THE decision to do away with the old-style reserve leagues and to replace them with what is now an Under-23 league is one of the things that baffles me most about the difference between modern-day football and football when I was a kid.
The official Premier League website describes the Under-23 league as having a “focus on technicality, physicality and intensity [and] gives a taste of the first-team experience.”
A taste of first-team experience? Really?
To me, the Under-23 league is just a step up from kids’ football, in which the very best players are simply too good for the vast majority of their opponents and the jump from there to the first team is still too great.
To be honest I spend little time thinking about what used to be the reserves these days, other than to keep an eye on results and watch the goals on LFCtv, but the thoughts came back to me this week when I noticed that Danny Ings had scored four goals in a 7-0 hammering of Bristol City.
There’s always been something about Ings that makes me not want to write him off. Even before the first of his serious injuries I thought that he had been underused considering the type of footballer he was and what we had been missing since Luis Suarez’s departure.
Whenever he appeared in a red shirt he displayed what we as fans demand most from our players: desire and never-ending running. It still amazes me that players are able to stand out from their peers by just running around lots, but while that is the way of the world players like Ings will always have an opportunity to shine.
But it wasn’t just his desire that stood out. He clearly had an eye for goal at his previous clubs and seemed like he was just starting to click into gear with his strike in the derby before his first injury.
I remember Ings during that game chasing down lost causes near the corner flags and keeping balls in play to continue attacks that ordinarily would have ended with the ball trickling out for an opposition goal kick.
I was at the match for his comeback substitute appearance at Anfield last season against Spurs when he again made an immediate impression with his pressing before carving out an opportunity to score within minutes of returning to the pitch.
As we all know he was very unfortunate to succumb to another injury minutes later, but that small cameo was still enough to keep the embers burning inside my head of the idea that there could still be time for our tattooed striker to make an impact at first-team level.
I’ve been keeping an eye on his return for the second string this season and it was noticeable that he was struggling to get on the scoresheet while working his way back to fitness.
Days before the Bristol City game, I’d been saying to a friend that I always recall a comment by Steven Gerrard that if you’ve played for Liverpool’s first team and you drop down to the reserves or another team at a lower level, you have to be the stand-out performer to have any hope of regaining your place for The Reds.
That comment certainly applied to Ings. When playing in a youth team containing Harry Wilson (below), who has scored 1,723 goals since the start of last season and still can’t get much of a sniff around the first team, you know that as a senior player strutting your stuff up front you, at the very least, need to be out-scoring Wilson to have any chance of working your way into the manager’s plans.
So the four-goal haul was timely, and will serve as a reminder to everyone inside and outside the club that Ings is potentially one of the forgotten men of football who could still have plenty to give, especially in an era when goalscorers are a rarity.
I’ve voiced my concerns recently that, notwithstanding how highly I’ve always rated him and love him as a character around the club, the current incarnation of Daniel Sturridge just does not seem the type of striker that fits with what Jürgen Klopp wants to achieve with a football team.
While his skills and finishing ability are unquestionable, it doesn’t take a genius to see that he no longer trusts his own body when it comes to full-paced sprints, and he will simply never be the same type of player as Roberto Firmino. Bearing that in mind, it has surprised me slightly that Klopp hasn’t looked to bring in another player in the same mould as our Brazilian work-horse, to ensure that he can rotate Firmino with a like-for-like player rather than having to change the style of the front line whenever he isn’t available.
I think what explains the manager’s reluctance to buy someone like that is the presence of Ings, Dominic Solanke and Rhian Brewster in the wings, each of whom look like they have at least a chance of filling that role in the team if any of them are able to develop or, in the case of Ings, to regain full fitness and demand a place in the first-team squad.
It is clear from noises coming from the club that everyone has been impressed by Danny’s commitment to regain fitness after two serious blows. I don’t think we should underestimate the psychological challenges faced by professional footballers when they are forced to recover away from the main group, focusing one day at a time on tiny improvements in their physical condition.
It’s why Ings and Joe Gomez developed close bonds when they were injured at the same time, both sharing the gruelling daily routine and relative isolation of the recovery period.
I can imagine that those shows of mental strength go a long way with a manager and his coaching staff to making sure they give players like Ings every possible opportunity to prove their worth. After all, one of the most important facets of any Liverpool player is mental fortitude.
How often have we complained in the past of players who have all of the ability in the world but seem to have the mentality of kittens when it comes to performing in high-pressure situations on a weekly basis?
Despite my soft-spot for him, it remains to be seen what the next step is for Ings. It’s been reported this week that Rafa Benitez would like to take him on loan to Newcastle in January, and I think there could be far worse options for everyone than to allow him to play in front of 60,000 screaming Geordies for a few months, working to rediscover his goalscoring form at the Premier League level rather than toiling away in senior kids’ football.
I was surprised over the summer when Wilson was linked with Celtic and not allowed to leave. For me, playing in a Brendan Rodgers team at Celtic Park with the pressure of winning every weekend in a weaker league than the Premier League, but a senior, competitive league nonetheless, as well as getting Champions League experience, is the ideal next step for our young footballers who want to progress to playing in a senior Klopp side.
Regardless of what the Premier League might try to tell us, under-23 football does not provide a taste of first-team football, and the physicality and intensity of the junior league is nowhere near the same. How can it be when the players are largely playing against lads of their own age in front of empty stadiums or on training pitches?
In my view, if we want to hold onto the vast majority of youngsters to watch over their development, having a true reserve league again would be a better way to give those young players a taste of first-team football, allowing more senior players to play with them and allowing a younger generation of fans access to see some of their heroes and regular football at a much lower cost.
Ultimately, Anfield can only ever accommodate so many supporters, so enabling the new generation to watch the game at reserve-team level potentially helps to solve another problem within football, while adding a level of pressure to the reserves that can’t exist on academy pitches.
Without a full reserve league, Solanke and other first-team fringe players basically get to play no competitive football on a weekly basis, but are expected to turn on the taps as soon as they come off the bench for five minutes every other week.
Whatever happens to reserve-level football generally, the challenge to Ings for the moment is to score as many goals for the Under-23s as he possibly can between now and January, either forcing his way into the first-team reckoning or, if that isn’t possible given the players ahead of him, securing a move to somewhere like Newcastle so that he can demonstrate to the world what he still has to offer at Premier League level.
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