By Ernie Fox
With just one game into the new season, new signing Joe Gomez has already turned a number of heads with his impressive debut. It is possibly too early to start heaping too much praise on the youngster after just one performance, but there are so many more reasons to be delighted by the promise the youngster has demonstrated than just what he offers the squad this term.
As a youngster I played through the age groups as a centre back; I was tall, good in the air, fairly good at reading the game, but most importantly loved the sport to the degree that I would have played in any position to get a kick of the ball.
But that is where we find the immense contradiction in youth football. As a kid on the pitch, I didn’t want the ball; on the park with friends I would love to try my luck, a cheeky nutmeg or 30 yard curler into the top corner. My tricks didn’t always come off, in fact sometimes they would go horribly wrong much to my embarrassment, but I enjoyed trying the tricks, as did many of my friends. On the pitch in front of a line of noisy andf critical parents and a coach pressured to win every game, things were very different.
As a defender in organised youth matches, I didn’t want the ball, it meant just one thing – criticism! I was happy enough to win the ball from an opposing player, but as soon as I did I would be bombarded with yells from the touch line of “Clear it!” or “Get it away!”. At times it was like being the villain of a Christmas pantomime, there was no encouragement for me to do anything constructive with the ball, they just wanted it kicked away. Effectively I was taught that in competitive matches I should be scared of the ball.
This wasn’t just me, it was all the defenders I played alongside as well as those of the opposition; and it wasn’t just then but it is as much a part of the English game now as it ever was. The point being that we can’t create this philosophy of panic at youth level then wonder why as adults none of our defenders have the confidence to pass the ball out of defence.
The whole of the English game needs a rethink at grass roots level, and in particular the parents who stand on the sideline. Sure, we would all love to see our kids win football matches as very few of those will ever to get to enjoy the experience as professional adults, but if we could just restrain ourselves on the touch lines then just maybe we could develop some genuinely talented young defenders.
It is a dangerous prospect, asking defenders to actually use the ball more and not just kick it away but from a youth level what does it matter? If they lose games they will learn from their mistakes, but they will also gain confidence from their enjoyment of being in possession of the ball, and with that we will see a new breed of player. If English defenders were more comfortable in possession we would actually be able to compete against the best in the world, it’s not as if they don’t have the technical ability, but most of them are just too afraid to use them for fear of making a mistake which has been bred into them over a number of years.
This is where Joe Gomez comes in. He has already shown off his defensive qualities, but there is so much more to his game than that; he’s not afraid of the ball. He doesn’t just hoof the ball away in any direction, but instead attempts to retain possession for his side and therefore creates the foundation for a new attacking movement. That is the reason he has received so much acclaim, why at 18 years old he wasn’t sent away on loan but retained in the first team squad, and why he got his full first team debut in the opening league game of the season.
Last year Liverpool ended up employing Emre Can in the back line because they lacked defenders who were as competent in possession as they were at winning the ball; to a degree this stance worked but it had serious limitations on those playing in the other positions. Just imagine the potential for both Liverpool and England if Gomez can bring those abilities to his more favoured position of centre back. The role of the holding midfielder will no longer be necessary if you can trust your central defenders to make good decisive passes from the back, suddenly you are freeing up players to push forward and stretch the opposition all across the pitch.
I have written it before, but in my opinion last season Jon Flannagan was almost as big a miss for us as the likes of Suarez and Sturridge. Rodgers’ philosophy can produce some amazing football, but it is also reliant on the entire team playing its part, one misfiring cylinder and the whole thing collapses. We need defenders who are willing to put their foot on the ball and create, not just clear the ball away and await the next wave of attacks.
It is very early days for Joe Gomez, but if Rodgers can make a success out of this season then Gomez – who encompasses exactly what Rodgers wants from his defenders – will surely feature heavily in the back four for many years to come; and not just for Liverpool but England. For me, Gomez is proof of what so many other English defenders could become if they were allowed the confidence to retain possession and use the ball as opposed to being afraid of it.
Written by Ernie Fox