“THE loan system is something we need to look at in the summer — the best talents should be in their club so they can develop.”
That’s a quote from Jürgen Klopp in January. The manager arrived at the club in October to find a considerable number of players not training with Liverpool, or playing for Liverpool, but playing — or sat on the bench — of other clubs across England and Europe. Some players were abroad, some in the Premier League, some in the lower leagues — players registered to Liverpool were anywhere but.
It wasn’t something that Klopp was used to. It’s grown to be the norm for English clubs to send their players out to the lower leagues to gain experience and play competitive football. In Germany, not so much.
Norwich, Aston Villa, Swindon, Wolves, Blackpool, Leyton Orient, Coventry and Crewe all included Liverpool players in their squads on short-term deals. And that was just the domestic side of things. Deportivo La Coruna, Aberdeen, Luzern, Fenerbahce, Milan and St Truiden also got the use of Liverpool players for the season.
It’s obvious why Klopp was perplexed by this approach to developing players. In some cases, like Luis Alberto and Mario Balotelli, it wasn’t about developing footballers but, by and large, it was. If you go through Klopp approach to transfers for the last few seasons, and Borussia Dortmund’s in general, transfers for the last few seasons you will see an enormous difference in the approach to loans.
In 2012-13 Daniel Ginczek, Julian Koch and Lasse Sobiech went out on loan. In 13-14 Moritz Leitner went to Stuttgart for two seasons. In 14-15 Marvin Ducksch, Jonas Hofmann and Jannik Bandowski went out on loan. So in Klopp’s final three seasons, he used the loan system for seven players. Klopp recalled almost that many to play against Exeter City in the FA Cup last season. It’s easy to see why he’s so confused by what we do.
Exploring the careers of the players above there is one huge difference in their development. Borussia Dortmund II; Koch played for them 54 times, Ginczek 66, Sobiech 55, Leitner wasn’t a product of Dortmund’s youth system but was signed after playing for 1860 Munchen, Duksch played 84 games, Hofmann amassed 71, while Bandowski had played 25.
Borussia Dortmund II currently play in the Regionaliiga West, which is the fourth tier of German football. They play in a small ground at the side of the Westfalenstadion with a capacity of roughly 10,000.
While it isn’t a complete youth team, their captain is a 33-year-old journeyman for example, it gives Dortmund youth products the opportunity to play regular, competitive football. Dortmund II were able to play 36 games of football and the aforementioned Marvin Dutsch was able to score 15 league goals last season. That has earned him a move to Paderborn. Players were able to train week in, week out with Dortmund and then get into the swing of regular football. It may be the fourth tier in name, but the reality is that the standard is probably a little higher.
Meanwhile, in England we have an under-21 league that basically replaced reserve team football a few years ago. They played 22 games last season, intermittently, without any noticeable fixture pattern, sometimes a day after the first team have played. It doesn’t seem to serve a purpose.
So, as a result, Liverpool have resorted to sending large numbers of players out on loan instead. It makes perfect sense, the standard of under-21 football isn’t great over here, its structure determines that. At more than one stage last season, Liverpool under-21s went 20 days without a game. At another, 28. At another, 22.
How is something supposed to develop footballers adequately when players go the best part of a month without a match? It isn’t. It can’t. This makes Liverpool’s approach to the loan system completely acceptable.
Klopp’s initial confusion was justified, for it was something completely alien to him. A few months down the line he seems to have had a re-think with 19-year-old winger Ryan Kent joining Championship side Barnsley on loan this week and other young players likely to follow.
— Barnsley FC (@BarnsleyFC) July 26, 2016
Liverpool will play a minimum of 40 games this year and a maximum of 53. The latter figure would involve reaching the finals of the League and FA Cups, while having replays in the third, fourth and fifth rounds of the FA Cup.
From here, if you’re being realistic, you can probably pitch the expected number of games at something like 45. And even that involves a quite aggressive expectation of seven cup games. The most recent season when Liverpool had no Europe was 2013-14 and we played 43 games after the third round of the League Cup (Manchester United away) and the fifth round of the FA Cup (Arsenal away) offered draws that weren’t particularly kind and resulted in defeats.
