An in-depth look at how Rhys Williams went from a sixth division defender to a Liverpool starter in a matter of months under Jurgen Klopp.
If 2020 has taught us one thing, it’s that you can never predict the future.
No one could have predicted that we would be battling a virus that has killed over 1 million people.
No one could have predicted that Lionel Messi would stage an ugly public protest against Barcelona with the hopes of terminating his contract with his boyhood club.
And quite frankly, no one could have predicted that Rhys Williams may now be the key piece in Liverpool’s quest to win both the Premier League and the Champions League.
The Preston-born centre back joined the Liverpool academy when he was ten and has climbed the ranks ever since. Now 19, Williams progressed well at the youth level, breaking into the U23 side in November 2018.
Williams joined the senior side in their preseason matches prior to the season, but few would have predicted that competitive appearances would have been on the table so soon. This all changed on Tuesday when he came on as a first-half substitute for Fabinho in the Champions League tie against FC Midtjylland.
Due to Virgil van Dijk’s season-ending ACL injury, Liverpool have been forced to experiment with unconventional options in the centre of defence. The injury to Fabinho only accentuated this problem, leaving Jurgen Klopp with Joe Gomez as his only experienced option in the centre of defence.
Williams joined the Liverpool academy at the age of ten and has been a part of the youth setup ever since. He has served as a regular in the U18s and U19s setup, before more firmly establishing himself in the U23s in the 2018-2019 season.
Still a long way from first-team involvement at Liverpool, the 6’1 defender was sent on loan to sixth tier side Kidderminster Harriers. He quickly became a regular for the National League team, making 26 appearances despite the fact that he was just 18 years old.
Williams helped the side finish 10th in the division, likely earning a loan side in a more competitive league the following season.
Despite his impressive loan spell, even Jurgen Klopp admitted knowing little about Williams, saying, “I’m involved in most of the things but not all of the things, so it’s not that I knew Rhys Williams before he went out on loan.”
The fact that Williams now could play a central role in Liverpool’s trophy chase is even more astounding when you consider that Williams wasn’t even likely to join the senior side in their preseason matches. Klopp claims that Williams was only brought along following the injury to fellow youngster Billy Koumetio on the recommendation of youth coach Vitor Matos.
In the preseason, Williams played alongside Virgil van Dijk (among others) in preseason matches against VFB Stuttgart, RB Salzburg, and Blackpool, justifying Matos’ recommendation of Williams’s inclusion in the squad.
The belief in the 19-year old was only reinforced by his selection in the side in a 7-2 victory over Lincoln City in the EFL Cup. Williams demonstrated his aerial ability and seldom made a mistake that would be expected for a teenager playing against more experienced competition.
Following the departure of Dejan Lovren and the aforementioned injuries, Williams was kept on Merseyside, along with fellow youngsters Sepp van der Berg and Nat Phillips. It was thought that he would spend the season developing in the U23s, but the aforementioned circumstances have seen him quickly integrated into the first team.
Following a stoppage-time appearance in the first Champions League group match against Ajax, Williams was inserted in the first half once Fabinho went down against FC Midtjylland.
The Present and the Future
Williams has been forced to mature rapidly in the past few weeks both physically and emotionally. He has responded to the pressure well thus far, albeit a small sample size.
His stature has elicited comparisons to van Dijk, based on the similar imposing build and the tied-back hair. However, the young defender has a long way to go before he can earn similar comparisons for his level of play.
His first major test could come on Tuesday when Liverpool visit Atalanta in the Champions League. With Nat Phillips not on the Champions League roster and Joel Matip just recently returning to full training, Williams is likely to again earn the start alongside Joe Gomez.
With all due respect to FC Midtjylland, Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta side present a whole new challenge. The Italian club scored 98 goals in Serie A last season, 17 more than any other team in the division and have scored nearly 3 goals per game so far this season.
How Williams performs from the off against a world-class attacking side will be key to his development. Another impressive display will only solidify Klopp’s trust in the Englishman in future Premier League and Champions League ties.
Even more importantly, it will solidify Williams’ belief in himself and will allow him to gain more confidence and comfort within the side. In his appearances so far, he has played a no-nonsense style to ensure that he avoids mistakes.
While there’s clearly nothing wrong with this, increased comfort in the side will allow Williams to retain the ball for his side better and better fit into their playing style.
For now, Liverpool fans should be thrilled with the early results and should hope that it continues. If so, Jurgen Klopp could have a readymade Van Dijk waiting in the wings as the Dutchman recovers.