By Ernie Fox
You can’t win league titles with kids, it’s a fairly simple and well proven fact. It is more than possible to put in a decent title challenge, but more often than not experience and wisdom will overcome youth and naivety at the business end of the season. It’s a concept that is quite often as much relevant in life as it is in the beautiful game.
So, if it is such a well known and proven fact, how come so many teams attempt to find a loophole? Why are Liverpool once again investing so heavily in players under the age of 22, rather than bringing in more experienced and established players?
Empire of the Kop produced an excellent piece recently highlighting just how good our squad is when considering those players under the age of 23. We could comfortably field a very strong starting 11 that would challenge all teams in the Premier League. The trouble is playing that side week in week out will not bring the title back to Anfield no matter how good those players are.
One young player in particular deserves a little attention. We all know that Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were both badly missed last season, but I would suggest Jon Flanagan’s absence for the entire season had a similar impact, albeit at the other end of the field. The season before last Flanagan was an absolute revelation, he provided a strong defensive presence to the back four and even adapted to play in his less favoured position of left back demonstrating just how well he was playing to be moved out of position at such a young age.
For me, the real impact of Flanagan was his ability on the ball. He may not have done anything overly spectacular, but I very rarely saw him just hoof the ball away, he maintained possession and looked to use the ball to build on a fast flowing attack. Flanagan’s abilities in setting up an attack from the back were so evident in fact that last season, in his absence, Rodgers reverted to a back three with midfielder Emre Can taking on the responsibility. Sure, Flanagan’s no Suarez, but make no mistake that in Rodgers’ philosophy we need players in all positions who are able to use the ball smartly or the system falls apart.
The point is that Liverpool can benefit massively from bringing young players into the squad, allowing them to develop with a style of football that is being played throughout the age groups of the club. The philosophy becomes ingrained into their very essence and becomes second nature when they make that step up to the first team and take to the Anfield turf for the first time.
It’s a beautiful dream, and one that has seen me supporting Brendan Rodgers throughout his first three years of management. Under this logic there is perhaps the only true loophole to the statement that you can’t win league titles with kids, and that is under the principle that they will one day grow up to become experienced and talented adults. If Liverpool can retain the services of Ibe, Coutinho, Moreno, Can, Ings, Origi and Flanagan to name just a handful, then one day you could see this group of talented youngsters become world beaters and eventually lift the title.
It’s a wonderful dream, but when has such long term planning ever succeeded? Modern football is all about quick fixes and short term goals, if Rodgers fails to challenge for a top 4 place this season and leaves the trophy cabinet empty for another year it is likely that FSG will step in and replace him with a completely different manager with an entirely different philosophy. In short, the hard work that will have been done to put together this group of young stars will have been for nothing.
That being said, this isn’t a pro-Rodgers campaign, last season felt like a massive step backwards, not just in results but performance. If Rodgers’ campaign struggles to get started then maybe it would be the right time to make changes. Installing a winning philosophy into the squad may require time and patience, but the wrong one may take an equally lengthy time to reverse.
It brings us all the way back to our initial assertion, you can’t win league titles with kids. Liverpool have to strike up a balance, we have a squad of fantastic youngsters already, why are we not investing more heavily in a couple of world class, experienced players to lead this team towards a title challenge? Maybe the answer is in the original statement.
You can challenge for the league title with kids, you’re just highly unlikely to come out on top. Who says that FSG’s ambition is to win the title? The season before last we never expected to win the league, and yet we came so close utilising the services of our kids – with Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard adding a bit of class. If we were to produce similar performances season after season, Liverpool FC would cement ourselves amongst the world’s most wealthiest clubs; FSG are hardly going to turn their noses up at such a prospect.
And we return to July 1st when the transfer window opens. If I’m wrong we will see 20-30 million being splashed out on a proven goal scorer, not necessarily just a marquee signing or central striker, but a player who will add skill and venom to our attack. But I suspect what we are more than likely to see is either additional young players brought in at low places in the hope they will increase in value during their development at the club or a cut price superstar who may not add to the team in terms of style but will increase commercial viability to the world market – another Balotelli if you like.
Come the end of the summer transfer window we will have a much better idea as to the direction FSG want the club to go in, perhaps I will be retracting my words by then?! But until then I will be taking all those media stories linking us to high profile forwards with a huge pinch of salt. Maybe it’s not that FSG are ignoring the above mentioned principle, maybe it just doesn’t apply when their aim isn’t to win the title in the first place.
Written by Ernie Fox