Liverpool FC – Are We Really ‘Full’ Of Talent?

Liverpool’s Academy has quite rightly developed a world class reputation since the reforms of Rafael Benitez and Frank McParland were incorporated, becoming the home of some of the best young players in English and European football but has the Reds dedication to excellence jeopardised the progress of those who aren’t involved with the first team?

Liverpool U21s are one of the strongest youth sides in English football. They won the opening group phase by eleven points, conceded the fewest goals – twelve –  and were the second highest goal-scorers, hitting the back of the net thirty-one times. Throughout this period they also enjoyed a fourteen game unbeaten run including eleven victories.

On the face of it then, the clubs premier youth team is in good shape and thriving but last Monday’s single goal defeat away to Tottenham Hotspur – the second string’s first defeat in any competition this season – exposed something slightly concerning… a desperate lack of squad depth at U21 level.

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Let me start by stating that I acknowledge the squad size of the youth team is hardly the supporters’ primary concern when the first team is equally bereft of numbers and talent. However, in my opinion the two issues are closely linked and this is something I discuss later in the article.

Over the last three seasons, Liverpool made thirty-eight signings under the age of eighteen. In 2009/10 they brought in Raheem Sterling from Queens Park Rangers, Suso from Cadiz and Michael Ngoo from Southend United. The following season Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Wilson were signed for combined fees of £6.7m. With Damien Comolli in charge of transfers for the 2011/12 season, Liverpool captured some of the British Isles most talented young players including Seyi Ojo, Jordon Ibe and Ryan McLaughlin.

This trend of signings, along with several major coaching changes, has seen the Kirkby Academy go from introverted and inefficient to highly respected around the world as a centre of footballing excellence, home to some of the most promising young footballers in the game.

In a pre-season interview the Head of Recruitment, Ian Barrigan, described that the recruitment system worked as a pyramid up until U16s level. At sixteen two top British talents would be added and then at eighteen two top world talents would join with subsequent signings made to fill any holes or weaknesses in the squad. The theory is that this would allow local talent to room and time to develop whilst also ensuring a certain quality is achieved through the signings. It’s a system that was developed and perfected in La Mesia, brought to the club by Borrell and Segura.

Academy technical director Rodolfo Borrell

Academy technical director Rodolfo Borrell

The 2012/13 season however, with Pep Segura leaving the club, has seen the Reds distance themselves from this policy having made only one signing for the youth teams, that of Samed Yesil, who was arguably brought in with the idea of fast tracking to first team action anyway and probably would have been more involved were it not for injury.

Has the move away from the policy actually damaged the strength of the academy squads? After all there have been thirty-eight signings in the last three seasons, how many do we need to make? Well seventeen of those thirty-eight signings are still under the age of eighteen, for example Jerome Sinclair has barely turned sixteen, and could not be relied upon for consistent U21 action. Furthermore eight of the players signed in the last three years have now left the club and three players have been called up for first team action on a permanent basis (Suso, Sterling and Wisdom). Therefore just ten of those signings are in reality available for selection, with three of those being goalkeepers.

What is Liverpool’s actual squad strength?

(All of these figures are based on the matches played in Under-21s Premier League Group Stage 1)

In the twelve matches of Group C, Liverpool used 28 players. Four goalkeepers, nine defenders, ten midfielders and five strikers. This was the fewest used by any of the twenty-two teams who averaged a squad size of 36.3 players. If you remove from the equation the players who have now left Liverpool or were simply first team players gaining fitness then the squad size falls to just 20. On top of that if long term injuries such as Samed Yesil and ‘one-off’ U18 call ups are removed then it’s only 16 with four of those being goalkeepers.

That means Liverpool have a selectable, outfield squad of 12 with the league’s average number of outfield players being 31.8, albeit that number can be reduced to around 23 when the same parameters are applied.

What affect does this have on player development?

The knock on effect of having a small squad is significant and not simply about struggling to fill the team sheet on a Sunday afternoon.

