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Liverpool's central defensive crisis: Who can fill in with Fabinho and Van Dijk injured?


It was the moment Liverpool fans around the world had been fearing most.

With just 30 minutes on the clock inside a cold and muted Anfield stadium, Brazilian star Fabinho pulled up clutching his hamstring, agony spreading across his face.

Jurgen Klopp’s trusted and perhaps most versatile lieutenant could play no further part against Midtjylland, as Liverpool were left to tackle the remainder of the Champions League group stage tie without him. 

The face of Jordan Henderson said it all. Leering over the top of physio Chris Morgan who was busy treating a grimacing Fabinho, the Liverpool captain let out a deep, exasperated breath while placing his head in his hands.

Fabinho's injury against Midtjylland realised the worst fears of Liverpool fans around the world

Fabinho’s injury against Midtjylland realised the worst fears of Liverpool fans around the world

Liverpool may be joint top of the Premier League and have two wins from two in Europe, but the omission of key personnel coupled with potentially mass tactical changes can really shake up a side; even one as good as Klopp’s.

So, with a Premier League clash against an in-form West Ham on Saturday and a busy festive fixture schedule on the horizon, what happens now for Liverpool?

Defensive talisman Virgil van Dijk looks set to spend much of the season on the sidelines, while Fabinho looks set to return after the international break next month.

With Klopp now having no choice but to drastically shuffle the pack and hope for the best, Sportsmail takes a look at the lesser known youngsters whose time to shine may have just arrived…

Rhys Williams

Fans are now familiar with the tall, lean defender after his last two outings for the Reds in the Champions League.

Much has been made of the fact Williams was playing non-league football on loan at Kidderminster Harriers as recently as March, just prior to the coronavirus lockdown.

And now, when needed most, Williams looks to be answering the call.

The 19-year-old was given his first taste of the big occasion after being used as an injury-time substitute to replace veteran James Milner against Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena.

Rhys Williams has stepped up twice now for the Reds and has two European appearances

Rhys Williams has stepped up twice now for the Reds and has two European appearances

Williams’ first contribution was to win a crunching header, with Klopp commenting in the immediate aftermath: ‘He is a big talent – not only big physically, but he is a real talent and it’s nice to have him around.

‘I saw it in his eyes after the game that he was pretty impressed by that occasion and that’s nice.’

Little did Williams know however that in the very next Champions League fixture, under the lights at Anfield, he would be needed not simply as a late impact sub… but in the heart of defence from the early stages.

Williams had little time to prepare before his number was held up to replace the injured Fabinho after just half an hour.

The youngster came in and slotted alongside Joe Gomez, as Liverpool held their breath to see if he could see out the majority of an elite European match unscathed. 

The 19-year-old was thrust into the action after just 30 minutes against Midtjylland at Anfield

The 19-year-old was thrust into the action after just 30 minutes against Midtjylland at Anfield

As recently as March Williams was playing non-league football with Kidderminster Harriers

As recently as March Williams was playing non-league football with Kidderminster Harriers

As it turned out, Williams duly answered the call. Staff behinds the scenes at Liverpool’s Melwood base have noted just how much the teenager had improved following his spell with Kidderminster, and the progress was all too apparent.

Looking comfortable in and out of possession, Williams closed down space to deny Midtjylland chances to create, while also showing the tactical awareness to pull out across the defence and offer goalkeeper Alisson Becker the option to pass out from the back.

Williams has done enough to put himself in the reckoning to step in for Fabinho going forward, though Liverpool will have full appreciation that the rough and tumble of the Premier League is likely to be a much more arduous task than an evening against the Danish minnows. 

Sepp van den Berg

In June 2019 excitement bubbled around the red half of Merseyside after Liverpool announced they had successfully pulled off the signing of Dutch sensation Van den Berg.

Klopp and Co worked hard to convince the youngster his future would be best served at Anfield, given the stern competition from the likes of Ajax, Bayern Munich and PSV Eindhoven.

Liverpool fought off competition from Ajax and Bayern Munich to sign Sepp van den Berg

Liverpool fought off competition from Ajax and Bayern Munich to sign Sepp van den Berg

Liverpool agreed to pay PEC Zwolle an initial £1.3million for the starlet, which could rise depending on his future trajectory.

Rival European elite had made promises to the gangling youngster that first-team football would be on the horizon, though Liverpool had pointed to their successful academy system and clear pathway into the senior ranks under Klopp.

Now Liverpool have an opportunity to come good on their promise.

It may be a little soon for the 18-year-old to be thrown into the deep end, though Van den Berg has impressed on each occasion he has been offered a shot in the Liverpool senior squad.

During a warm-up game against Blackburn Rovers in June, Liverpool handed Van den Berg an opportunity while rotating their side following football’s pandemic postponement.

The ginger-haired youngster seized his chance, looking a picture of composure at the back as Liverpool carried out a 6-0 thrashing, while not being afraid to vocalise himself to senior team-mates.

Klopp couldn't stop beaming after meeting Van den Berg for the first time upon his arrival

Klopp couldn’t stop beaming after meeting Van den Berg for the first time upon his arrival

‘It is always difficult for Sepp van den Berg as a central defender,’ said Klopp after the game. ‘We have four of them, so he doesn’t need to play much. But he shows promising things during the training.’

Van den Berg has made little secret of the fact he watches Virgil van Dijk in training religious, hoping to glean every scrap of knowledge he can from being in close proximity to his nation’s captain.

Speaking to Fox Sports after signing for the Reds, Van den Berg said: Everyone helps me but I can learn the most from Van Dijk. 

‘So if he gives me tips, I’ll save them. If I make a mistake like not stepping up and things like that. It is things you need to know.’