Last season, Liverpool played 64 games. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the likes of Kevin Stewart and Sheyi Ojo, who turned out to probably be the two brightest of the loan recalls, will get far less opportunity to both develop and prove their worth to Liverpool in the long term.
As a result of having our workload cut by nearly a third in terms of football matches, another approach is needed. The under-21 league isn’t fit for purpose so the only solution is to play the loan system as cleverly as is possible.
As anyone who watched the Reds last season can attest, Nathaniel Clyne has ridiculous fitness levels — fitness levels that enabled him to start 60 games. Yes, you read that right, Nathaniel Clyne made SIXTY starts for Liverpool last season. He can’t even get close to that number next season — so having another right back this season is effectively having one in case of injury.
Jon Flanagan is 23 — 24 on New Year’s Day. What is he going to learn this season waiting for Clyne to get injured? He might get a few games at a left-back spot that currently looks open, but that isn’t his position — at 23, we need to know categorically if he can cut the mustard at this level as a right back.
Burnley have lodged a bid to take him for the season. Their current right back appears to be Matt Lowton, who was no more than OK in his time in the Premier League with Aston Villa. There is a spot there for Flanagan to play as many league games as his body allows him — why would we not use the loan system to our benefit here? How is letting Flanagan train with Liverpool and waiting for Clyne to get injured to anyone’s benefit?
To cover? Well no, I’m not having that. We have enough depth in midfield now that means in case of emergency James Milner can fill in there, or even Jordan Henderson. We shouldn’t be looking at players as options just in case someone gets injured. It achieves very little.
For me, Liverpool’s best youth prospect at the minute is Cameron Brannagan, well it’s Ben Woodburn but he’s still in nappies, so yeah. Liverpool currently have the following that play, or at the very least can play in his position: James Milner, Emre Can, Jordan Henderson, Georgino Wijnaldum, and Marko Gruijic. Joe Allen has gone while there are doubts over the future of Lucas Leiva. Nevertheless, in a season of roughly 45 games, where is Brannagan getting games? Further forward? Mane, Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho, and again Wijnaldum. We’re looking pretty well stocked there.
It’s all well and good letting Brannagan train with these lads day in, day out, but what he needs now to develop as a footballer is games. He simply won’t get them. In 12 months’ time he’d be a 21-year-old with less than 10 games of football. What had Steven Gerrard done at 21? Now, I’m not comparing them as footballers but by the time he was 21 Steven Gerrard had played a part in that famous 2000-01 season that saw the Reds complete a cup treble.
Brannagan won’t get a chance to contribute like that, so the only option here is to find a club that can allow him to play a large number of games and then in 12 months’ time he can come back to Anfield with a full season under his belt, better equipped to succeed and also having shown what he’s about for a year.
I like the look of him in the here and now, most people do, but do we really know how good he is? Would you be willing the throw him in at the deep end? I can’t say I would. If we have any players who the manager wouldn’t be happy starting at Arsenal in two-and-a-half weeks then he should either he loaning them out to aid their development if they are young, or finding them a permanent home elsewhere if they are not.
Klopp’s opinion on developing players from within thankfully appears to have changed. Last week it was reported that a move to Wigan for Brannagan fell through after Wigan wouldn’t agree to a clause that Liverpool wanted to implement.
The clause stated that Brannagan was to play a minimum of 75 per cent of games or Wigan would be hit with an unspecified penalty. That’s absolutely how it should be — if they aren’t playing that much, then we shouldn’t be sending the player there. It doesn’t matter who the player is, or the club. That should be the rule. It’s pointless otherwise.
“I can see the benefits of a loan,” Brannagan told the ECHO this week.
“If I’m not going to get regular game time here, I’d love the experience of what it’s like because that’s something I’ve not done before.
“It would be good for me as a young lad to experience men’s football on a regular basis so I’d like to do it soon. It’s a big jump from playing in the under-21s to the Premier League with how quick the tempo is. Going out on loan, playing Championship football against men would be good experience for me. I’d like to do that.”
Initially, it may have looked absolutely ridiculous to Klopp to have so many players developing at other clubs, but if we select the clubs we send these players to carefully then it’s hard to find the negative. So do it. Find the likes of Brannagan and Allan, who has joined Hertha Berlin on loan, the right ones and in 12 months we could effectively get two new players for the sum total of nothing.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
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