Firstly, Liverpool’s U21s are immensely talented – as shown by such a prolific run in the league – but U21 football can only develop players to a certain extent and several members of the squad exceeded the level some time ago. Most notably the players who border the first team such as Jack Robinson, Jon Flanagan and Suso; these players have been on the fringes of Rodgers squad this season and have clearly outgrown the U21s league.

Rodgers is famously quoted as telling Flanagan he was “not Cafu” but at times this season the young Scouser has been able to pass off a decent enough impression because of the relative lack of strength in the league and it’s the same story for Robinson and Suso who simply find the standard to be too easy now. Even beyond them the likes of Conor Coady, Krisztian Adorjan and Stephen Sama are crying out for some first team experience which a loan spell would be perfect for as they are unlikely to break into the first team at this time.

Raheem Sterling

There is, to be fair, a lot to be said for our methods of coaching. As shown by the development of Andre Wisdom and Raheem Sterling, there are paths to the first team that do not require loan spells outside of the club and the expectation is that Jordon Ibe and Ryan McLaughlin will soon be breaking down the first team door and proving the point once again. These players learned enough from the U21 football and our coaches to be able to deal with the demands of Premier League football (or at least potentially could) however, the concern is not for these players.

The early developers are being well looked after, possibly even over-relied on, which is discussed later, due to the famous ‘fast-track’ system but those players who develop slightly later, in positions requiring more tactical awareness and nous than the average seventeen year old is blessed with appear to be overlooked and forgotten.

Here lies the first, and major, problem of Liverpool’s small squad size. It simply isn’t feasible for certain players to leave on loan because we couldn’t afford to lose that player. Conor Coady, for example, if he was to arrange a loan spell away from the club the knock on effect would be that Jordan Lussey would progress to the U21 team – no issue there, Lussey is a talented midfielder and nearly at the right age anyway – but in turn Lussey would need replacing at U18 level so most likely fifteen year old Jordan Rossiter would be the boy called upon to play three years above his age group.

While Rossiter’s cameos at U18 level have been encouraging it is too much to expect him to play so far ahead of his age level week in week out and continue to develop in such a consistent manner. Different players develop at different rates and simply throwing young players into the higher age category doesn’t mean they are being properly graduated and it may not be beneficial for them given the increased exposure on LFCtv and therefore fan pressure or simply the confidence knock they may receive if someone three years older than themselves physically and mentally bullies them.

CONNOR COADY: Could benefit from a loan move.

CONNOR COADY: Could benefit from a loan move.

So loan spells are difficult to come by at Liverpool at the moment; only Michael Ngoo, Dani Pacheco, Danny Wilson and Jamie Stephens have managed to secure long term moves to other clubs and it appears to be working well for at least two of the lads – Ngoo and Wilson earning rave reviews at Hearts. It would be nice to offer such opportunities to the likes of Coady and Adorjan but it now seems unlikely either will get that chance this season. Both turn 21 next year and the club will have to either register them as first team players or sell them for the 2014/15 season – if they haven’t had any first team action by then they will certainly not be at a level required to take up one of the 25 man slots.

A lot of people may well read this and think “they aren’t good enough anyway”. This may be true they both certainly have their limitations but equally the huge improvement in form of Coady following his permanent move to Melwood earlier this season is an encouraging sign that he has room to grow where he had previously looked stale and incapable of further progress. Some players just need that experience of first team football to allow them to push on another 15-20%.

Some will have successful loan periods and return a better player, like Martin Kelly, others will have unsuccessful ones and never get to the level required like Nathan Eccleston or David Amoo but if we as club are unable to offer such opportunities then we will be writing off anyone who isn’t a superstar by the age of 18 and that is a worrying situation in my opinion.

What can be done about it?

Contrary to what you probably believe I’m about to say, I am not going to start demanding the club sign seven or eight eighteen year olds at a substantial transfer fee to the detriment of the first team. Quite the contrary, I believe it is the first team squad which is ultimately hurting the U21s.

At the age of eighteen years, two months and eight days Raheem Sterling has made thirty-eight appearances for club and country this season and it’s not even March. At the same age, Lionel Messi made eight appearances for Barcelona. Andre Wisdom has played twenty-four times, Lilian Thuram at the same age played just once. Suso so far has made twenty-six appearances; at his age, David Silva hadn’t even made his debut.

