on Tuesday night against Midtjylland, made his Liverpool debut in September, starting alongside Van Dijk and then being partnered with Fabinho in the second half, as the Reds beat Lincoln 7-2 in the Carabao Cup, and played again in the defeat to Arsenal in the next round.
Part of Liverpool’s 2019 FA Youth Cup-winning side, Williams signed a five-year contract earlier in 2020, underlining the club’s belief in his potential.
Williams – who has confessed to studying Van Dijk’s performances and post-match analysis of the Dutchman’s displays – had a loan spell in non-League last season with Kidderminster Harriers and made his England U21 debut this month.
Against a Midtjylland side who rarely threatened, Williams eased his way into action with a solid display on Tuesday at Anfield. Tougher tests are to come.
“He did really well,” said Klopp after Tuesday’s game. “The only problem now is we have four days until the West Ham game, you will make a story of him every day and then he has to prove he can deal with that again. Everything was calm around him. We will try to do that as well.
“To be really clear and positive, Rhys was not in one situation tonight a problem for us, he played a really good game.”
Sepp van den Berg
Netherlands youth international Sepp van den Berg could also be in contention. He made four first-team appearances for Liverpool last season in the FA Cup and Carabao Cup and travelled with the team to the Club World Cup.
However, the 18-year-old – who had also attracted interest from Bayern Munich when he signed for Liverpool in June 2019 – may now be behind Rhys Williams in the pecking order after missing out on a Carabao Cup runout this season.
Van den Berg already has some top-flight experience under his belt, having made 22 Eredivisie appearances with former side PEC Zwolle. “I am calm with the ball, I am quite quick and can run,” he said on his arrival at Liverpool, who insisted at the time he was not an ‘academy’ signing but a player they were looking to develop for the first team.
Nat Phillips looked like he could be on his way to the Championship last week – and now he is among the players trying to put themselves in position for a first-team role at Liverpool.
Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Swansea were among the second-tier sides weighing up a move for the 23-year-old but ultimately he remained at Anfield to provide extra cover at centre-back.
Phillips had two loan spells at Stuttgart last season, where he made 19 starts in Bundesliga II, and in between he was recalled by Klopp in December when Matip, Lovren and Fabinho were all out injured at the same time.
Klopp said he had been impressed by Phillips’ performances in Germany and he went on to start the FA Cup win over Everton in January before returning to Stuttgart for the remainder of the season.
He is not currently in Liverpool’s Champions League squad, however.
At just 17 years old, Billy Koumetio is the youngest player listed here – but the Frenchman is highly rated at Liverpool.
He signed his first professional contract in August and went on to impress Klopp and his team-mates during pre-season. However, a tough afternoon in a friendly at Blackpool may suggest it is too soon for him to step into the fold.
Koumetio was dispossessed for Blackpool’s first goal and played an attacker onside in the build-up to them winning a penalty for their second before he was replaced at half-time. Liverpool bounced back to win 7-2 and afterwards Klopp conceded the defender still had things to learn – but backed him to improve.
“I’m pretty sure he will make big steps,” said Klopp this summer. “We just have to make sure that we really deal with his age group and physical demands well.” But for an ill-timed injury he may well have figured in the Carabao Cup this season. For now though, he is still to make his competitive first-team debut.
Koumetio, out for a part of last season with injury, will soon be back in Liverpool training after also suffering a recent knock.
An experienced alternative?
Alternatively, Klopp might be tempted to repurpose another of his midfielders as a centre-back – as he did with Fabinho – thereby ensuring Liverpool maintain plenty of experience in their backline.
If he decides to go down this route, the most obvious candidate to drop back would be Jordan Henderson. The club captain plays an important role in Liverpool’s midfield, but Klopp has more bodies in that area following the signing of Thiago Alcantara in the summer.
Plus, Henderson has some experience of playing at centre-back having stepped into the role in the FIFA Club World Cup semi-final against Monterrey last year. Liverpool team-mate Adam Lallana described his performance as “magnificent” that day as he helped the Reds secure a 2-1 win and Klopp was similarly impressed.
“If the manager needed me to go there again,” added Henderson, “I would do it.”
‘A situation that is far from ideal’
“Clearly losing Fabinho after half an hour was a nightmare scenario for Jurgen Klopp. It was quite obvious at the time that he’s injured a hamstring.
“We’re not sure yet as we await a scan how long Fabinho will be out for, but at this stage you can’t see him being fit to face West Ham at the weekend and then there’s Atalanta to come in the Champions League before Manchester City.
“Liverpool have three senior centre-halves injured at the moment, with Virgil van Dijk due to have surgery on his damaged ACL. Last night, Klopp said he didn’t know if he would have Joel Matip available for the weekend. Jordan Henderson could fill in at centre-half – we saw that last season in the Club World Cup.
“Fabinho’s injury also robs Liverpool of an option in the centre of midfield as well, albeit they have Thiago and Naby Keita coming back from injury. All in all, the situation is far from ideal.
“Unfortunately, injuries have hit and it’s left them having to look at younger options to bring in to cover those gaps. There’s a number of youngsters who could well get that opportunity to push their case for more senior involvement over the coming weeks.”