Who will make the grade?

Posted by Mr Dilkington on January 18, 2011, 09:53:59 PM

It's not a very pleasant time to be a Liverpool fan, is it? The last eighteen months have been testing times for everyone connected with the club. From the departure of Rafa Benitez, to Christian Purslow fancying himself as Monchi mark two, the battle for the very future of the club, from the courtroom to an 'Epic Swindle' caused by the now infamous Internet terrorists. The disastrous appointment of Roy Hodgson, the disastrous signings of Paul Konchescky and Christian Poulsen which ironically led to the former Fulham mans dismissal from the job he'd been working all his life to get, however, the appointment of King Kenny brings hope to every red across the globe, it's the start of a new chapter in the history of Liverpool Football Club.
During the darkest of times, there's always something to make you smile, something to convince you it's not all doom and gloom, for me and i'm sure for many others that take a keen interest, it was the Reserve and youth team players making their way through the ranks. Of course there's no substitute for seeing the senior team winning and doing well, but some of these players hold the key to whether or not our future is a lot brighter than it is at present. Where to start is the problem? The arrival of Rodolfo Borrell and Jose Segura gives us as good a starting point as any.
July 2009 was a time for optimism. Liverpool had just accumulated their highest ever points total in the Premier League, however it wasn't enough to win the title as we fell four points short of Manchester United's 90 point total. We weren't to know that in a matter of months our midfield general would be packing his bags and moving to Spain to join the Galacticos of Real Madrid, we weren't to know that half of our transfer budget would get pulled right under Rafa Benitez's nose, we might have guessed though.
After gaining more control of the club, Rafa Benitez appointed former Barcelona youth coach Rodolfo Borrell on a two year contract, this alongside Barcelona's former technical director Jose Segura. It was quite a coup for the club, managing to tempt two of the best youth coaches in World Football across to Liverpool. These men had guided players like Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Mikel Arteta, and Gerard Pique amongst many others. Could they have the same impact here at Liverpool? Jose Segura gives us an insight on what his feelings are.
"I have seen in my short time here in this country working at Liverpool, that there is just as much talent, just as many players with the same hunger, will, and desire to learn as in every other country. All that's missing are the means to enable the players and coaches to develop." (cheers Roy mate)
Rodolfo Borrell echoed his compatriot on arrival, in his first interview for the clubs official website, he gave an insight on which areas he'd be looking at with most intent...
"First of all, I haven't come here thinking about Spanish players or foreign players. I come from a club that shows working hard with local youngsters can prove successful."
In a later interview, he reinforced the point on the need to develop local talent.
"The best players to defend the Liverpool shirt are English players."

After reading these snippets, it was obvious that finding and honing local talent was at the top of their list. After all, Steven Gerrard was the last local player to make a real mark on the first team, although that may be changing with the emergence of young Martin Kelly, more on him later...
Within months of arriving, Borrell had less than kind words about the state the Academy was in before his arrival.
"The reality of what we found here was unacceptable."
"The under-18's had no centre forward, no balance. They had no tactical level, no understanding of the game,"

"We are working hard, but you can't change things overnight.

"I think we have made a lot of progress over eight months, but we need to improve a lot more to get more players into the first team.

"I think if we keep working hard maybe in two years somebody can appear in the first team."

So we can assume Borrell was less than impressed with the set up of the Academy when he arrived, this makes what has been achieved since, even more impressive. Who are the most promising of the Liverpool youngsters? How many can we expect to make the grade within the next few years? These are all realistic questions, but i think the main thing to address is the manner in which Borrell has his young starlets playing their football. Now it's not quite Barcelona standard as of yet, but the blueprint is obvious. Liverpool have signed young players to fit this style of play, many of whom we'll be taking a look at later. This at least lets us know, when these kids do get their chance in the first team, they will have the basics of the game to build on. All of these boys have been taught to pass and move.
Many of them have been played in multiple positions as well, which in theory, should give them a better chance of making it into the first team squad.
It's an idea that the Ajax youth system implemented to great success during the 1990's, arguably Ajax's most fruitful period in regards to youth team players. Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Kanu, Dennis Bergkamp, Edwin Van Der Sar, Marc Overmars, and the De Boer brothers all came through at some point during the early to mid nineties.