Nathaniel Phillips

Like Rhys Williams, Nat Phillips hails from the north west of England and signed for the Reds from his boyhood club Bolton Wanderers in 2016.

Now 23, Phillips arrived at a crossroads position in the summer whereby a big decision was needed regarding his future.

It was widely expected that Liverpool would allow the player to leave in a permanent deal, though no concrete bids arrived given the disarray in which the transfer market was left in due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nat Phillips looked to be on the brink of leaving this summer, and may now have a final chance

Nat Phillips looked to be on the brink of leaving this summer, and may now have a final chance

The Reds instead retained Phillips, and the current predicament may very well present a last chance saloon scenario.

Last season Phillips spent the campaign on loan in the Bundesliga with Stuttgart, impressing with his consistent play and the speed with which he adjusted to German football.

On 27 December 2019, Liverpool announced that Phillips would be recalled from his loan on 1 January 2020 due to defensive shortages in the squad.

He was then swiftly handed his senior debut under Klopp just days later, as Liverpool fielded a youthful squad against bitter rivals Everton in the FA Cup third round and pulled off a shock 1-0 victory.

Phillips started the game at centre back alongside Joe Gomez, in a defence which also comprised Neco Williams and Yasser Larouci.

Curtis Jones’ sublime effort sealed an historic victory for the Reds but Phillips still received a portion of praise in the aftermath, before being loaned back to Stuttgart for the remainder of the season.

Phillips made his senior debut against Everton in the FA Cup in January and kept a clean sheet

Phillips made his senior debut against Everton in the FA Cup in January and kept a clean sheet

The 23-year-old has been around the seniors for some time, though was expected to leave

The 23-year-old has been around the seniors for some time, though was expected to leave

Liverpool held on to Phillips following the summer sale of Dejan Lovren to Zenit St Petersburg, and Klopp himself has recently admitted he thought Phillips would have departed.

‘With our situation, we have Nat Phillips here as well and Billy the kid [Koumetio] and they are really around,’ said the Liverpool boss.

‘Phillips we thought would be transferred, but at the last second it didn’t happen.

‘We already brought him back from Stuttgart for one game last season against Everton in which he did really well.

‘These are solutions for us, and help us a lot. The boys are great, and it is a big opportunity for them.’

Billy Koumetio

And so to the boy who Klopp affectionately refers to as ‘Billy the kid.’

Koumetio made a huge impact in the summer after being named as a surprise inclusion in the squad which travelled to Liverpool’s pre-season isolated training camp in the Austrian mountains.

Inside the camp Liverpool players are said to have been put through painstaking fitness drills and arduous tests with and without the ball, though by all accounts Koumetio stepped up to the plate and made a real impression on the senior stars.

Billy Koumetio already has the stature of a Premier League defender and is highly rated

Billy Koumetio already has the stature of a Premier League defender and is highly rated

French youngster Koumetio arrived at Liverpool in 2018 after signing from Orleans FC, and signed his first professional contract with the club in August of this year.

Previously on the books of his hometown club Lyon, Koumetio had been closely monitored by Paris Saint-Germain before Liverpool stole a march and got the deal done.

Standing at 6ft 4in tall, many Liverpool fans expressed their surprise in the summer when seeing the starlet measuring up in stature – and muscle composition – with the mighty Van Dijk.

Visually Koumetio looks like a ready-made Premier League defender, though Liverpool are carefully managing his progress in order to bring him up to speed while also teaching their rather specific and intrinsic way of defending.

Now, however, this process may well have to be accelerated.

Koumetio was invited to Liverpool's senior pre-season camp in Austria and made an impact

Koumetio was invited to Liverpool’s senior pre-season camp in Austria and made an impact

Koumetio has not been named in Liverpool’s Premier League squad and is still listed as an academy player, however teams can use as many Under 21 players as they like in addition to their main squad throughout the season.

He turns 18 in November and is expected to be drafted into the senior ranks permanently from next season, though will need to knuckle down given Liverpool’s bleak injury situation.

With the defence looking more threadbare than ever before, Koumetio’s chance may arrive faster than he could have possibly imagined. 

Jordan Henderson

Given how much risk in involved when it comes to throwing a youngster into the pressure cooker that is central defence, there is now an increased likelihood that Klopp will turn to his main general.

For years Henderson has played selflessly when it comes to Liverpool, offering his services in any position regardless of how naturally it may come to him.

Klopp will be well aware that Henderson’s broad shoulders can take on the responsibility, and his captain is the most vocal player on the pitch for the Reds week-in, week-out.

Klopp will most likely lean on the inspirational Jordan Henderson to slot in across the back line

Klopp will most likely lean on the inspirational Jordan Henderson to slot in across the back line

Henderson does however have some experience when it comes to slotting into defence for his side, after playing as a central defender during the Club World Cup last summer.

In the semi-final encounter with Mexican titans Monterrey, Henderson featured alongside Gomez in the absence of Van Dijk and played out the full 90 minutes from the back line.

The 30-year-old marshalled the defence and looked very much in his element, helping those around him retain composure after his partner Gomez was booked during a frenetic second half.

Liverpool won the game 2-1, proceeded to the final, and Henderson very much proved his versatility.

It may well be more of the same on Saturday, therefore, with Klopp perhaps much more inclined to go with Henderson once again, while filling the void in midfield with the returning Thiago Alcantara or Naby Keita.

Henderson filled in at centre back before, against Monterrey in the Club World Cup semi-final

Henderson filled in at centre back before, against Monterrey in the Club World Cup semi-final

It’s a big ask for the Liverpool skipper, who would be allocated the unenviable task of dealing with an in-form West Ham side.

Either way, the veteran German manager has huge decisions to make and perhaps several leaps of faith to take.

It will be up to whoever is trusted with the defensive duties to own the limelight and act accordingly; the reigning champions are depending on it. 

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