Rhys Williams' nine appearances for Liverpool this season have seen the 19-year-old form a defensive partnership with five different teammates.
From making his senior bow next to Virgil van Dijk to 45 minutes alongside fellow Academy graduate Billy Koumetio in the Champions League, Williams has adapted to and learned from each of the centre-backs he has worked with.
And during a recent interview with Liverpoolfc.com, the No.46 explained how his game changes depending on the player he combines forces with and what he has sought to take from the variety of skillsets and characters.
Virgil van Dijk
Williams’ first two outings of 2020-21 – and his senior Liverpool career – saw him start with Virgil van Dijk, in the Carabao Cup ties against Lincoln City and Arsenal.
“He’s a player I’ve been watching and admiring from where I’ve been playing since he has come to the club. I can see why people call him the best defender in the world, because he makes everything seem so easy and he helps everyone else around him with his voice and his instructions. It was a privilege to play alongside him and hopefully I can keep doing that in the future.
“The way he steps in to intercept balls, his timing is perfect for it. If he has got a runner he knows when he needs to drop off with them, or if there’s no pressure on the ball he drops. And he controls the rest of the line as well, which I really like, because everyone takes their line from him. That’s something I want to add to my game as well.”
After a last-minute substitute appearance against AFC Ajax, an injury to Fabinho during the Champions League clash with FC Midtjylland at Anfield meant a sudden call for Williams to partner Joe Gomez, a pairing used again for the 5-0 win at Atalanta BC.
“Virg is a bit louder than Joe, but Joe leads in other ways – the way he is on the ball and he has got great physical ability. He can almost bully players into moving away from him, that makes his job a bit easier when he’s got no-one around him. On the ball as well, he is a great player. He finds passes that I want to add to my game. His pace as well, that is a great asset to have for a defender, there’s not a lot of defenders out there that can have his pace. I like playing next to Joe. He is a young lad as well, so obviously he’s learning every game but the experience he has got from such a young age helps me as well.
“Being 23 and having the accomplishments he’s had, it’s every credit to him. He has obviously worked hard, and he has had a few injuries and stuff, but to have done what he’s done by such a young age, it’s a credit to him.”
Williams next started with Joel Matip – for the only occasion to date – as the Reds were overturned by Atalanta in the return meeting on Merseyside.
“Joel is a great talker. He’s similar to Virg in some ways with the way he is on the ball, he picks a great pass as well. I think he’s a great aerial threat off corners, not a lot beats him, so I’ve tried to take a bit of that into my game because sometimes my positioning off corners, I could be a bit more front foot and attack it – I’ve seen that’s what he’s been doing. I’m enjoying playing next to him. He talks a great game as well, so that helps.”
For the European trip to Midtjylland and the Premier League victory over Tottenham Hotspur, the Reds fielded Williams and Fabinho, redeployed from his usual midfield role, together in the centre of defence.
“Full credit to his ability to be able to transition from a central defensive midfield role to go and play in the backline. That’s credit to his adaptability as a player. He doesn’t talk as much as some of the other players, but the way he reads the game and his tackling – that’s something again I’m trying to take from him, because he’s so front-footed and stops problems at source. To come and play in our backline, which is a hard job anyway, from playing in midfield, credit [to him].
“Because he plays a line higher normally, that obviously helps us trying to build out from the back because he can see passes that maybe I don’t see and he’s got more ability to be able to play them into there with quality and get players turning and going at the opposition’s backline. That’s another thing I can take from him.”
Billy Koumetio replaced Fabinho for the second half of the 1-1 draw at Midtjylland, making Williams the senior figure in the middle of the backline on a proud night for the Academy.
“I’ve not played with Billy that much, I’ve trained with him a few times. His aerial presence and his physical presence, he’s only going to get better with age and the more opportunity he gets to play. I felt like I needed to be his Virg in a way and keep talking to him. Our backs were against the wall at times in that second half but he made a few great tackles and a good few headers. That will only help his confidence.”
Circumstances have yet to bring Williams and Nathaniel Phillips – who has started two Premier League fixtures this term – together in the team, but the two share a supportive relationship off the pitch.
“We never take it badly if another one of us gets picked, we’re always congratulating each other. I think it’s healthy to have competition around the changing room, you don’t want stuff handed to you on a plate. Once you earn the right to get in there, that’s the better feeling than just being gifted the opportunity. When Nat gets an opportunity I’m happy for him because he has done great in the games he has played, and I think it’s the same when I get my opportunity: he is pleased for me as well.”