The above comparisons, which are in no way meant to compare the ability of the players, are to make two points. Firstly, that Liverpool are clearly over-reliant on young players. There is no way a player only just turned eighteen should be making thirty-eight appearances in a season, never mind in little over half a season. Secondly, just because you don’t make regular appearances when you’re still in nappies it does not mean you aren’t going to go on and develop into a world class footballer.

suso_2012

If Liverpool’s first team had some depth then we would have been able to use the likes of Sterling, Wisdom and Suso – but used them sparingly – we could give ourselves tantalising looks at the future without becoming overly reliant and in the meantime they could have still turned out for the U21 sides, bringing back with them a little more experience everytime and squad depth to allow those who couldn’t get action quite yet to leave and find football elsewhere on loan. Sure, we’d still have needed one or two more players at U21 level to cover for positions such as centre back where the club are desperately short but mainly the signings to help solve the problem of the U21s needs to happen at first team level.

If Maxi Rodriguez had stayed, for example, we would have been able to rest Sterling more often which in turn might have allowed Adorjan to find a loan club this season which would surely have been more beneficial to him. Sterling would still have got first team game time but dropping in and out would reduce the substantial pressure on his young shoulders.

In previous years the club has found itself top-heavy, we had drifters such as Milan Jovanovic and Philipp Degen taking up squad positions that were utterly unnecessary and acted as a brick wall to the youngsters in the Academy.

We now find ourselves in the exact opposite position, we are too thinly spread at first team level and the affect has been to form another, more curious, barrier and that is the one where players are forced to stay with the first team when occasionally playing for the second string may be better for them and where second string players are forced to stay with them in order to help fill a team sheet when going out on loan would probably help them.

It’s a work in progress, Liverpool have got the transition wrong, but it was always likely to go too far the other way at some point. What is important is that the people who are paid to see these problems can fix them.

We need to return to the policy of buying in the best British youngsters and simultaneously we need to make sure the first team has enough players to function on its own. Breaking in young footballers is a lengthy process that requires timing and patience – relying on them from a young age just hurts everybody.

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Liverpool fanatic, history student at the University of Leicester. Follow and write about Liverpool at all levels. Follow me on Twitter:

  • Marc

    very good article! the first team definitely needs more experience, allowing the younger players more time to settle in and develop.

  • Brett

    this article proves that Rodgers was wrong to get rid of Kuyt, Bellamy and Maxi. 2 strikers and a midfielder who could have benefited the younger players by taking the pressure off of them to perform at first team level at such a young age.. they could have played 10 – 12 games each in the first team squad with cup games and lower class opponents in the Premier league which could have benefited the whole club with better results from games where an experienced player would know how to close out games when we were winning by 1 goal. thats not to put blame on the younger players for the loss of any points its just to show that some times experience counts..i also believe that Kuyt, Bellamy and Maxi would all have fitted into the current 4-3-3 formation meaning we could have saved £26m in transfers by not having to buy Allen and Borini who have both proved to be expensive flops although Borini has been unlucky with injuries.. an the note of a lack of experienced players in the current squad i am surprised to read over the weekend that Rodgers is ready to sell Reina, Enrique, Downing, Skrtel and Henderson! it may only be media rubbish but rumors start somewhere. to sell these players would be a massive mistake in my opinion, Downing and Henderson have proved they can step up their game and are playing well now, Enrique and Skrtel are 2 very good defenders who are just going through bad patches. but the 1 player i can see going will be Reina, if Barcelona offer £10m + then i think he will go. i would like to see Ter Stegen come in to replace Reina as he is a top class young (20) keeper and would cost about the same as we could get for Reina.. i also think we should sign more younger players but need at least 4 experienced players to join the first team squad so the pressure is taken off of the younger players.

