Young talent can plug gaps

Posted by guest on September 16, 2012, 01:20:27 PM

Liverpool fans have a lot to thank Rafael Benítez for. Whether it was restoring the club’s place at Europe’s top table, uncovering the full extent of Tom Hicks and George Gillett’s mismanagement or finishing home games with Albert Riera and Nabil El Zhar at full-back, he gave the Anfield crowd a lot to be grateful for.

He wasn’t perfect, of course. He was erratic, cautious, overzealous. His obsession with finances leaves a legacy of the Anfield twitterati scrawling “net spend” in lipstick on the walls of their parents’ basement. He signed Robbie Keane.

But his most telling contribution is only just starting to emerge. It can be found galloping down the left hand side or driving through the centre of midfield; it will be seen at left back or up front, in the Capital One Cup and Europa League. Raheem Sterling (pictured), Jonjo Shelvey, Jack Robinson, Adam Morgan. The kids are alright. In fact, some of them are very good.

It was the Spaniard who insisted the club reassessed how they used their youth set-up. An embarrassing 6-3 League Cup defeat to Arsenal in January 2007 was the catalyst for Benítez to overhaul the system. Gone was the splintered, disjointed relationship between the different age groups; instead, a common style of play was implemented throughout, with only certain types of players scouted. The summer of 2009 saw the trio of Frank McParland (director), Rodolfo Borrell (Under-21 head coach) and Pep Segura (technical director, now departed) hired to aid that development.

There has been a lot of negativity surrounding Liverpool since the transfer window closed 10 days ago. Most supporters are in a malaise over the decision to loan Andy Carroll out and the subsequent inability to find an adequate replacement. Hysteria has taken control, with Carroll transformed from a one-in-five striker into a world-class talent and Clint Dempsey, a talented goalscoring attacker, metamorphosing into a future Ballon d’Or winner.

Misplaced hysteria or not, the disappointment of the final 24 hours of the transfer window told against Arsenal. That is not to correlate Steven Gerrard’s inability to keep possession with the club’s inability to haggle, but the performance was flat both on and off the pitch. The fans only perked up when 17-year-old Sterling was on the ball. Drifting out wide on the left, every touch was met with a murmur of anticipation from the Kop. A successful cross was followed by a cheer of approvall; every awry trick or flick met with appreciative applause.

Sterling is as quick as he is clever, as technically-gifted as he is hard-working. It’s a rare commodity to see a young English player (albeit one who moved from Jamaica when he was five) who possesses technique and intelligence to supplement raw ability. The 17-year-old, plucked from QPR’s youth system in 2010, is a by-product of the advice Benitez passed on to Borrell: the English players must be developed. Much like how Barcelona’s success at that level is founded upon the Catalan contingent, so too must Liverpool’s be based on home-grown players.

A look at their squad confirms that mentality. Though Jordan Henderson was plucked from Sunderland for a hefty fee, he is still only 22 – a fact easily forgotten given he made more appearances than any other Liverpool player last season, as well as being a full England international who moonlights as Under-21 captain. His midfield partner Jonjo Shelvey, 20, has made 42 appearances for Liverpool already, but while he has the athleticism and ability to succeed, he must improve his intelligence and try not to cripple the opposition with his reckless tackles. Only injuries have stopped the 22-year-old Martin Kelly from playing more than 52 games for his club.

Others who have not featured as regularly also give cause for optimism. Jack Robinson is a cultured left back; Jon Flanagan, in contrast, is a no-nonsense right back. Adam Morgan scored 18 goals in 16 games at youth level, while 15-year-old Jerome Sinclair impressed in a friendly against a European heavyweight so much the opposition tried to buy him at the full-time whistle. There are non-English players too: Samed Yesil is an exciting acquisition from Leverkusen, and Spanish magician Suso is the standout. With the world at his feet, only his attitude can trip him up.

But for all the ornate adjectives and flamboyant descriptions, there is no guarantee of success. Liverpool thought they had a youth set-up ready to conquer the world after winning back-to-back FA Youth Cups in 2006 and 2007, but those teams now look similar to Garth Crooks’ League Two Team of the Week. The changes over the past five years, however, bring hope. No longer do the youngsters look to win trophies as youth level; it is development and progression that is the true prize.

A lot of that is down to an ex-manager, but the current one is on the same wavelength it seems. “The vision is simple – to win the most trophies we can,” said Brendan Rodgers. “That’s the bigger picture. The second is to play attractive, attacking football, and the third is to bring through as many of the young players as we possibly can.” There’s no guarantee or trophies or attractive, attacking football, but he does have some good young players to bring through. Maybe Clint Dempsey won’t be needed after all.


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