The philosophy at Ajax can be summed up in four letters, it's a philosophy they trust implicitly, and with the sheer number of players they've produced, would you argue with them? The letters that define the philosophy are T.I.P.S. It stands for Technique, Insight, Personality, and Speed. It's the first thing that the many coaches drum into it's younger players. From that moment forward, all of the players choices are defined by T.I.P.S. Another interesting fact about the Ajax youth system is that their scouts never travel further than sixty kilometers from Amsterdam, they believe there is more than enough talent in the local area, again, and it might be boring to say it, but they've been proved right.
Up until the age of twelve, all of the Ajax teams play in a 3-4-3 formation, each player gets to test out which position they favour, by the time they reach the age of twelve however, the formation of the teams changes to a 4-3-3 formation. The Director of the academy explains, although 4-3-3 is the blueprint of all their training work, the formation is adaptable.
"If we have two outstanding strikers we can play in 4-4-2, we have creative players in every position here and everything comes down to using the ball. There are lots of details that make us unique, such as closing opponents down, being able to play in various positions and moving with the ball. It's how we go about those things that makes the difference."

So the formation can change, but the basic principles of T.I.P.S will always be there. It's well known that Patrick Kluivert played as a centre back and as a full back in his younger days, he points out that because he played these positions as a youngster, he knew which runs to make as a forward player. And it makes sense really, it's so simple, yet it takes commitment and desire to pull if off. Kluivert was never going to be a full back, i think his coaches would have understood that, Kluivert himself probably never expected to be a full back, but it's his willingness to commit to the project, and his trust in it made him a better player in the future.
It'd be wrong of me to suggest that Borrell and co are trying to use this as a blueprint, bearing in mind the state the Academy set up was in only a couple of years ago, it would be ambitious at best to immediately try and copy something as radical as the philosophy that defines Ajax, but we can certainly learn things from it, and pick ideas out that can be most affective in English culture. Who knows whether Liverpool will ever do something as radical, and ultimately as rewarding as this, only time will tell. But for now it's baby steps.
We certainly have the right men in place to over see such a transition.
Now onto the players i think have the best chance of donning the red shirt in front of 45,000 fans (Hopefully 60,000 by the time many are seasoned campaigners.) These aren't kids that have a chance of just a few sub appearances here and there, and then off to Tranmere Rovers, Barnsley, or Everton to name a few. These are lads, that if they keep working hard, and learning from the likes of Borrell and Segura, have a genuine chance of making an impact at Liverpool Football club. Some of the players i list, you may disagree with, that's also part of the fun, seeing your mate, after a player you've proclaimed for greatness has been released or sold for a new pair of mittens for the club chef.
"I told you he was rubbish! You always say there's heaps of talent coming through your youth team, who's next then, eh?"
I think i've had that conversation on many an occasion with one of my Manc inclined friends. The players involved in said conversation, off the top of my head, Krisztian Nemeth, Lauri Dalla Valle, Mikel San Jose, Adam Pepper, and Gary Mackay Steven (Fellow Jock.) All of these players, for one reason or another, haven't made the grade at Liverpool, and each time, i've been laughed at in equal measure. This time however, something feels slightly different. Here's why....
Signed from Bradford City back in 2007, Andre Wisdom has made quiet an impression on the staff at Liverpool. He arrived at the Academy, aged only 15. "What?, 15 you say, surely not?." This may have been the standard response for anyone meeting the young centre back for the first time, it's not that Wisdom is very tall, it's his sheer all round physique that stands out. A barrel chested centre back with great footballing ability, he has been deployed in a number of positions during his 3 year tenure at the club. From centre back, to right back, and sometimes as a holding midfield player, Wisdom usually gets the better of his direct opponent no matter where he plays. FourFourTwo magazine describe him as "A defender with the physique of Sol Campbell, and the footballing ability of Rio Ferdinand" high praise for a 17 year old defender making his way in the game.
The finest moment of Andre's young career came last may, along with fellow Liverpool academy player and England under 17 captain Conor Coady. Wisdom became a key man for England and led them to the final of the tournament where they faced heavy favourites Spain. It started badly for Wisdom when he scored an own goal on 22 minutes, however he showed the strength of character to go up the field only 7 minutes later and power home a header for Englands equalizer. Throughout the tournament, Wisdom came out on top against many highly rated attacking players, Paco Alcacer of Valencia didn't get a sniff against the Liverpool man, despite running riot in all the previous games. He also covered well to stop Spanish talents such as Isco of Valencia, and Gerard Deuelofu of Barcelona.
Where will he end up playing is the big question here? If i were to put my cards on the table, i'd say centre back. Young Wisdom is one that i'm extremely confident about, i think he's going to make a breakthrough within the next 2 years, and then? The sky is the limit for the young man. I think it's important he decides soon, which position he sees himself playing for the next 20 years, this will also be down to Reserve team coach John Mcmahon of course.

