LOSSES bring out the worst in a fan base. All kinds of kneejerk reactions and apocalyptic predictions fill social media, writes STEPHEN MCGARTY.
“It’s all over.”
“We’ve been brought back down to earth.”
The more sensible thinkers will, rightly, inform you that things are not all that bad, good teams lose, champions lose, Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley never managed an invincible Liverpool side either. These things happen.
This article, however, is not for the sensible. This is the counterweight to the depressing, miserable attitude of the nay-sayers. This is pure optimism, so buckle in.
You should never put too much pressure on young players, so I want it to be clear that this isn’t about expectation, it’s about hope. Something to aim for and be inspired by. The weight of the world shouldn’t be put on the likes of Ben Woodburn’s shoulders, but equally, he should be aware that the sky’s the limit if he works hard. That, with a bit of luck and the right amount of dedication, there’s no reason he can’t be a star.
But before we get to The Academy graduates, I think we should take a moment to look at the ages of so many of our first team squad. Firstly Loris Karius, the lad who’s getting all the stick right now, is 23. In goalkeeping terms, he’s a baby. Peter Schmeichel was still at Danish club Hvidovre at 23 and wouldn’t land in Manchester until he was 28, he captained them in a Champions League final at 36. The boy is young. He’s far from world class right now, but it isn’t impossible for him to reach that level one day.
Two players who should be more in favour with the fan base right now are Emre Can and Divock Origi. They’re 22 and 21, respectively. If those three all continue to improve (and under Jürgen Klopp you expect they will) they could be part of the first team for a decade, and accumulatively they cost around £20m. Feeling more positive yet?
Last week, we saw two relatively local lads star for the first team, in Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold. They’ve been at the club since they were small children and both are still aged 18 or under. They’ve forced their way from the under-18s to the first team in a matter of months, and the transition has been almost seamless. Alexander-Arnold possesses the drive you want from a young player, coupled with passing ability that would make Steven Gerrard proud. Originally a central midfielder, Alexander-Arnold became captain of the under-18s aged 16, despite having played just a few games. Gerrard mentioned him in his most recent book, predicting big things from him.
“Trent Arnold has a terrific chance of making it as a top professional…I know England are all over him”.
Just as he has at club level, Trent has moved quickly through the England youth ranks. He broke into the under-19s earlier this year and has scored five goals in only seven games. Though, from the outside, his inexperience and age made his progress seem somewhat rushed, his introduction to the under-18 football was well timed and considered.
Woodburn, on the other hand, was called in during an injury crisis to fill a gap. With the likes of Toni Gomes injured, the under-18 staff turned to a 15-year-old attacking midfielder with a nose for goal to fill in for a few games. Woodburn would end the season as the joint top goalscorer for the under-18s. Having just turned 17, Woodburn currently sits joint top for under-23 league goals and assists. Woodburn is by far the most natural goal scorer we’ve produced in a decade and his meteoric rise has been deservedly compared with the likes of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. Whether his first team career will merit the same comparison remains to be seen, but as anyone who has watched this boy at youth levels will tell you, the early signs are good.
A lad who hasn’t been at the club as long, but has caught the eye of many, is Ovie Ejaria. The 19-year-old Londoner of Nigerian descent joined Liverpool at 16 from Arsenal. The original story suggested he had been released by the Gunners and Liverpool picked him up as a free agent. However, it has since been suggested that the youngster had felt unwanted at Arsenal due to a lack of decision making over his future, while Liverpool had showed a keen interest — even meeting Ejaria’s father at his home — which goes some way to explaining how Arsenal let go of such a bright talent. Since then, he too has made a quick rise through the ranks and was the first of the Young Reds’ crop to make his debut this season, coming on as a substitute against Derby County in the League Cup.
The under-23s, operating under the same tactical blueprint as Klopp’s senior side, have enjoyed similar success in the Premier League 2. They currently sit three points off the top, following last night’s draw with West Brom, and face Arsenal at Anfield on Monday. While the departure of under-23’s manager Michael Beale is a blow at this stage, it’s hard to believe the club won’t ensure the right man steps into the position.
The upwards slope doesn’t stop there. Recent under-18s games are further evidence that The Academy has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. Yan Dhanda had previously looked like the boy most likely to breakthrough, having arrived at Kirkby from West Brom in 2013, and despite being leapfrogged by the likes of Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold, has put in some marvellous performances this season. Dhanda leads the under-18 league for assists this season, with seven, and has contributed six goals.
He’s by no means the only youngster leading the way at that level, with young Irish forward, Glen McAuley, topping the scoring charts for the under-18 Premier Division North. The 16-year-old joined Liverpool in 2014, amidst interest from a number of top English sides — including former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson, who apparently sat down with his family to try and bring the youngster to Old Trafford. McAuley has led the line for Liverpool this season and his return of 11 goals in 14 games suggests there may be more to come.
Alongside him is another 16-year-old, Rhian Brewster. Having been plucked from Chelsea’s under-14s a few seasons ago, he has been lighting up The Academy pitches at every opportunity this season. Interestingly, on Klopp’s first visit to Kirkby last season, Brewster finished a game with the under-16s and ran over to be brought straight on for the under-18s. Not to let the opportunity pass him by, the then 15-year-old took a quick detour to shake Klopp’s hand and introduce himself. The youngster lacks in neither confidence nor ability and he will certainly be aiming to be the first Liverpool first teamer born this century.
Meanwhile, another local lad, 15-year-old Curtis Jones, recently made his under-18s debut in the Young Reds’ 2-1 win over Middlesbrough and put in a very solid performance. Only a few weeks after Gerrard announced his retirement from football, it’s good to see that the club’s youth cycle continues.
So, if the fact we’re in with a shot at the title in December, have a team that plays exciting attacking football and a manager we all love isn’t enough to make you happy this Christmas, console yourself in the knowledge we’ll be winning back to back Champions Leagues in 2023.
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