The performances of a number of Liverpool’s young talents in Tuesday’s 2-1 FA Cup defeat to West Ham United proved they are fit for the Premier League.
In a month of bad PR for Liverpool, results continue to go against Jurgen Klopp‘s side on the field, with a loss away to West Ham on Tuesday the latest in a string of disappointing outcomes.
But while the German’s body continues to heal and goodwill between supporters and owners continues to fracture, the performance of a young Reds outfit at the Boleyn Ground should serve as a truly positive standpoint.
They may not have been able to salvage a result against Slaven Bilic’s side, but a Liverpool lineup with an average age of just 23 years old gave a strong account of themselves.
Having passed another tough test in the FA Cup, Klopp’s young talents have now earned game time in the Premier League and beyond.
West Ham 2-1 Liverpool
Sullen but dignified in his post-match briefing, Klopp rightly testified that Liverpool were the better team at the Boleyn Ground, having spent much of the 120 minutes of play dominating their claret-and-blue opposition.
Lining his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the German put his faith in a youthful spine, while swarming lone striker Christian Benteke with attacking talent.
This saw 18-year-old Pedro Chrivella make his full debut at the base of the midfield, alongside FA Cup success story Kevin Stewart, while Jordon Ibe, Joao Carlos Teixeira and a returning Philippe Coutinho played supporting roles in the forward line.
Despite this, Liverpool produced a strong, compact, sum-of-all-parts performance, overwhelming West Ham in the attacking sector with neat, one-touch moves, and keeping shape with a combative, composed midfield.
It took two moments of true quality for both sides to find the back of the net, with Michail Antonio striking first with a powerful volley, before Coutinho levelled with an inspired free-kick.
But that Liverpool were able to hold their own against a nearly full-strength Hammers outfit over almost three and a half hours is a testament to their quality, spirit and work ethic.
Though Angelo Ogbonna’s last-minute header consigned the Reds to defeat, there were a number of hugely impressive performance to take away from these fourth-round tie.
Who Impressed the Most?
Klopp hailed a number of his young stars in his post-match press conference, taking positives from a disappointing result.
Flanagan, Smith, Stewart, Chirivella, Ilori, Teixeira and Ibe were among those singled out for praise from a manager who clearly has a keen eye for youth development.
In his first start for the club, Chirivella was perhaps the most impressive, with his composure, guile and technical ability allowing him to dictate play from his role in the midfield pivot.
The Spaniard can look forward to a bright future on Merseyside, having made another step on the way to establishing himself in the first team.
Alongside him, Stewart performed with brute force and sheer determination, with his willingness to fly into challenges minutes after being left writhing in agony from a late West Ham challenge highlighting his commitment to the cause.
Stewart offers Liverpool’s midfield something unique, as a tough-tackling, forward-thinking defensive midfielder, and his ability to find space in the midfield deserves recognition.
In the defensive line, both Smith and Ilori were equally impressive, though for different aspects of their game.
Ilori was strong, aggressive and front-footed in his defensive play, stepping out of the back line with confidence to quell West Ham attacks, and though he was lucky to not concede a penalty after pulling Enner Valencia down in the box, he kept the Ecuadorian quiet throughout.
Meanwhile Smith provided Liverpool with a useful presence on the left attacking flank, with his surging runs and crossing ability crafting a number of useful openings.
That they were all able to perform to such a high standard away to Premier League opposition should be a cause for optimism for Klopp, with his squad now fleshed out with young talent ready and able to prove themselves on the big stage.
But who is the most likely to feature this season?
Who is Most Likely to Feature?
The challenge ahead for the likes of Stewart and Smith is establishing themselves as useful alternatives for, or even upgrades on, Klopp’s current first-team incumbents.
This poses a problem for a number of the young players to impress on Tuesday night.
For Stewart and Chirivella in particular, they would be entering a midfield landscape packed with quality and promise.
In Emre Can and Jordan Henderson, Klopp has a favoured midfield pairing that are both able to thrive at the top level at this stage and, at 22 and 25 respectively, will continue to develop both as individuals and as a partnership.
With Coutinho making his return from a hamstring injury on Tuesday night, the Portuguese’s prospects continue to diminish; though it can be argued that he is a better option than Ibe.
The two players most likely to carve out a role in the first team in the Premier League are Ilori and Smith, with Liverpool’s defensive issues throughout 2015/16 well documented.
Ilori is far off full fitness at this stage, but as a tall, quick, ball-playing centre-back he offers Klopp an invaluable option, with the prospect of the former Sporting CP man partnering Mamadou Sakho in the long term, for example, more encouraging than the likes of Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure.
Though both have similar flaws to their game—namely in their defensive positioning—Smith could find an avenue into the first team ahead of Alberto Moreno at left-back.
Moreno has looked in dire need of a rest in recent weeks, and Smith has proved himself a capable deputy.
That it is possible to draw so many positives from such a disappointing result speaks volumes about the youthful quality at Klopp’s disposal.
With the German still tasked with finding a balance between league affairs and success in the League Cup and the Europa League, this will be beneficial.
WEST HAM 2-1 LIVERPOOL
REACTIONS: “Brave performance”, “A bitter end”
RATINGS: Lucas and Stewart impress
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