The one thing that's vital when a young striker comes up against Andre Wisdom, keep a spare pair of boxer shorts. You'll need them at full time....

Another of the many promising young defenders coming through the youth team is Danny Wilson. Signed in the summer for an initial 2.5 million pounds from Rangers, the young Scottish centre back has drawn comparisons with former Liverpool great Alan Hansen, it's obviously way too early to make such judgements, if anything to protect the lad from too much pressure. A left footed centre back with great composure on the ball and an eye for a pass, he's most easily compared with Daniel Agger or even Thomas Vermaelen. He made his Rangers debut at just 17 years old, in an away match against Romanian outfit Unirea Urziceni, he received the man of the match award for his seemingly effortless performance, a game where he took everything in his stride and from then on in he played a huge part in Rangers' double winning team. Rangers captain David Weir had this to say about him.
“He’s not the type of lad that gets carried away or starts to think he has achieved more than he’s achieved. He has kept his feet on the ground, he listens and, hopefully, he will go from strength to strength. Is Danny ready for Europe? Of course he is. He has got to be because that is the level we are at. We’ve got to use the players here and, based on what I’ve seen so far from Danny, he is capable of handling it."

What is most encouraging about that interview, is the part where Weir talks about Wilson's eagerness to listen, which incorporates learning. He has a lot of work to do, but he comes across as a hard working humble young man, and if he listens to John Mcmahon and now Kenny Dalglish and fellow Scotsman Steve Clarke (renowned for his defensive work on the training field) then he will only improve. He has his first Scotland cap under his belt, a game in which he scored from a header and set up another.... okay it was against the Faroe Islands, but impressive none the less. I've no doubt he'll go on to captain Scotland, can he make the same impact at Liverpool?
I was on a coaching course a couple of years back, and i happened to meet someone who knew Danny Wilson's coach at Rangers, a guy by the name of Davie Kirkwood. It was around the time when another Rangers wonder kid was grabbing the headlines, a certain John Fleck. I asked the man how highly Kirkwood rated Fleck, how far he would go in the game etc.. and the guy said something along the lines of "Davie says it's a young centre back called Danny Wilson you've to look out for, a much better talent than this Fleck boy everyone's raving about."
Ever since then, i watched for the name of Danny Wilson, and he ends up at my beloved Liverpool. His early Liverpool career was put on hold after the Northampton debacle, no doubt about it, he was marked with a B and put back into the reserve team. Thankfully, the man that made that decision has now left the football club, the man that now has the hot seat, is the man that made signing for Liverpool a reality.

