Neco Williams has had to be patient during Euro 2020, prior to his first start of the tournament against Italy on Sunday.
In Wales’ opening game, a 1-1 draw with Switzerland, the Liverpool starlet was brought on in the 90th minute. In their second match, a 2-0 win over Turkey, he did not feature at all.
Against the Azzurri, things changed. Williams was handed a place in the starting XI with his inclusion a result of Wales returning to the 3-5-2 system that had brought them joy in the past.
In his side’s opening two games Rob Page had set up his charges in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Thanks to his more conservative tendencies and experience, Tottenham’s Ben Davies was selected at left-back over the more expansive Williams. However, switching to wing-backs meant the youngster was preferred in Rome – where he was handed a major tournament baptism of fire.
Not only was his opposite number Federico Chiesa, a rare bright spot in Juventus’ disappointing 2020/2021 campaign, he also had to deal with one of the best midfields in the competition.
At the base of Italy’s three was Jorginho – the human metronome who controls the tempo of near enough every game he is a part of. Just ahead of him was Matteo Pessina. While he may not be a household name, his movement off the ball is astounding and he was an important player for Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta last season.
Most intimidating of all was the returning Marco Verratti. The Paris Saint-Germain star is mercurial at the best of times, but with his place in the side under threat he was playing with a point to prove to Roberto Mancini.
As first starts in a major tournaments go, it does not get much harder than this. The early signs suggested that Williams might rise to the occasion, though.
From the outset he pushed high to ask questions of Italy’s makeshift right-back, Rafael Toloi. After this early flourish he did not encounter too many opportunities to break forward, but he remained positive in possession.
The highlight of his offensive display came midway through the first half. Showing impressive composure and skill, he neatly flicked the ball around the corner for Daniel James to chase down the left-hand side. In the end the attack petered out, but it was one of the few occasions in which Wales penetrated the Italian backline.
Unfortunately for Williams, although his performance had some bright spots, for the most part his shift against Italy were a real struggle. Chiesa had the beating of him on numerous occasions with Joe Morrell the only Welsh player that was dribbled past more frequently.
It was not just one on one that Williams was bested either. Positionally, he was also caused real problems. Both Verratti and Chiesa found plenty of room to manoeuvre in the half-space between him and Chris Gunter, while the latter also wriggled free at the back post frequently.
Things got particularly taxing in the second half when Ethan Ampadu was harshly dismissed for a late challenge on Federico Bernardeschi. This further limited Williams’ chances to break forward, where he is at his best.
Overall then, this was not the major tournament debut that he would have dreamed of, but that does not mean it was not a hugely valuable experience for the 20-year-old. Williams will have likely learned more from his 86 minutes tangling with Chiesa that he has learned all season knocking about in Liverpool’s reserves.
It was far from a complete horrorshow as well. Who knows, he may even get a chance to put things right in the round of 16.