It was never going to take much for questions to be asked of Liverpool’s attacking capabilities while they wait for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to return from Africa Cup of Nations duty.
However, when Takumi Minamino squandered a golden late opportunity to give the Reds victory in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final against Arsenal, the concerns over the absent duo became more acute.
Jurgen Klopp spoke after the game about his team’s frustrations against their 10-man opponents, with the London side deploying a low block which kept Liverpool’s chances to a minimum despite the game being 11 v 10 for more than an hour.
Brentford are up next for the Reds, and their boss may wish to mix things up against a team who held them to a 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture back in September.
Klopp’s options will be limited, though, with Salah and Mane unavailable and Divock Origi a doubt after missing the last month through injury, and the extreme circumstances may call for desperate measures.
“I would prefer to score the goal instead of them getting a red card, and from that moment it looked like we felt somehow under pressure,” Klopp said after the game.
Granit Xhaka was dismissed less than half an hour in, with Arsenal responding by going to five at the back and defending deep against their hosts.
Minamino had scored against the London side earlier this season, coming off the bench to round off the scoring in a 4-0 league win, but that game was far more open than the cagey first-leg contest.
Klopp may opt to give the Japanese international another chance at the weekend, recognising how his movement offers something different to fellow forwards Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota.
However, there’s another option for the manager, and we saw a glimpse of his alternative in the moments before and after Minamino’s late miss.
Liverpool made three changes in the final 20 minutes of Thursday’s game, and one of those saw Neco Williams replace starting right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The Welsh youngster may have ostensibly slotted in as part of the Reds’ back-line, but as Arsenal dropped deeper and deeper he almost became an auxiliary winger, playing a part in the move which brought about Minamino’s chance at the death.
Williams also delivered a late low cross which caused panic in the Arsenal box, only for the visitors to get bodies in the way and get the ball clear from danger.
It was not the first time this season where the 20-year-old has impressed further forward, with his performance in the latter stages of the Carabao Cup win over Preston North End in October earning him a start in the same position for the quarter-final against Leicester City.
He has also been given a more attacking remit at times for the Welsh national side, and Sunday’s opponents could be perfect if Williams is given an opportunity to do the same at club level.
“Neco’s a young player, and he plays at Liverpool, which is a pretty good football team. It’s not that easy to get in the first team on his maybe natural position,” Klopp said in November.
“I’m not sure if right-back really is [his] natural position, but then [if it is] there’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.”
Williams and Alexander-Arnold have shared a pitch for Liverpool just once, playing 45 minutes together against Brighton & Hove Albion in the 2019-20 season when the Welshman played the first half at left-back.
That opportunity could arise against Brentford, who have been without first-choice left-back Rico Henry and saw deputy Sergi Canos forced off through injury in Tuesday’s defeat against Southampton.
They could welcome Henry back after a month on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, and Liverpool already know the threat posed by the Bees going forward, so a lopsided front three – with Williams on one flank and Diogo Jota on the other – could be one of the solutions contemplated by the manager.
Klopp knows he won’t have the luxury of making the most of the natural chemistry of Salah and Mane until February at the earliest, and the German will surely have a few ideas in his pocket.
Williams might not be the obvious choice, but a good performance against Brentford could leave the manager with one less tricky decision to make ahead of their second leg against Arsenal in the week.
He won’t get too many opportunities to start in the league, but this could be an opportunity for Williams to show he deserves more.