JET lag is a killer, isn’t it? It’s not yet 6am and after a long flight to LA and a few beers to try to help me sleep I’ve given up and started writing this. Andy is up, too, making coffee and watching the sun come up over Santa Monica Pier. There is indeed no rest for the wicked.
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) July 23, 2016
We’re here, of course, for Liverpool’s pre-season tour. I wondered when I was tossing and turning how they help the players with it. Nicer planes, of course. They probably don’t have to sleep on a sofa bed. Plenty of time to adjust, too. When they travel to Australia they stop off in Asia on the way and stay on that time zone, which makes it even more fun trying to get access with the club. Getting kindly invited to a press conference but wondering which 4pm they mean.
For most of the experienced players, of course, travel is nothing particularly new. Many are full internationals who often have to travel halfway round the world and back again during an international break and be expected to perform at a high level on their return. For the younger players, however, it is another part of their development as a professional footballer. Another demand they will need to get used to.
Liverpool played a game in Huddersfield on Wednesday night. Thursday night they were training in California. You need to look fresh and energetic from the off. Watchful eyes from the manager, an excited local, and international, press observing your every move and Mamadou Sakho sticking a camera in your face on your afternoons off.
Three of last year’s strong U18s team have travelled to America for the tour — Ovie Ejaria, Trent Alexander Arnold and goalkeeper Shamal George. They’ll be excited, but will also be aware that it is the start of a more pressured world. Where they are representing Liverpool Football Club at all times, and a public slip can be damaging. Where a bad result, even in a friendly, against a Premier League rival in Chelsea can lead to people writing off a title challenge, and indeed a young player, before the season has even begun.
It’s a bit more pressure than what they are used to playing in front of me and about 100 others at Kirkby. But even more is to come. It’s pressure, but it’s hardly Manchester United at Old Trafford. If we want that in the future from these players then this is a good place to start. A chance for the young player to experience what is demanded from a Liverpool first team player in every sense. A chance for the coaching staff to observe how they deal with it.
A lot is said about not putting too much pressure on young players too early, but Liverpool are actually really good at that. They deserve applauding for it. Ben Woodburn, who has lit up pre-season for the first team, doesn’t even have a profile on the club website in the academy section. Neither does Liam Coyle who captained the U18s against a Bayern Munich U19s team, or exciting wide player Rhian Brewster, who scored in that game. They will next season, but right now they count as U16s. They are schoolboys. Liverpool don’t make any reference to their U16s team’s results, or players, at all. When Liverpool U16s played a recent tournament I had to go on the Barcelona official website to see how they got on. Some footage appeared online, too. But it wasn’t from Liverpool.
This all seems very wise to me. But eventually you have to test young players to see how they deal with pressure. It doesn’t have to be a negative. Some players, arguably the best ones, respond in a positive way to pressure. Some players actually need it. There is a danger that without new challenges, extra pressure, something to get the blood racing, a young player can actually go stale. A career can be stunted by coaches too worried about throwing a young player in the deep end. We hear constantly about ‘what if he fails’. But what if he doesn’t?
Ejaria is a good example of this. I found myself arguing with the other contributors last season on our Central League show about his quality at U18 level. Our friends at This is Anfield featured an article in January commenting on how disappointing he had been after a fine season the year before. It was fair comment. However, when he featured for the U21s towards the end of the season he was fantastic and his performances for the first team in pre-season have been better again. Maybe he is a player who needs pressure? A player who needs the new challenge to conquer? This is, surely, something, many of us can relate to.
Perhaps he is the sort of player who will improve playing with and against better players. This is something which is difficult to know until it actually happens. But the movement of those around him matters and is something he can both learn and prosper from.
We know we don’t want a situation, similar to the one we ended up with in the case of Raheem Sterling, that a teenager becomes the main hope. That a young player, and young man, trying to develop and learn gets too much expectation put on him. That he suddenly feels it is up to him alone to win games for Liverpool.
But you also don’t want to wrap young players in cotton wool to the extent they never become ready for the pressures of the Premier League. Those pressures aren’t going anywhere, so they need tackling at some point. And who knows? They just might surprise us.
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