Reds in Reserve: The mid-season report

Posted by AdamS on December 20, 2005, 03:30:55 PM

Away from the media glare and without an ounce of the romance of Istanbul, Liverpool's second string are quietly beginning to reflect the improvements seen in the first team. Rafa Benitez, unhappy with the performances of the reserve team, chose to appoint friend of twenty years Paco Herrera to co-manage the team alongside Hugh McAuley at the beginning of this season and the progression has been clear to see.

Over recent years many Liverpool fans have cast a jealous eye toward the Arsenal youth set up where players who had been scouted right across Europe were actually coming into the first team and making an impact. Since the emergence of Steven Gerrard Liverpool fans have waited and waited for another youth player to burst onto the scene. John Welsh was touted by many as "The next Steven Gerrard" but would never live up to that bill, the Liverpool reserve team looked flat throughout the 2004/2005 season - they lacked direction and belief.

One of Paco's first moves was to sign highly rated young defender Jack Hobbs from right under the nose of Arsenal. The club moved in efficiently as soon as they heard Hobbs may be available and seemed to make an excellent impression on Lincoln Chief Executive Keith Rowe with our professionalism. "Liverpool made their interest known 10 days ago and have conducted themselves superbly," he said at the time.

Liverpools extended scouting network also saw more players from outside the country recruited. In came Roque of Spanish second division side Leida, Barragan from Seville and Antwi from Real Zaragoza making up a trio of signings from Benitez old stomping ground. In all they cost not a penny in transfer fees. Joining them were Idrazij (Linzer ASK) and Calliste (released by Manchester Utd).

Paco was concentrating on bringing in players of the age 16 to 18. His idea was not to duplicate the Academy, but to compliment it. He also realises that these players are still developing and said "My role with the reserves is not so much as a manager or coach, I'd liken it more to that of a teacher. It's a case of polishing rough diamonds, if you like."

Some observers believe the standard of the reserves league is now of a high enough standard to develop potential first team players, but Paco has used this as a positive. Comparing the Spanish set up he commented "There is less pressure at reserve level in England, as opposed to Spain for example. There, the reserve teams of say Barcelona and Real Madrid ply their trade in the lower leagues and are either fighting for promotion or against relegation. Therefore there is a greater emphasis on results."

Whilst there has been a drastic improvement in results from last season, Paco has maintained "Our number one objective is to get players into the first team but that does not mean results don't matter. We still need to win games because good results breed confidence. Also, if we're winning games it proves our ideas are working." And those ideas certainly seem to be bedding in now.

Two weeks ago saw the reserves best performance this season and arguably in years, as they professionally and quite comprehensively out maneuvered a red hot Manchester Utd team to win 2-0. Two things were evident from the game. Firstly how similar it was to watching the first team's controlled performances. This is gradually starting to become noticeable - the game was won tactically. Secondly was the sheer joy the team took in the victory. It's always nice to beat Man Utd, but the celebrations after Idrazij's goal near fulltime showed that these lads definitely have a will to win and do have a sense of direction.

As Paco says though, not everything is focused on results. Jack Hobbs is a prime example of this. Although he is by trade a centre half, he has been deployed in the position of holding midfielder so far this season. "In a year he will be a fantastic centre-half and we are preparing him for the future by playing him in a role which will test his speed, ball control and coordination much more at this stage of his development." Paco explains.

Paco has also gone into detail about how the development areas of each player are highlighted, how each player need to learn skills to play in their position. At the end of every day's training each player then spends some time working on their own individual improvement plans.

Ultimately it's all well and good having a successful reserve side, but as Paco said it's about developing players that are good enough for the first team. The obvious question on everybody's lips is...

"Who will be good enough?"

I'll do my best to try and answer, but it's so difficult to tell.

The leading contenders

David Raven

I think he could comfortably do a job in the first team now. He is no Finnan, but he is reliable and I think he's actually be a better option than Josemi. "Ravo" wanted to go on loan but the club have refused. Perhaps with Josemi currently in the shop window and January rapidly approaching, the Spaniard's mooted return to his homeland will see more opportunities for the youngster.

David Mannix

"Manno" is another who was touted as a great prospect. He struggled with injuries up until last season and doesn't seem the same prospect now. He's a dead ball specialist and can hit a pass, but for any central midfielder to break through they are going to have to be exceptional.

