THIS is what potential looks like, according to REY MASHAYEKHI, 6-feet-2-inches and still growing at 18 years old, a slender frame packed with deceptive strength and a startling turn of pace. Liverpool went out this summer and got themselves one of the most sought-after young English defenders in recent years, a teenager coveted by Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund and who knows how many other top-flight European clubs.
They did so for £3.5 million plus add-ons, a reasonable fee considering what potential has warranted in the past. Liverpool paid twice that amount for both Tiago Ilori and Sebastian Coates; Manchester United shelled out five times as much for Phil Jones, who while having racked up 35 Premier League appearances was only a year older at the time. Luke Shaw cost around £30 million, Raheem Sterling no less than £44 million. Wayne Rooney, aged 18, demanded what would amount to over £82 million today.
Potential, then, is one of the most expensive words in football. It’s expensive because it represents hope, the future, the new — the Next Great English Centre-Half, the bedrock of your side for the next decade to come. All these things also make potential one of the most dangerous words in football, for players, clubs and fans alike. A 20-year-old Lazar Markovic may seem like great value at £20 million, but with that promise comes an expectation, and different people respond to that expectation in different ways, for better or worse. The history of football — the history of all sport — is littered with examples of this.
Joe Gomez is on the cheaper end of this continuum, where the stakes are lower and the breathing room more spacious. He has not a single top-flight appearance to his name; he wasn’t even a preferred option in a Championship defense for much of last season, behind the likes of Tal Ben Haim and Chris Solly at Charlton. But he got some game time and he impressed, displaying undeniable physical gifts coupled with a preternatural ability on the ball. It was enough for Liverpool to make a move, while Liverpool — and Brendan Rodgers, specifically — showed enough for Gomez to entrust his development as a footballer to the club.
That development has Liverpool fans talking this summer on the strength of a few confident displays in the club’s preseason friendlies. After an assured performance at right-back against a Thai “All-Star” team in Bangkok, Gomez switched over to left-back for the two matches in Australia against Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United, exhibiting a versatility along the backline beyond what was advertised. He then went on to impress against HJK Helsinki. Gomez’s displays in both fullback roles have been one more notable aspects of Liverpool’s preseason; they may well have rendered any pursuit of additional cover at left-back redundant, while almost certainly factoring in the club’s decision to let Andre Wisdom — a player with 38 Premier League appearances to Gomez’s zero — go to Norwich City on loan.
Rodgers definitely noticed, saying after the Brisbane game that he’d “seen enough” from Gomez to ensure that “he’ll get games.”
“I’ve seen him at centre-half and at right-back, but I wanted to see him at left-back – and I thought he was outstanding,” Rodgers said. “He’s got all the tools to play across the back four.”
In other words, Joe Gomez will have a part to play in Liverpool’s 2015-16 season. If you’re an LFC obsessive like me, you’ve spent the summer jotting away in notebooks — mapping the team’s depth chart across all 11 positions in any number of possible formations, occupying yourself with concern and excitement for what it will all look like, eagerly awaiting for August 9 to finally get here. If Gomez didn’t feature prominently in such deliberations earlier this summer — in debates and conversations, in bars and on message boards alike, between Liverpool supporters the world over — he certainly does now. Wisdom is on loan, Javier Manquillo is long gone, Jose Enrique is occupied with his social media startup and Jon Flanagan is still working his way back from injury hell. If Nathaniel Clyne or Alberto Moreno so much as wake up on matchday with a fever, Joe Gomez is starting at fullback for Liverpool Football Club. That’s how it currently stands. And after Gomez’s start at Helsinki he may not even need Alberto to start sneezing.
So Gomez is slated for a considerable amount of playing time over a nine-month season that will consist of no fewer than 46 games. It will help him escape a well-documented fate that’s befallen many a promising young Liverpool defender, from Carl Medjani and Gabriel Paletta to Ilori and Coates more recently. Unlike those players, Gomez’s versatility will get him games at a club with ample competition for central places — and where the level of scrutiny is far from ideal for blooding a young centre-back.
There’s no escaping the fact that he’ll be playing out of his natural position; as great as he’s looked this preseason on either flank, there’s still a hint of positional awkwardness for Gomez at fullback. But the role allows him to venture forward, which he’s looked remarkably comfortable doing this summer — willing to try a bit of skill on the opposition, pick out a pass (can he ever) and slalom forward after shifting the ball. Gomez also looks very much a front-foot defender, fond of using his pace to close down and cut off opposition passes. On the other hand — and somewhat typical for young defenders — he’s appeared more apprehensive when pressed and harried, like when he gave the ball away to an unrelenting Brisbane marker.
Potential may be both gift and curse, but Gomez has worn his well thus far — the boy can simply ball. The most startling thing about watching him play, unexpectedly quick turn of pace aside, has been his eye for a pass. It’s the sort of range and composure (not to mention the zip he puts on the ball) that you just don’t see everyday from a teenager, and goes some way to justifying the reputation Gomez has earned as a “ball-playing” centre-back along the lines of his idol, Rio Ferdinand.
Gomez shouldn’t be burdened with that sort of expectation, potential be damned; Ferdinand, after all, twice broke the British transfer record (and twice became the world’s most expensive defender) before turning 24. But the stylistic similarities — the imposing presence, the quickness of foot, the eye for a penetrating ball — are there for all to see.
Which brings us to what’s next, what’s right in front of our faces: the Britannia on August 9. There’s been a lot of talk about Gomez starting at left-back against Stoke City on the first day of the season, and on form, it would seem the logical selection. Even so, that’s not to say Gomez should start at the Emirates two weeks later, much less be expected to be Liverpool’s preferred option at left-back over the course of the season. We’re talking about a player who doesn’t turn 19 until after the end of the season; the Europa League, rather than those tough early aways, should be his proving ground.
Potential, football has taught us, cannot be rushed. For now, we should be content with the hope that it brings for the future, allowing ourselves to be pleasantly surprised by the glimmers we see in the present. Joe Gomez is a Red, and anything is possible. Enjoy the ride.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo