By Anurag Bhide (https://medium.com/sporting-opinion)
I watched Liverpool’s FA cup 4th round replay at West Ham featuring the heartbreaking 121st minute winner for the hosts, and was surprised when one particular news piece somewhere mentioned in passing that Liverpool played as many as 8 young or inexperienced players in the tie. Curiously it had not occurred to me at all during the game that so many youngsters were playing, but upon reflection did find it to be very much true. Smith, Ilori and Flanagan started in the backline (with Lucas also filling in there for that game, it was a very unusual backline it must be said), Stewart, Chirivella and Teixeira manned the midfield while Ibe started out wide and was joined by Divock Origi in the 59th minute.
Which adds up to a whole lot of inexperience on the pitch, but somehow did not seem like it during the game. Indeed, it did not seem to far from a regular first XI to me, so let’s look at why that was.
Smith has been hugely impressive whenever given a chance this season. Flanagan, at 23, is not exactly a ‘youngster’ anymore, and was immense in our gloriously tragic title tilt two years ago. Ilori was only brought back from his unproductive loan at Aston Villa and put in because of the absurd number of injuries that have afflicted our assortment of centrebacks. Heck, even the emergency loan replacement, Steven Caulker, was out.
Ibe has been a first team regular for so long that it’s easy to forget he only just turned 20 2 months ago. Origi, also 20, also doesn’t feel like a young player since our striker crisis (himself included) has made every fit striker seem like a key player.
So it’s only really central midfield where we had rested our first choice players without it being necessitated by injury. Joao Teixeira seems to be a bit of a late bloomer; at 23, that he hadn’t established himself on the periphery of the first team could have meant him running out of chances at Anfield, but he’s doing that this season. Which brings me to what were for me the most impressive performances of the game, from the two players in the engine room of our side. Not only did Kevin Stewart and Pedro Chirivella last 120 minutes, they did it without looking a single bit out of place or out of their depth, against a side that is sixth in the PL, and 4 points above ourselves. Add to that the fact that even the attacking midfield support in the shape of Teixeira and Coutinho was withdrawn just under the hour mark, and the duo were left to fend off the opposition themselves for over an hour to support an extremely lopsided attack comprising 3 strikers plus Ibe, and that they did so with aplomb makes their performance all the more impressive.
All of this made me wonder why such a side with 8 youngsters didn’t feel like an inexperienced side, and the answer probably has something to do with the number of outings these players have had in recent months thanks to the spate of injuries across the board as well as the number of matches we have had to play through our progress in the cups especially via replays. This finally led me to look at our entire squad, and the number of young players is staggering. Here I’m breaking down the squad position-by-position into the following age groups — Young/Potential first team players (players 23 and under), Approaching their prime (24 to 26), In their prime & over the hill (27 and above). These definitions have been applied a bit loosely, in that Coutinho & Moreno have been classed as approaching their prime on account of being first-choice, while Flanagan, Ings, Teixeira are bunched with the youngsters, although all of them are 23. I am not including other young players here who haven’t featured much yet, or are out on loan, but only those that have already broken through this season.
|Young/Potential first team players||Approaching their prime||In their prime & over the hill|
|Fullback||Jon Flanagan (23)
Brad Smith (21)
|Alberto Moreno (23)
Nathaniel Clyne (24)
|Jose Enrique (30)|
|Centreback||Tiago Ilori (22)
Joe Gomez (18)
Andre Wisdom (22)
|Mamadou Sakho (25)
Dejan Lovren (26)
Joel Matip (24)
|Martin Skrtel (31)
Kolo Toure (34)
|Central Midfield||Emre Can (22)
Marko Grujic (19)
Kevin Stewart (22)
Cameron Brannagan (19)
Jordan Rossiter (18)
Pedro Chirivella (18)
|Jordan Henderson (25)
Joe Allen (25)
|James Milner (30)
Lucas Leiva (29)
|Attacking Mid/Winger||Jordon Ibe (20)
Lazar Markovic (21)
Joao Teixeira (23)
Luis Alberto (23)
Sheji Ojo (18)
|Philippe Coutinho (23)
Roberto Firmino (24)
|Adam Lallana (27)|
|Forward||Divock Origi (20)
Danny Ings (23)
Samed Yesil (21)
Jerome Sinclair (19)
|Daniel Sturridge (26)
Christian Benteke (25)
Mario Balotelli (25)
The first thing that strikes you looking at the table is that there are just 6 players that can be said to be in their prime or over, out of which one (Enrique) is persona-non-grata at Anfield and another (Toure) is 34 and out of contract in the summer. That means save for 4 players, every single one has the potential to improve.