    • killilfc

      For as much as i agree with some of your points, it wasn’t Brendan Rodgers decision to let kuyt, maxi and bellamy go. they all made that decision for him, bellamy wanted to go back to cardiff, maxi wasnt playing enough and wanted to go back to argentina, and kuyt was to old and wanted to leave aswel. I do agree though that all of them would of suited the 4-3-3 that rodgers plays.

      • Brett

        that shows how much you know about the club. Kuyt wanted a 2 year extension to his deal and Maxi and Bellamy both wanted to see out the last year on their contracts and go back to their home town clubs at the end of this season.. Rodgers wanted to prove he could lower the wage bill and still win things which is what FSG wanted.. Rodgers himself has admitted the team needs some experienced players to come in this summer..

        • CN

          No this shows how little you know about the club. Bellamy and maxi both specifically asked to leave, Rodgers wanted them to stay and is on record saying that. Unless you are calling him a liar it you know more about the ins an outs of the club than him then you are plainly wrong. You even acknowledge Rodgers wants some more experienced players at the same time as asserting the fact you think he let them go which would be a ridiculous contradiction on his part. Kuyt on the other hand may have wanted to stay for the 2 years as you suggest but that would have been a poor commitment on the clubs part with the young talent coming through so was right to let him go

  • Butragenio

    Will have to wait till the end of the season but… till date, Liverpool are ranked 7th in talent behind Everton, Arsenal, Totham, Chelksi, City and United. Sadly Liverpool has only 58% of the talent United has. After 27 games a league table hardly lies!

  • lfc one

    Two things to say here. One is @ Brett the armchair fan more interested in articles like this than in reality. Rodgers did not let Maxi and Bellamy go, they both insisted on leaving and their wishes granted, as for Kuyt please do me a favour and move on like he has. Mr average!! And you show me some proof that you are correct in your argument I will eat my hat. You know nothing pal, not a thing! Second, if you are old enough you are good enough. 15 or 16 playing at under 18 or u19 level is not a problem at all to a good young player. No different to Sterling playing with 28 yr olds at world class level. The whole article is a wasted read and a wasted write up. Yet another example of people looking for more negatives against the current owners and the current manager. Frankly it is job creation for someone with nothing better to do in journalism. Lack of depth at U21 level because finally we have a defeat this season. Pathetic and over- reactionary. Our under 18′s are in good shape too along with our schoolboy system. When we start panicking about the depth of a squad because they lose one game in 20 odd it says it all about how far the fan base of this club is falling. Jack Wilshire is barely 19 and one of the best players in the country. You are either good enough or you are not it is not difficult. Messi was a first teamer at Barcelona at 17 and is 7 yrs on the so called best of all time and a 4 time FIFA World Player of the and barely older than Allen, Sturridge, Henderson etc. They got that good by being exposed continuously and allowed to grow. There is a big difference between lack of squad depth and lack of talent! Calling Allen an expensive flop after the abuse Henderson received las season again shows how impatient and fickle our so called fans are these days, remember Lucas? Chelsea are awaiting your defection to their side. Good riddance.

    • Brett

      it is you who needs to learn the facts i have sen interviews with Maxi and Bellamy and both clearly stated they wanted to stay at Liverpool. you say i should show you proof of my side of the argument but offer only your word that you are right.. the people who write these articles are the people who go and watch Liverpool train at all levels, and interview the staff and players at the club not just any old person off the street.. i suggest more people engage their brain before commenting and learn to listen to other peoples opinions before jumping on to a band wagon and slating people just because they have their opinion in a free country.. and if Allen was such a good buy by Rodgers then why is it that 2 of Kenny’s signings are in the team ahead of him every week.. he was never needed in the first place as Liverpool have enough talent in the midfield without him..
      and for all the fans saying if you dont like it go and support Utd or Chelsea or City why dont you listen to other people and learn for once instead of having a go at anyone who does not share your small minded opinions…

      • CN

        Brett/Guest, you should check what Bellamy said one he had signed on the official Cardiff website. He clearly states that Rodgers called him on his very first day in the job to let him know he would be part of his team. To suggest otherwise is a lie, Bellamy admits he was flattered but had already decided to leave. Rodgers also praises maxi and states what a great player he is and would understand ’120%’ the style he wants to implement but also acknowledges he hasn’t settled in England and didn’t play as much as he wanted under KK so wants to leave. End of pal