The final fixture of last season came against Hull City, the curtain coming down on a disappointing season, it was also to be Rafa Benitez's last game as Liverpool manager. That day did leave a positive mark on Liverpool fans however, a record was broken, local left back Jack Robinson became the youngest player to play for the club at the age of 16 years and 250 days. The scouse full back replaced Ryan Babel, and almost grabbed himself an assist, Steven Gerrard steaming onto a perfectly weighted pass, only to see the ball fizz just over the bar. It was a pleasant surprise for the young man, and one that will only spur him on to bigger and better things. Many have compared him to Stephen Warnock, for obvious reasons, he's much quicker than Warnock ever was, and gets up and down the pitch more effectively as well. Robinson played his football in the under 18's last year, at just 16, he was one of the younger players in the team, yet he was always one of the stand out performers as the under 18's improved massively under Borrell, and even went a number of months undefeated.
This year has seen Robinson step up to the Reserve team, at 17, he would have been able to do another year in the 18's, this tells us just how impressive he's been over the last 12 months or so. You wouldn't think it's been a huge step up, he's taken it all in his stride and again, has been one of the teams stand out players. Playing alongside top quality defenders has no doubt helped him, often he's been played to the left of Danny Wilson, a player a few levels above Reserve team football. The presence of Wilson allows Robinson to use his natural stamina, and he gallops up and down the left touchline for fun. The real question is how long will it be before he breaks into the first team squad? I'm sure the Insua experience has taught many at the club some valuable lessons, it's unwise, and unfair, to throw a young player in at the deep end, especially when the club is in the midst of a 'power crisis'.
Whenever they do choose to give young Robinson the chance, recent history tells us the smart money is on him grasping it with both hands.
Talking of Jack Robinson, whenever you see him play for the reserves, the lad on the opposite side, more often than not, is another scouse full back John Flanagan. Flanagan is very similar to young Robinson, maybe more aggressive than the left back, and not as effective going forward. That's probably not a bad thing either, different type's of players can help a team become better as a whole. In the reserve team, Flanagan loves to snap around attacking players heels, disrupt the oppositions flow of the game, cover the last defender with his understated pace. He may not be as easy on the eye as Robinson, but you get the feeling Flanagan is determined to make his mark at Liverpool Football Club. The work he puts in between now and by the time he's 19/20 will determine whether he becomes a Stephen Darby, a Stephen Warnock, or a Steven Gerrard.... ok that comparison doesn't really work, but it's there for affect, lets replace Carra with Stevie shall we? Seems more fitting, don't ya think? He certainly seems to impress John Mcmahon, who has placed his trust in the young defender, Flanagan has been an ever present for the reserves so far.
Whether he makes it at Liverpool will depend on other players currently at the club, will Kelly develop into a centre back? Or will he stay in his current right back position? Glen Johnson, as disappointing as he has been recently, remains an England international, and in the right team, can be a great attacking right back. Flanagan has many hurdles to jump, but with his attitude and desire to succeed, would you bet against him?
In the last days of May 2010, an England football team won their first trophy for 17 years, the man hoisting the trophy was centre midfielder, and Liverpool player Conor Coady. The deep lying midfielder was the heart beat of the England under 17's in that tournament. Whilst Ipswich's Conor Wickham, and Chelsea's Josh McEachran took the plaudits, Coady quietly went about his business in the centre of the park, protecting his centre backs, and displaying a nice range of passing, from short one two's to long passes out to the England wide players, Coady was an important player during the pre summer tournament, make no mistake about that. Fellow Rawkite 'Juan Loco' has compared Coady to Sergio Busquets and Alex Song, it was something that got me thinking, and there is a definite likeness there, both Song and Busquets know their limits, they realise their teammates are better in the attacking department, so they receive the ball, and play it to one of the creative forces. Busquets to Xavi and Iniesta, and Song to Fabregas and Nasri. Don't think Coady is just a water carrier though, he is adept at running to the edge of the box, which enables him to use his long range shooting ability, and he has clocked up a few for the under 18's, if Coady scores, you can bet it'll be closer to the half way line than the six yard box.
Coady has also been compared to our current captain Steven Gerrard, i don't think he'll ever have the level of natural ability Gerrard has always had, but he's certainly a more orthodox captain, Coady seems to be the natural captain for any team he's played in, he communicates very well, he urges his team forward, he gives lazy wingers an ear bashing if they aren't putting in as much work as they should be, he's an example for everyone.
He doesn't win as many free kicks as Busquets though, loses brownie points (that's a joke by the way).
One of Rafa Benitez's last signings at Liverpool was a 16 year old Spaniard by the name of Jesus 'Suso' Fernandez. How important that will be, time will tell, but at the moment, Suso is looking like an inspired signing. Supposedly chased by the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, it's a mini coup for Liverpool. Whether the links to Madrid and Barcelona are correct, no one knows, it seems to be the standard response these days, every Spanish teenager with a bit of talent is wanted by Barcelona and Madrid. Lets just be thankful the little man chose Liverpool. Signed in the January of 2010, he only arrived at Liverpool in the summer of that year, but his impact has been immediate. Playing either as a deep lying playmaker, spraying balls around with his wonderful left foot. He has reminded me of Guti playing in that role, there's almost an arrogance to his play, "I'm dictating the tempo of this game, and there's sod all you can do about it." You stand off him, and he pings passes all over the place, you close him down, and he leaves you choking on your own dust. He is in many peoples eyes, the 'jewel in the crown' of the Liverpool youth system. Ask all the youngsters at Liverpool who the most skilful player is, and they'll say Suso. That's the impression he's left after just 6 months, he is now the one everyone looks at, people aren't asking if he'll make the grade, but when, a sure sign, that we have a special talent on our hands.
When Suso plays further forward, he often looks like a carbon copy of David Silva, great at popping into spaces no one else see's, and uses them better than most too. Wonderful at dropping his shoulder and dragging the ball away from the defender at the last minute, he has a wonderful eye for the reverse pass, watch how many times Sterling, Silva, Amoo, and Eccelston benefit from it, diagonal runs in between the defenders, and Suso will find them with what seems like unerring ease.
People actually had the same expectations from Gerardo Bruna all those years ago, Bruna like Suso, a small left footed playmaker, he went straight into the reserves aged 16 and didn't live up to the hype. It happens though, Bruna was touted as a special talent, unfortunately for Liverpool Football Club he wasn't. Suso hasn't shown any signs of being another Bruna though, we musn't get ahead of ourselves however, at only 17, Suso's career could go in any direction, if he carry's on the way he is, then this is potentially the best player since Gerrard. A bit too much maybe? I've seen enough to say that with some degree of confidence, and i hope beyond hope i'm right.
John Flanagan said this about Suso "He's only young but he's a really good player and works hard in training every day."
It could be viewed as a throw away comment of course, but i think it's important that the other players are mentioning how hard he works in training, it shows that he isn't letting the praise get to his head, he's trying to get better all the time. Lets hope he keeps this attitude going, if he does, expect to see Suso playing in the Liverpool first team sooner rather than later.