Starting with the fullbacks, we have 4 between the ages of 21 & 24, and at their best, they have proved to be good enough to get into the Champions League spots. Inconsistency is the issue to be sorted here, something that ideally should be resolved on the training ground and this looks a position that does not need transfer money to be thrown at.
Between Sakho, Lovren and Matip, there is the definite potential for a formidable regular defensive partnership, with a backup that’s not too big a drop in class. Skrtel should slip into the Kolo Toure role of senior centreback dusted off for cup ties while hopefully injury does not rob Joe Gomez of the immense potential he has shown early in the season. Ilori and Wisdom, sadly, do not seem to be developing into Liverpool standard players, but hopefully either can be convinced to stick around as a sticking plaster in case of emergencies.
There is a goldmine of talent in central midfield. Marko Grujic is supposed to help us forget about Dele Alli next season, while the sooner Can (or Klopp) decides if he’s a destroyer or a shuttler, the better it will be for everyone. I’m hoping Stewart can become a Francis Coquelin story for us, while there is huge potential in Brannagan, Chirivella & Rossiter.
In attack, we need Coutinho, Firmino & Lallana on the pitch together frequently. Ibe’s highs are very high and lows are very low, while Markovic’s numbers this season at Fenerbahce aren’t too shabby either. There are a number of other options like Teixeira (not that one) and Alberto there as well, but we need to assess in the summer if they can make the step up to first team standard, or need to be jettisoned.
Up front, the situation is much the same. Ings & Origi haven’t been fit long enough to be properly assessed, while opinion remains divided on Benteke. For me, he deserves more chances even if he’s not performing currently as I still believe if he clicks, the potential there is immense. Sturridge is an expensive luxury and should be treated as such. He cannot be relied upon. Sadly, it looks like Sinclair won’t be extending his contract.
In summary, NO MORE SPENDING ON YOUNG POTENTIAL PLEASE! Our roster of young players is certainly good enough for the near future; it’s the first team that’s in need of upgradation. Midfield especially is chock full of talent, as is the attack. If anything, one young centreback wouldn’t go amiss, and if they decide Teixeira & Alberto aren’t good enough for us, then in attacking midfield as well. But that apart, the time has arrived for FSG to move away from their strategy of investing in talent that has the potential to pay off in the future and start thinking about the here and now.
What we really need to invest in is upgrading the first team regulars. A centrehalf in Matip is already lined up, but upgrades on Milner, Lucas & Allen, that will slot right into the starting XI are an absolute must. Benteke is perhaps a miss, Sturridge isn’t there most of the time and Balotelli is Balotelli, so plenty of surgery needed upfront as well. And I’m not even going to talk about Simon Mignolet. It’s only the attacking midfield that presently looks good enough to compete at the level we want to, thanks to our two Brazilian tricksters.
The raw materials for the future are already there in the squad, all they need is to develop alongside each other and reach their full potential. As much as I hate saying it, there is something to be learnt from Spurs here. Many of them were written off as expensive flops, but thanks to some patience and good work on the training ground, they are in the title race, and it is on the back of their young brigade. For instance, last season, they had an impressive young pairing in midfield in Mason & Bentaleb and this season they’ve done even better with a new young pair in Alli & Dier. That’s the kind of youth development we should be focusing on, working with what we have rather than constant chopping and changing.