Neco Williams’ project, Yasser Larouci’s exit and how Liverpool can fill the left-back hole

It seems an ongoing problem for Liverpool, but despite the expected departure of one candidate, an ideal solution is developing to cover Andy Robertson at left-back.

Since the Reds’ return to training back in May, Yasser Larouci has been a permanent fixture at Melwood, as part of a growing group of youngsters working with Jurgen Klopp‘s first team.

Curtis Jones, Neco Williams and Harvey Elliott are at the forefront, but Larouci, Ki-Jana Hoever, Sepp van den Berg, Leighton Clarkson, Jake Cain and Paul Glatzel have been part of the senior squad in recent months.

It came rather out of the blue, therefore, that the Algerian is set to leave Liverpool in the upcoming transfer window having rejected the chance to extend his contract.

Larouci’s deal will expire at the end of next season, and both parties have agreed a permanent exit is for the best, with Leeds and Brentford among the clubs registering their interest.

A surprise development, this deprives Klopp of a player who was seen by many as the natural solution for the cover that has been much-needed at left-back.

Beyond Robertson, James Milner is the most frequent deputy, but better suited to midfield and with fitness issues mounting, a long-term candidate would be preferred.

SHREWSBURY, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 26, 2020: Liverpool's Yasser Larouci (R) and Shrewsbury Town's Josh Laurent during the FA Cup 4th Round match between Shrewsbury Town FC and Liverpool FC at the New Meadow. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Larouci’s situation can be compared to that of Rafa Camacho last summer: despite being a staple in first-team training, and having played two times for the Reds, the Portuguese turned down a new deal in favour of an exit.

Camacho joined Sporting CP in a deal worth up to £7 million, and his decision has been vindicated as he is now a regular starter for his boyhood club, making 28 appearances so far this season.

Liverpool negotiated a buy-back clause in their deal with Sporting, and this will likely be the case when Larouci leaves.

This, therefore, is a comfortable situation for the Reds in terms of business—though they did not activate buy-back clauses for the likes of Jordon Ibe, Sergi Canos or Brad Smith, the option to do so could save millions if those leaving realise their potential.

But losing Larouci does open up a gap in the squad in terms of a natural stand-in at left-back, though thankfully, Klopp is already working on the answer.

BRIGHTON & HOVE, ENGLAND - Wednesday, July 8, 2020: Liverpool's Neco Williams during the FA Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion FC and Liverpool FC at the AMEX Stadium. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by Propaganda)

That would, of course, be Williams, who started at left-back in the 3-1 win at Brighton and, despite being brought off at half-time due to a booking, drew praise from Klopp after the game.

“I liked [it] a lot, he’s confident,” the manager said.

“The two situations—yellow card, another foul—he can learn that, that’s absolutely no problem. I like how he played a lot.”

Williams was caught out of position on a handful of occasions at the Amex, but Klopp deemed that the Reds “didn’t protect him well enough.”

The 19-year-old returned to right-back for the 1-1 draw with Burnley and fared better, playing 69 minutes to allow Trent Alexander-Arnold a rest, and following that game, Klopp offered the biggest hint yet as to his plans.

“Thank god that Neco is now here and making big steps in training, so that we can give the boys this kind of rest,” he said.

“Robbo came on in the last game already and made a massive difference.

“It was only 45 minutes [at Brighton], pretty much, that we ‘saved’ him, so that was really good.

“And today, of course, that was really good as well. Neco is now here and we can make these kinds of decisions, and it’s good.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, June 24, 2020: Liverpool’s Neco Williams during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The assertion was that Williams could now cover both right-back and left-back, which is a huge responsibility for a player who until October had barely experienced life at Melwood.

Williams’ breakthrough has come at the expense of Hoever, who was at the Under-17 World Cup with the Netherlands when the Welshman was drafted into the senior squad and never looked back.

It is a fairytale situation for the youngster, who has now guaranteed himself a Premier League winner’s medal, and lending further weight to the ‘all-round full-back cover’ claim, Robertson has praised his capacity to operate on both sides.

“He’s got an abundance of ability and he can play both full-back positions pretty easily,” the Scot explained.

“So I’m sure he will push me and Trent all the way next season and that’s what we need to have—healthy competition in the squad.”

It is clear this has been in the works on the training ground for weeks, if not months, allowing Williams to hone his skills on the left-hand side to solve not one, but two problem areas for Liverpool.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 5, 2020: Liverpool's Neco Williams (R) and manager Ju?rgen Klopp before the FA Cup 3rd Round match between Liverpool FC and Everton FC, the 235th Merseyside Derby, at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are two of the best full-backs in world football, and therefore the role of backup to either of the Reds’ established pair may not be the most attractive.

But for a player who only celebrated his 19th birthday in April to now be in the position where he can fill in for both is a dream—now, Williams could comfortably play 15, 20 or even 30 games for the champions of England next season.

This could be a demanding job for a player of his relative inexperience, but he has shown no signs of wariness in his outings for the club so far, even starring in his early appearances in the FA Cup and League Cup.

Robertson continued to praise Williams by saying “he’s got so much ability and so much energy, so much confidence in his own ability that he’ll have a fantastic career in the game,” while Alexander-Arnold has even tipped him to become “world class.”

Backing from Klopp and the players he will be filling in for should be reassurance enough for the Wrexham native, and perhaps this has informed Larouci’s decision to move on.

There are also promising signs from elsewhere in background, with Liverpool handing Adam Lewis a new long-term contract before an expected loan move to the lower leagues next season.

If Lewis can regain momentum after an injury-struck campaign, he could return as another candidate for the manager to consider.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 5, 2019: Liverpool's James Norris during the Under-18 FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC at Finch Farm. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But below him in the academy ranks is a talent with perhaps more potential to impose himself in years to come: that being under-18s regular James Norris.

Norris is, technically, the fourth-youngest player in the club’s history, having replaced Hoever late on in the 5-0 loss to Aston Villa in the League Cup in December; he was also on the bench for February’s 1-0 win over Shrewsbury in the FA Cup.

Only 17 and, like Alexander-Arnold, raised in West Derby, he is a tenacious, hardworking Scouser who has risen through the academy ranks this season.

Jake Cain (32) is the only player to make more appearances than Norris at youth level this season (31), with seven of those coming for the under-23s and under-19s respectively.

He is effectively built from the same blueprint as Trent, much like Lewis: a local lad whose delivery from out wide is his main asset, but is also flexible enough to play in midfield, having operated both deeper and more advanced.

Given Klopp’s recent claim that “in 10 years it would be great if we could have a team full of Scousers,” Norris certainly fits the billing, and Jamie Carragher has highlighted him along with Tom Hill and Layton Stewart as youngsters those within the club have “high hopes for.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, July 5, 2020: Liverpool’s Andy Robertson is replaced by substitute Neco Williams during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

To get carried away over Norris at this stage would be remiss, but it is encouraging to see there is an increasingly clear pathway for these young players to establish themselves at Liverpool.

Williams has already benefited, and is poised to continue to do so in years to come, and there is a strong case to argue others can break through and stake their claim, too.

This makes Larouci’s decision to leave all the more amicable.

He should not be chastised for following the Camacho route, as that is proven to be a successful way to secure game time.

But neither should Liverpool be concerned as he heads for the exit, as they are now in a stronger position at full-back than they have been in many, many years.

And with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold effectively committed for as long as the club will have them, and a group of blossoming young talents working underneath them, there should no more worries in this regard.