If you ever go to see Liverpool's under 18's, more often than not you'll see a leggy Portuguese player flying down the right flank, he goes by the name of Tony Silva. It was actually a lucky break that saw Silva sign for Liverpool. He had played in the Benfica youth teams up until the age of 15, he then left the club and headed to England. Initially Silva attracted attention from Chelsea, however Silva didn't want to go to a club where he'd get little chance to progress as a player, fearing he wouldn't improve at Chelsea, he headed for a trial at Chelsea's local rivals Fullham. So he travelled for his first game with the Fulham under 16's, luckily for us, it was against Liverpool at Melwood. Liverpool's Academy director Frank Mcparland was immediately intrigued by the young winger, and only days later Silva's agent informed him that Liverpool had entered the race for his signature. It was an easy decision for Silva. Because he was only 15 going on 16 at the time, Silva was put in the under 16 team... well, for a few games anyway. It became quite obvious that Silva was ready to step up to the under 18 team, his first real impression came in a game against Derby County. At half time, Liverpool trailed 1-0, Rodolfo Borrell turned to the new boy and told him he was coming on, 2 goals and 45 minutes later, Tony Silva was the name on everyone's lips. Liverpool fan and Academy reporter for The Liverpool Way website Dave Usher watched the game and compared him to a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. Silva himself looks up to fellow Portuguese wingers Luis Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, however i tend to side with Dave Usher on this one, alot more direct than Nani or Quaresma, he shares Ronaldo's desire to get as close to the oppositions box as quickly as possible. You won't get much flicks and tricks from Silva, he just wants goals.


So what chance does he have of making an impression in the first team? At the moment it could go either way for him, i think he's behind Suso and Sterling, but he has the material to work with, he just needs to refine his technique and improve on his decision making.


