IMAGINE if you didn’t know anything about our current squad and I burst into the pub one day as the knowledgeable football genius that I am, to inform you about two lads that I’ve just seen in a red shirt.
The first is a young fella who’s only 21 years old, is 6ft 1in and built like a brick shithouse. Despite his tender years he’s played 52 times for our first team, scoring 17 goals, and has played 21 times for his national team (a European nation with a hugely talented squad), scoring three goals.
Then there’s another lad who plays for us who’s only 22 (turning 23 this week), is 6ft 1in and built like a brick shithouse. Despite his tender years, he’s played 109 games for our first team, scoring six goals, and has played seven games for his national team (the current world champions with an unbelievably competitive squad).
How excited would you be about my all-knowing revelation (once I’d bought you a drink and you had disregarded how you had never heard of these two players)?
Wouldn’t you be bursting with excitement at the thought of these two young stars who we’ve managed to grab for Liverpool, both of them somehow slipping through the greasy, money-laundering hands of our most bitter rivals?
For the eagle-eyed among you, you’ll have spotted that the above two lads are obviously Divock Origi and Emre “I must be about 35” Can.
But that generally isn’t the reaction our two young brightest of stars get, is it?
I’d like to say that the response to our draw with Plymouth at the weekend has surprised me, but it hasn’t. I’ve long since stopped being surprised or annoyed by the 2016 craze of swinging wildly from one extreme to the next, which has carried unhindered into the start of 2017. Maybe the death of Twitter in 2018 will see us return to some form of balanced society, less inclined to shoot from the hip at every given opportunity but, until then, we are where we are.
As it stands, one month any given player can be the hero, the next being written off as too old, despite having barely hit puberty. Fans will simultaneously lament clubs for not finding Jamie Vardy value in a signing while berating them for still giving Kevin Stewart a chance when he’s 38.
Divock and Emre are perfect examples of the dangers of modern day fandom.
Let’s take the young Belgian striker. Signed from Lille in 2014 and immediately loaned back, we first saw him when he kept the older and bigger Belgian boys out of the national team for the World Cup when he was only 19. He became the youngest Belgian goalscorer in World Cup history and we all got really excited at how we’d pulled a fast one over Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City.
He then flattered to deceive in France, being voted into the worst team of the season by people who know less about football than real life football managers, so many decided we should throw him in the bin.
After an inconsistent time so far, with some real highs and a few lows, this season Divock came back from a lengthy injury and was expected by all of us to drop seamlessly back into the form he displayed last season, being criticised by most of us despite scoring in five consecutive games. Despite that literally being his job, it still wasn’t enough for us because he’s not Daniel Sturridge, who isn’t Roberto Firmino, who isn’t Luis Suarez, who was older than them all — and two seasons before he became the greatest player on the planet, spent most of his time hitting the post.
Now, Div has a quiet game against 243 defenders from Plymouth and we all question why he isn’t leading this gang of strangers with an average age of “I’ll be 16 next birthday” (I’m using the average age as calculated without including Lucas Leiva’s years, obviously).
So, why isn’t he leading the youngsters more effectively in a game against a load of cart-horses who haven’t got a 10th of his ability? I’ll give you the answer to that conundrum but some of you won’t like it and will choose to write nasty things about me and/or Divvy in the comments below.
Here it is. Are you ready?
Divock Origi is 21 years old.
Before you skip straight to the bottom of the page to start filling in the recapture box to prove you’re not a robot, prior to churning out an opinion from Soccer AM, I know Divock has played loads of games already and we’ve seen him play better than he was at the weekend and better than he’s been for much of this season, but unfortunately that’s the deal with the vast majority of young footballers; they typically struggle with consistency. That’s precisely why successful teams tend not to rely on really young players unless they’re surrounded by experienced pros.
But what we’re all doing with Divock and Emre, which we’re not doing with the young lads who aren’t yet able to use their dad’s ID to get into the local drinking establishment, is using their own early success as a stick to beat them with. We’re simply saying that because they’ve developed far quicker than the bulk of their peers, they should now be held to the same standards as the senior pros in the squad, which is not really fair.
Can has just come back from injury to be thrown straight in at the deep end and expected to perform like Jordan Henderson. But not the Henderson who also struggled at the start of the season when coming back from injury (and being pilloried for it by some fans), the Henderson who has since been lauded as the greatest number six in the history of number sixes.
I’ve watched many a seasoned pro struggle against lower league opposition who raise their game for the biggest match of their lives, and even more old pros who definitely can’t inspire younger players around them when they’re worried about their own game first and foremost.
The infamous Alan Hansen quote about not winning anything with kids annoys me because he was right. Nobody does win anything only with kids. What has been erased by history when making Hansen a laughing stock for that quote is that that United team added highly talented young players to a team that had the experience of the likes of Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel, without whom the youngsters would have struggled far more.
So let’s not judge our strapping young lads too harshly just because they’re bigger and have more facial hair than our younger lads, and let’s not get carried away by rusty performances here and there. As Neil Atkinson says, the development of footballers does not take a linear path. They don’t get gradually better day-by-day, week-by-week for our viewing pleasure. They’ll naturally have a good run then suddenly out of nowhere be hit by self-doubt, injury or abuse from their previously adoring public. Klopp even mentioned in a press conference last week that they will need to deal with the new young lads hitting the self-doubt wall at some point, but for now they’re all just full of the joys of life and thinking they can conquer the world.
If you really think about it, you might remember being that age and thinking you were invincible and had everything figured out, then time moved on and you started to doubt yourself, hopefully before coming out the other side believing in your own ability again. Or maybe not. Maybe you don’t believe you can be a spaceman and live in the sky anymore.
It’s no different for footballers than it is for the rest of us. Highs, lows, good times and bad. These boys have an additional burden in that they have to do their learning and experience their self-doubt in front of 54,000-plus people every other week, all expecting them never to misplace a pass.
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I got to do all that without thousands of middle-aged fellas shouting at me, so let’s give them a break and as much encouragement as we possibly can.
As a far more wise and talented man than me once said: “It’s difficult to see how the dots all join up until you get to the end and look back.” So, let’s give our excellent young lads some time to join some more dots and see where it takes us and them. Maybe they’ll hit the self-doubt wall and end up playing for Stoke City because they just can’t take that next step needed to perform consistently at the highest level in the way only the elite members of their profession can.
Or maybe, with our support and the guidance of Klopp and his team, they’ll push through the other side and fulfil all of their dreams.
I still think we’ve potentially got two superstars on our hands.
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“Luis Suarez, who was older than them all — and two seasons before he became the greatest player on the planet, spent most of his time hitting the post.
Now, Div has a quiet game against 243 defenders from Plymouth and we all question why he isn’t leading this gang of strangers with an average age of ‘I’ll be 16 next birthday'”
This genuinely made me lol. Brilliant writing, as ever. No more to say really.
Criticism of “Belief in Youth” is a bit late….
Stands up and claps.
Cheers for this Paul, can’t disagree with any of it really! Though I think maybe the reason some people are talking about these two lads is that, whatever their potential and however good they might be in a year or two, as it stands they look like they might be a bit short if we need to rely on them right now, in a season when we have a realistic chance of challenging for the league? I’d be a bit worried if, say, Henderson was out for a month and we had to rely on Can in central midfield. That’s not necessarily his fault of course, more about the strength of the squad overall.
Anyway, cheers for the article. (And spot-on about Hansen being spot-on!)
Thanks for this great piece. Exactly my thoughts.