Neco Williams has been making the headlines recently thanks to his performances for Wales, which has led to discussion around his involvement back at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp.
The 20-year-old increasingly versatile full-back has played a big role in Wales’ progress in World Cup qualifying, attracting plaudits nationwide and probably catching the eye of a few opposition players and staff, too.
While international football can be seen by some supporters as an annoyance or an unnecessary injury risk for Liverpool’s stars, this isn’t the case for the players.
It certainly matters for Williams, too, and he has benefitted greatly from his involvement with Wales – which has played a big part in his development.
He came into the national team in his usual right-sided role, whether as a wing-back or full-back down that side, appearing in Nations League matches as Wales topped their group unbeaten, and in a handful of friendlies.
But in more recent World Cup qualifiers, he has really grown into his role as a left wing-back. Given his performances recently, it could be argued it is now his best position.
“He’s at a top, top club with top, top players and he can’t get in the team. But when he plays like that, we’ve got to get him playing.
“I thought he was outstanding.”
– Wales manager Robert Page
He started five of Wales’ eight games in World Cup qualifying in this role, playing the full 90 minutes in all but one of those, and will now be seen as a key player for his country as they head into the playoffs.
Looking at those performances in more detail, Williams has improved noticeably during the last year or so.
There is an extra zip and quickness about his game, not necessarily in his overall sprinting speed, but in terms of his shorter, more immediate movements and his decision-making.
He looks more dangerous on the ball and has become increasingly unpredictable when facing opposition defenders.
As shown in his recent outings as a left wing-back for Wales, and his work as a right winger in the second half of Liverpool’s League Cup tie at Preston, he now poses a genuine threat in attack.
Whether it be skipping past Preston’s Greg Cunningham on the wing or causing Thomas Meunier problems down Belgium’s right flank, there is a new verve about Williams’ attacking play.
Of course, these performances have all come in fairly specific circumstances that don’t necessarily translate to Klopp’s first-team plans or his best XI.
Takumi Minamino played a fairly specific role, Tyler Morton offered something different (and very good) in the deep-lying midfield position and Williams himself became a rare example of Liverpool using a right-footer playing on the right wing after Conor Bradley came on at right-back.
Just as Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role doesn’t translate directly from Klopp’s Liverpool to Gareth Southgate’s England, Williams’ role for Wales isn’t one he’s likely to play regularly in for Liverpool.
But the promise Williams has shown and his increased confidence in attack means he’ll provide options for Liverpool they didn’t have previously.
The emergence of Kostas Tsimikas as a genuine alternative for Robertson means Liverpool are better off in the left-back position than they have been for some time, arguably ever.
This means Williams is unlikely to get a game in a role similar to that which he plays for his country, but using him as an inverted full-back shouldn’t be ruled out completely.
Kostas himself isn’t exactly a like-for-like cover for Robertson, but has slotted in well and offered something extra in his own right.
Liverpool’s full-backs in a back four can often be as attacking as other teams’ wing-backs in a five, and both Steve Clarke’s Scotland and Robert Page’s Wales happen to be two examples of those back-five systems.
The heatmap below, from SofaScore, shows how Williams works towards the edge of the opposition area in attack:
At right-back, Williams has had problems defensively in the past, but playing on the left may help him in this regard.
He seems more comfortable and more effective defending as a left-back, having his stronger foot on the inside.
This also means that if an opposition attacker is able to get past him on his weaker side, getting beat on the outside down the left is a lot less dangerous than someone cutting inside past him when he’s playing right-back.
All attacking full-backs are criticised for their defending anyway. They’re almost expected to be in two places at once. Maybe we should just abandon the ‘back’ part of the description of this position and just call them ‘lateral’, like they do in Brazil.
With Robertson likely to be out for Saturday’s visit of Arsenal and Tsimikas coming into the lineup, Williams being on the bench means Liverpool now have good quality cover for the left as well as the right.
An ideal strategy
Being in a position where youth academy prospects can work their way into the first team, supplementing the star players signed from around the globe, is surely the ideal one for a top-level football club to be in.
It’s better to produce your own squad and backup players from the region rather than have to sign them from other clubs.
And in some cases, these players themselves go on to become the stars, as has been the case with Alexander-Arnold and, potentially, Curtis Jones.
The next year or so will have a big say in whether Williams is the next in line, joining the likes of John Toshack, Ian Rush, Joey Jones, and more recently Craig Bellamy and Joe Allen, as Welsh stars to play for Liverpool.
It often feels like Liverpool is closer to Wales, Scotland and Ireland than it is to England, and players from these countries can very much add to the core and the culture of a Liverpool side.
Williams may not become a global star in the way his compatriot Gareth Bale has, but he will be a star for Wales.
And the 20-year-old may well become a very useful part of this world-class Liverpool team.