[Check out http://footballfollowing.wordpress.com for more football-related articles, with Liverpool FC & BPL the emphasis, including some Singapore football reports!]
The cosmopolitan revolution of Liverpool really started when Gerard Houllier took full control of the club back in the late ‘90s, when foreign players and managers started becoming the new in-thing in English football. This point was really nailed upon in the summer of 2003, when almost all of Houllier’s pre-season signings was of his own nationality, French.
Young forwards Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle signed on the back of successful international youth tournaments during the year prior, while midfielder Bruno Cheyrou was touted as the next Zinedane Zidane and Alou Diarra the next Patrick Vieira (as it was, neither of the quartet turned out anywhere near close as first thought). Further, Nicholas Anelka signed on-loan in 2001; while Houllier’s last act as Liverpool manager was signing Djibril Cisse for the 2004/05 season, though he never got the chance to manage the French striker.
Houllier’s successor in Rafael Benitez began his own revolution, this time Spanish of course, the country of his birth. Out were English favourites Michael Owen and Danny Murphy, in were yet another quartet: forward Luis Garcia, midfielder Xabi Alonso, full-back Josemi and right midfielder Antonio Nunez (part of the swap deal for Owen). Benitez continued his search for Spaniards right into the next window, with Real Madrid’s Fernando Morientes added for £6million.
The fad gradually died down though, as 2005 and 2006 only saw two Spaniards added a year, young full-back Antonio Barragan & goalkeeper Jose Reina, and full-back Alvaro Arbeloa & youngster Francisco Duran, respectively. Striker Fernando Torres was added from Atletico Madrid in 2007, before left-winger Albert Riera from Espanyol a year later.
This foreignization gave way for re-localization once Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish got back to the helm. A quartet of Englishmen came through the doors at Anfield during his reign. Current squad members Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson (and Danny Ward – 3rd choice keeper) were signed 6 months into Dalglish’s regime, while recent departures Andy Carroll and Jonjo Shelvey were also added as well.
It is only really now, in current boss Brendan Rodgers’ second year, that the red side of Merseyside feel the full force of the localization program purposely or accidentally started back in 2011. A way to try to have more squad members identify with the culture of the football club and English football as a whole.
English forward Daniel Sturridge is still Rodgers’ only local signing so far, back in January 2013. To his credit, Rodgers has improved Downing and Henderson, once seen as flops under Dalglish; while casting aside those he thought was underperforming or not right for his style of football, namely Shelvey and Carroll respectively. Now what is left, though, is a potential core of English players that looks as promising as it is exciting to build around for the near future of the club.
One great consolation with long-serving defender Jamie Carragher leaving the club is the fact that academy graduates Martin Kelly and Andre Wisdom can finally get the chance to shine, in their favoured central positions. As both were constantly deployed in either full-back positions in the last couple of years to provide cover in the first-team, neither has ever really got a look-in in central defence. Even when the FA Cup tie against League 1 side Oldham Athletic came around, Sebastian Coates was preferred as Martin Skrtel’s centre-back partner, and we all know how that turned out.
Kelly and Wisdom, to be straight, were brought up as centre-backs, with the ability to operate the defence’s flanks, but the mere fact is they should be given the chance as central defenders. If Rodgers has any sort of faith Kelly or/and Wisdom would have a future at Liverpool, primarily as central defenders of course, he would not need to add any more centre-backs to the free transfer of Kolo Toure.
Glen Johnson completes the English presence in defence for this season. Moving upfield into midfield, the duo of captain fantastic Steven Gerrard and his potential long-term replacement in Jordan Henderson provide the English-ness here. Gerrard will hope to have another 3 or 4 years left in the tank to command this Liverpool side, as well as to guide the youth along, more importantly.
Henderson needs to have a season or two alongside Gerrard to fully get the ropes of how it all should be done. Much like how Gerrard had an old-head in Gary McAllister to play alongside and learn for a short two years back in the early naughties, the only way Henderson can improve is to learn from Gerrard, as well as get regular game time. Academy graduate Conor Coady would too hope to gain from Gerrard’s new-found expertise of playing a deep-lying role, of which Coady is currently deployed in for the reserves.
The real excitement of the English presence for Liverpool is really on the youthfulness in the wings (quite literally, too) right now. Raheem Sterling and Jordan Ibe, though both bought hence not technically academy graduates, have shown bright sparks in their short showings for the first-team so far. Pace, raw dribbling ability and youthful exuberances have seen them terrorize a fair amount of full-backs in their burgeoning careers so far. Should their careers develop in a way the Reds hope will, one can only imagine how deadly this double-flank pace-fest could be.
The ever-improving solid performances of Downing may give him hope he has a decent career to make at the club, but he will definitely need to work more on his technical abilities and confidence, or he will not be part of Rodgers’ localization program.
Rodgers’ January marquee signing, Sturridge, would make up an English spearhead, usually in the absence of a certain Luis Suarez. His pace in behind the defence is reminiscence of Torres’ back in 2008/09. However, what he also does so well is peel off the opposition line of defence to collect passes from deep, linking up with his midfielders and working one-twos, an alternative way of getting into the box compared to merely using pace. Further adding a strong drive in his left boot makes him a long-term presence in this increasingly English-dominant team.
Just like the Reds of yesteryears, Liverpool are finally getting back to their roots, without compromising on their current and future successes. Yes, foreign imports are needed to add quality and a different dimension and temperament to the team, but it is the passion and fervor the local English footballer bring that could be what tip the Reds back into gear… and into the big-time that awaits.