It was quite a step up for Rhys Williams. Last season he played in the sixth division of English football and was loaned to Kidderminster Harriers, a world outside of winning the Premier League title in Liverpool.
Then he would have been forgiven for feeling nervous making his debut against Lincoln in the Carabao Cup on Thursday night.
A non-league player just a few months ago, he now plays alongside Virgil van Dijk on a team full of England’s best young talent.
However, any casual observer would have thought that Williams is a first-team regular. He toyed with the serenity and grace that suggested he had been Van Dijk̵
It was an impressive debut from a 19-year-old looking mature beyond his years. He had the physicality to face his older opposition, and technically he didn’t look out of place.
In truth, Jürgen Klopp chose the right game to give Williams his first appearance. Liverpool dominated at Sincil Bank, sometimes mercilessly. The home team chased shadows and rarely had the opportunity to compose their own attacks until the second half, when the game was over.
Sign up for the Liverpool ECHO Daily Liverpool newsletter HERE
On the few occasions when they threatened, Williams was often on hand to clean up. He stepped out of defense confidently all night and held the line well with Van Dijk too. There have been a few instances where he appeared to be drifting slightly out of position, but nothing near a major fault.
With the ball at his feet, Williams, who completed 96.4% of his passes, looked almost as cool and collected as the man next to him. Van Dijk is ten years older than him, an experienced professional and arguably the best defender in world football. This certainty helped the Academy to a massive degree in the first half.
Speaking to livepoolfc.com after the game, he said, “You can see why him [ Van Dijk ] is the best in the world.
“He’s always talking. He knew I was young and nervous. I’ve never felt safer around anyone. Awesome.”
Williams played his part on a night of fluid, rampant attacking football. His long, diagonal ball up to Divock Origi in the first half was nodded in the feet of Curtis Jones, who made room on his right foot and rolled a splendid shot into the top corner.
Most of the time, though, it was about how he defended, how he distributed the ball, and distributed his positional awareness in a back four playing with a notoriously high line.
Granted, Lincoln didn’t really push when Liverpool had the ball in their own half. That meant Williams generally had plenty of time to pick a teammate. But he did well and didn’t always play the safe pass, as the preparation for the third goal showed.
The hosts’ attacks were also sporadic, certainly in the first half. But that meant Williams had to be vigilant throughout. It’s easy to turn off when the ball is at the other end of the field for most of the game.
When Van Dijk left at halftime, Lincoln forced Liverpool to take another defense. Adrian was put into action a few times and there were signs that Williams might be a little tired.
The goal vanished when Tayo Edun scored just before the hour and shortly after Lewis Montsma climbed over Fabinho from a corner to get off the bar. That might have upset Williams. Still, they were only consolation goals and did little to dampen the work of his evening.
Even without Van Dijk on the pitch, there was very little evidence that the teenager was too inexperienced. He will have trained with the first team and got used to the intensity and demands of the ball in Klopp’s team.
Of course, Williams still has a long way to go to get into the first team on a regular basis. But he has already made significant progress in a short period of time.
This was an impressive start; Now he will hope to build on that as the season progresses.
It has been speculated that Jürgen Klopp will come back on the market before the October deadline to replace Dejan Lovren after leaving Zenit St. Petersburg. Especially given the recent injuries to Joel Matip and Joe Gomez that force midfielder Fabinho to play.
Perhaps the rise of Rhys Williams Virgil van Dijk in times of need will offer another twist and a new potential partner.
Find out more about Rhys Williams in our exclusive profile on ‘baby-faced Van Dijk’