Daniel O'Donnell

He's a steady enough player. Occasionally his positioning isn't what it could be and he doesn't seem to be the strongest. Having said that, it's rare that you can ever accuse him of having a bad game.

Miguel Roque

I'm hugely impressed with him. He's still only 17 but is very assured defensively. His reading of the game is excellent and although he is only slight if he decides he's going for a ball he invariably wins it. His distribution is a bit wayward at times, but he recently played right back for the Under 18's and was by all accounts very impressive going forward.

Godwin Antwi

What a legend! This lad is a right character. He loves all things LFC and has a big heart. Since moving to centre back he has been tremendous. He's fast and very powerful and also a very good tackler. Before playing centre half he'd been fielded at right back and centre forward and had looked poor in both positions. I wonder if that lack of ability might get shown up at a higher level. He's still only 17 though so has time to develop.

Jack Hobbs

As mentioned earlier Hobbs has been playing in a defensive midfield role with the aim of expanding his game. You can see some of the benefits as he now looks more comfortable receiving the ball and he reads the play better. Hard to judge the lad from where he's been playing though. Apparently he's the fittest player at the club.

Danny Guthrie

A player I love to watch. He's missed games through injury recently and we've missed his creativity a lot. He's extremely two footed and finds space brilliantly always seeming to be available. He's possibly a bit lightweight, but that doesn't always hold people back. He's not typically quick, but always seems to find a yard on the opposition players.

Adam Hammill

Dave Usher has referred to him as "mercurial" and I think there's no better word to describe him. Referred to by some as Adam "Step Over" Hammill he really is a tricky little player. For me there just isn't enough end product yet. He can beat three men and then loses the ball. He's highly rated by the other lads. He definitely has potential.

Paul Anderson

Only recently recruited from Hull so I have had few chances to see him play, but in that short time he's made a good impression. He's quick, tricky and can shoot. He's also more than a bit fiesty. Although he's only slight, he carries himself like a much sturdier player and he loves a tackle.

Besian Idrazij

Our Austrian recruit struggled early on. I think the pace of the game was just passing him by. He seems to have started to settle now though scoring goals recently for both reserves and under 18's. Definitely too early to judge this one.

Ramon Calliste

The Welshman has had some very good games this season and when on form he's impressive. His decision making lets him down sometimes and I suspect that he was brought in more due to the fact that we have a shortage of strikers at this level rather than for long term. I could be wrong though, Wales Under 21 manager Brian Flynn says that he has improved a lot since he has joined us, praising him as man of the match in both recent internationals.

Antonio Barragan

Classy looking player is Tony. He has predominantly played as a right midfielder so far, although he can also play right back. He's got a lot of grace on the ball and can beat a man. When he's played right back his positioning has been called into question a bit, but this is yet to cost us.

When will they be ready?

The next obvious question is when will they be good enough? It's one that I'd struggle to answer again. Gerrard looked excellent at 17, Carra on the other hand didn't establish himself until much later - it's different with different players. The problem that seems to face many of the lads coming through is that the step between reserves and the first team seems to be a difficult one to make.

A recent player that has gone someway to establishing himself in the first team is Warnock. He isn't yet a first choice player but is having his fair share of games. It's been a gradual progression for Warnock after breaking a leg three times when younger when a youth/reserve team player, and it took a season-long spell on loan at Coventry for him to kick on.

Le Tallec has been out on loan but when he returned he was frustrated by his lack of time on the pitch. Sinama has stayed at Anfield and barring injuries always seems to be on the fringes of the matchday squad.

So we do we send players out on loan or do we gradually introduce players to the first team? It's an intriguing problem and it will be interesting to see how Paco and Rafa tackle the situation over the next couple of years. 

I suppose what people really want to know is if we have any players that will make the first team, and if so, how many and when?

It's obviously impossible to know, but if I had to have a bet, I'd say yes some of those in the current reserve team will make it.

But how many? I think we could have 4 or possibly 5 squad players and I think that's quite a lot considering that they are trying to break into the team which has just won The European Cup.

When will they be ready? I don't think we have any that will emerge this season (with the possible exception of Raven), but given a couple of years hopefully the likes of Barragan, Roque and Hobbs will be knocking on the first team door.

© AdamS 2005

Can I ask that nobody brings this article back to haunt me in a couple of years please? ;D

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