Despite clinching their sixth European Cup and maiden Premier League crown in back-to-back seasons, Liverpool supporters have nevertheless fretted over the dearth of first team signings past backup left back, Kostas Tsimikas as their domestic rivals have made big moves on the transfer market.
A fourth center back to replace the offloaded Dejan Lovren has been high on the Jürgen Klopp’s list of needs. While the rumor mill has done its best to weave tenuous links to a few names, no reliable targets have emerged as of yet. However, if Liverpool’s preseason is anything to go by, the Reds’ boss might not have to even search further than Kirkby.
That is because a 17-year-old academy center back, Billy Koumetio, has been the talk of preseason after wowing coaching staff in the Austria training camp. Only just entering his first full campaign as a Red after arriving from the Orléans academy in the 2019 winter window, the French defender has leapt ahead of fellow academy teammates, Sepp van den Berg, Nat Phillips and Ki-Jana However in the pecking order.
At a lanky 6’3, the towering teenager has made an impression on Klopp, with the German manager notably taking time out Thursday for a one-on-one training session with Koumetio and recently singling him out for praise:
“Billy the kid! He doesn’t look like a kid,” said Klopp. “In my opinion, his face looks like a kid but then all the rest is like ‘Wow!’
“I told him, ‘Last time I saw you, you were like 20cm less, if I’m right’. That’s pretty special. Yes, he’s a big talent.”
Importantly, the youngster has endeared himself to people throughout the club for his personable demeanor. The Athletic’s James Pearce quotes an senior Liverpool source lauding Koumetio’s character: “Everyone has taken to Billy. He has really showcased his ability but it’s also his personality which gives him a real chance.” Star defender, Virgil Van Dijk is also said to have taken a shining to the young talent.
His performance on the pitch in preseason have not been too shabby either, having played ahead of his academy teammates in friendlies against Stuttgart and RB Salzburg. The left-footed defender showed off some Van Dijk-ian qualities with his composure on the ball under pressure, aerial strength, and a willingness to play long raking passes over the top.
You’re doing something right when you earn yourself an MBB video.
There could be plenty opportunities for a fourth-choice center half to get game time this season. Although, the Reds won’t have to contend with the Super Cup and Club World Cup tournaments as they did last campaign, decent runs in the domestic and European cups could still see them play upwards of 53-55 games in what will be a grueling and condensed season.
Van Dijk, having racked the seventh-most outfield minutes in Europe and the fourth-most in the Premier League in 2019-20, is (knock wood) the ever-present at the back. However, a role as the Dutchman’s partner is where there could be variability.
Despite starting the opening months on the bench, Joe Gomez was available for every game last season and clocked up 3,319 minutes in all competitions; meanwhile Joël Matip had an injury-ravaged campaign, accruing several lengthy spells on the physio’s table on the way to 1,075 minutes on the season. In truth, the two have worrying injury records, having missed a combined 64 matches over the past three seasons, absences that have often times disrupted the team’s rhythm after a solid run of results.
Without the Champions League winner obligations this time out and taking injury track records into account, a fourth center back could expect to see a solid 750-800 minutes of game time this campaign, close to the 1,190 minutes Lovren played last year.
Those minutes will have to go somewhere, although they might not all go immediately to Koumetio, namely because with a mere 12 Liverpool academy appearances to his name, the youngster is expected to start the seasons with the U23 side. However, with the need to find 800 center back minutes somewhere and no names linked to Anfield to this point, Klopp could rely on a player born in 2002 (this writer feels inadequate even just writing that) to pick up the slack.