Anyone that's seen QPR this season will know their star player is Moroccan maverick Adel Taarabt, he is undoubtedly the main man in QPR's promotion push. With the noises coming out of QPR last year, Taarabt should have a nippy little 16 year old biting his heels for a first team place if it wasn't for Liverpool, Raheem Sterling would probably have made his Championship debut by now. When Liverpool signed the English winger for 200k last year, a coach at QPR confirmed they were considering handing him a debut, aged just 15. Liverpool fans hoped and prayed that Sterling would be as good as he sounded. Nearly one year on, and Sterling has been better than he sounded. If Suso is the jewel in the crown, then Sterling is a close second, and it's too early to say which of the two will develop into the better player, if it's at Liverpool, then who really cares? The way they are going, both are almost guaranteed to make the grade here at Anfield. Like Silva, Sterling made an immediate impact at Liverpool playing for the under 16's. Playing against a highly rated Everton team, Sterling scored a goal and impressed throughout, playing from the right but often cutting inside and playing a multiple array of passes, like Silva, it wasn't long before he was promoted to the under 18's. After all, if he ripped the best team in the under 16 league apart, what the hell would he do to the rest?


Sterling has been played on either wing for Liverpool, recently he's been posted out on the left, his ability to go either side of his marker sets him apart. Comparisons with Lennon don't quite fit for me, Lennon would never be able to play on the left hand side, his game is all about dropping the shoulder and playing a cut back. He hasn't done anything to suggest he'd be effective anywhere but right wing. I can remember Spurs trying him as a number 10 a few years back, the only impressive game i can remember from that particular spell was the home game against Chelsea, when he popped up with a last minute winner, soon after however, the experiment was abandoned, his right wing position still warm from his last stint.


In the recent FA Youth cup game, Sterling was a constant threat playing out on the left hand side, going onto his supposedly weaker left foot, and standing balls up for Emillson and Adjoran. There was also the threat of him cutting in and firing shots off on his right foot, the marker never knew how to handle him. He is able to burst into space with his searing pace, and he can manoeuvre his way from tight spots with his dribbling ability.


All the signs say that this busy little winger will soon be moving to the reserves, and then to the first team.


Standing at 6'4 inches tall, Michael N'Goo isn't what you might expect. The gangly striker is more of a Kanu than a Drogba, (yes N'Goo is eligible for the 18's, but i don't mean it that way). Most of the service N'Goo gets, goes straight to his feet, rather than his head. Infact, England under 19 coach Noel Blake has tried him as a number 10, playing just off a main striker. Kanoute has carved a career out of it, playing deep, spreading balls out to the wide men, and rushing into the box for a header. The Malian, like Kanu, love the ball at their feet, silky smooth movements despite their size, and easily adaptable, able to play as an old fashioned target man if needed.


N'Goo arrived from Southend in September 2009, commanding an initial fee of 250k. Earlier in his career, he had been on trial with Manchester United, thankfully, the red half of Manchester didn't want to pay the money for young N'Goo, only a year or so passed when he became a Liverpool player. His finest moment in a red shirt came last season in a match against Stoke, when he scored what LFCTV described as a Diego Maradona type goal, picking the ball up from deep, he skipped past 3 or 4 players before slotting the ball into the corner of the net, this goal alone would have been enough to sway any doubters that N'Goo was just your typical English target man.


So far N'Goo has played three games for the England under 19's, scoring two goals. His first came on his debut against Slovakia, then against Belguim a few months later. All i care about is what he does for Liverpool, but International recognition won't do his confidence any harm, and it's a carrot for him to keep improving.


Will N'Goo make the grade? Again, it's extremely hard to tell, i really like him as a player, but i feel if he wants to make his mark at Liverpool, then he'll have to become more aggressive, hungrier for goals than he is now. At the moment, he is all too happy to be the assister, he has all the attributes to become so much more.



The arrival of the new owners means the youth side of things will only improve, John Henry and co are great believers in youth development, and with LFC being linked with young English talent such as Conor Wickham, Marvin Sordell, Adam Barton, and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, we should be ever grateful for what they've done for us. Of course the real challenge starts now, but with Rodolfo and Pep in charge of the youth set up, i don't think Liverpool fans have much to worry about.

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