      • al

        Maxi had been made the promise he could go back to Arg the season before he left because we couldn’t replace him in that summer of upheaval…. Well documented…. Similar with bellamy he wanted to finish with cardiff…

      • Gaz

        You say that two of Kenny’s signings are ahead of Allen every week? Well that is actually three of Kenny’s signings, so you are wrong there, but more so, you are wrong that the signings in question play in different positions than Allen. Enrique is a left back, Allen is not, Downing is a winger, Allen is not, Suarez is a striker, Allen is not. And although Henderson has made huge strides this season, he isn’t first choice ahead of Allen. So your comments about Kenny’s signings are null and void.

    • rodgers supporter

      great reply mate! i couldn’t say it better!
      cheers!

  • autonoise

    An interesting article, and a different perspective. I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention to the U21 this season, but I’ve been impressed with the players who’ve stepped into the first team. I think Rogers was forced to use Sterling, Suso and Wisdom more than he wanted to after we were left so short at the beginning of the season, and with Borini, Enrique and Kelly all suffering injuries and Downing taking a while to get his head straight it left us even thinner on the ground. We’re seeing less of them now with players returning to fitness and the signings of Sturridge and Coutinho. I also see a couple more first teamers being signed in the summer (there’ll be a couple leaving too, but I doubt it’s the 5 who have been reported, possibly Reina and Skrtel, but I doubt the others will). It’s a real balancing act though, the players need to make the step up at some point, so you don’t want too many players blocking their route to getting game time.

  • Jenks

    i can’t really agree with this. Every team below the 1st team should be judged in terms of how many players are getting promoted to the next level, rather than on performances. The fact that LFC have excelled in the U21 format while giving more youngsters a first team chance than any other club i can think of can only be a positive. Yes, Sterling may need careful management, and you’ll notice that he’s been rested a fair amount in recent weeks, but overall the current situation is far better than the past when average, older players like Maxi, Bellas, Kuyt and Adam were blocking the progress of talented youngsters. The key is a largish squad of U15-U16 made up of the very best local lads, with a focus on methods of excellent player development. Then smaller squads of U18s and U21s where the focus is on intensive development of genuine 1st team prospects. If your development methods are superior, a fair few of these should be local lads, but you’re also bringing in a few world-talents (i do agree with the author’s concern about departing from this principle by the way, but i hope we have not really departed and this was just a quiet season). I’m completely happy if our best U15s are being promoted up a league, and if our U18s and reserves are losing from time to time because their very best players are good enough to be in the first team. Ultimately, Liverpool can’t compete with the mega-rich top 3 or 4 clubs in terms of buying talent, so the only way for Rodgers to challenge is by perfecting a playing style that gets the best out of his players (which he’s trying to do) and by excelling in youth development AND giving these players opportunities. Liverpool can’t buy the best 22 year olds in Europe ahead of Man City or Real, but they quite possibly can beat these clubs to signing the best 17 year olds, who see a precedent of youngsters getting a chance.

    • tobinho

      Finally some sense! The youth squads have generally seemed stretched since the overhaul pf the reserve/u21 league and the introduction of the Next Gen series. Our u21 team generally consists of players from last years u18s, and u18s consisting of last years u16s.. So results at this level shouldn’t be the only measure of progress! I think it’s clear to see that there’s plenty of talent in the youth set-up, and along with the quality coaching their playing some of the best football in the country at that age. I don’t think there’s much reason to be negative with the way our academy is working. Trust in Frank and Rodolfo!

  • saraceninc

    If we are full of talent how comoe we are 8th? 1+1 = 2 as simple as that. Some like to philosophise like LFC others just win the premiership, we want say like who!

    • Gaz

      This article I believe is about the u21s, who are the best side of their age group in the country. And by the way, we are actually in 7th and 9 points behind 4th, as opposed to last season where we finished 8th and 12 points behind Chelsea who were in 6th.