In his latest piece on youth football for the site, Michael Sweeting looks at what makes and breaks a young player coming through Liverpool’s youth ranks.
The Academy is home to some of the most talented young footballers in the world. Over the last three years they have bought up a large amount of the British Isles top teenagers and supplemented them with gifted players from the rest of the world as well as allowing local talent a platform to perform on. Despite becoming one of the best run footballing institutions in world football, The Academy expects ‘only’ two players per age group to be graduated to the first team and become a regular. What is it that allows a player to make the grade at Anfield when others, arguably more talented, may fail?
Firstly, of course, comes natural ability. Over the last four or five seasons Liverpool have invested heavily in talented youth players and the effect has been easily noticeable in the general ability of the playing squad. Each player looks capable of at least gaining a professional contract somewhere which is a huge improvement over the Academy’s operations ten years ago which saw a worryingly high percentage of Liverpool Academy products fall out of professional football all together such as Adam Hitchen, James Frayne and Ryan Wignall. There is a feeling around the Academy now that they are producing genuine first team contenders and this is evidenced by the progress of Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling and Martin Kelly among many others. While few from the talented youth squads will establish themselves for Liverpool it is clear that the majority have the pre-requisite level of natural talent and their futures will be more often decided by other factors.
The second, and probably fairly unpopular, factor is a transfer fee. Players brought in for a significant transfer fee will most likely be highlighted as a particularly high potential player and as such be offered more opportunities to develop at a quicker rate. In most cases at the Academy the players brought in for a fee are only brought in because they are considered to be significantly better than the current player in that position and as such will naturally be ahead of them in the pecking order but there can be little doubt that the tag of being a ‘bought’ player rather than a local has significant levels of expectation but also opportunity attached to it as the debuts for Samed Yesil, Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling, Suso and Jordon Ibe have shown. However, that is not to say that only bought players can break through, in recent years Martin Kelly, Jon Flanagan, Jack Robinson, Conor Coady and Adam Morgan have all made first team debuts. The eagerness to find locally born players capable of establishing themselves in the first team squad has become something of an obsession of the Academy with Frank McParland and Rodolpho Borrell both seeing it as an important landmark in the Academy’s progression. The current hopes lie with Conor Coady, Jack Robinson and Adam Morgan although perhaps bigger expectations are with Jack Dunn and Jordan Rossiter who have both been personally checked on by Brendan Rodgers this season.
Crucially important to being in contention for breaking through at Liverpool is to maintain a consistently high standard in the U21s. Apart from the strange scenario which saw Jerome Sinclair – who has yet to make an appearance for the U21s – being a 1st team substitute then all the players who have been drafted into the first team have been outstanding performers for the U21 side. In particular Andre Wisdom and Suso have been devastatingly effective for the second string for the last couple of years and their promotion is a sign of a well maintained relationship between Melwood and the Academy. Further evidence that good form provides opportunities was provided by Alex Inglethorpe who confirmed in March that Brad Smith and Marc Pelosi were on the verge of a first team call up following fine form for the U21s and would have had an opportunity were it not for long term injuries setting them back.
Smith and Pelosi bring me on to the next factor of breaking through… avoiding injury. Many promising careers have been ended prematurely by a badly timed injury and with the second string players knowing they need to perform excellently week in, week out the chances of injury occurring is high. For those players aged 16-21, who are in some of the most crucial years for development, an injury could potentially be devastating to their long term chances of breaking into the first team. It’s for that reason that Liverpool’s mini injury crisis at the Academy after Christmas last season was so significant as a lot of players who could have potentially been in line for debuts were sidelined for a large period of time and at least two players undoubtedly missed their opportunity this season because of injury. Whether they ever get another chance for Liverpool depends on how their injury rehabilitation goes and whether the squad position has been filled by others. A missed chance for one player is a big opportunity for another though and Pelosi’s injury allowed Teixeira to finally establish himself in a deeper midfield position than previously. Teixeira has shone and Pelosi faces the challenge of winning his U21 position back before he can consider another challenge for the first team.
Logically, a strong squad is harder to break into than a weak one. As Liverpool progress and develop the squad should get stronger year on year and require a higher level of ability to get into. As Liverpool head into the 2013 summer transfer window they will reinforce the squad depth and every position taken up by a new signing is one less chance for a youth player. This is clearly not a bad thing, as long as the signing is of a good standard, and first team reinforcement is an absolute necessity but the fact remains that the squad in 2012/13 was easier to make first team debuts in and challenge for than it should be in 2013/14. Equally the 2013/14 squad should be easier in turn to get into than the 2014/15. This constantly rising level will limit chances for youth players and will increasingly rely on a level of trust from the management to bring a young player into the squad even though a fully fit experienced player is available.
Liverpool, according to Frank McParland, have the “perfect” man in Brendan Rodgers for fully utilising Academy products. While other good academies, such as West Ham, struggle under backwards, safe thinking from old-fashioned managers, Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers has proven during his management career that he is willing to give chances to young players and provides a level of trust to them. At the moment then the chances of breaking through for a talented player who has maintained a high level of performance and managed to avoid injury is relatively high but if and when Liverpool do change their manager these chances might never come no matter what level is reached by the youth player as the manager may simply not trust youth players such as Roy Hodgson.
Finally, and probably most importantly, is luck. No player can breaking through and establish themselves in the Liverpool squad without an element of luck; whether it is avoiding major injury, being lucky enough to be a favourite of the manager or seeing a deal for a player who would take their place in the squad fall through each player will have to be lucky to establish themselves. Some players will never get a chance because their first team equivalent is in outstanding form while others, who perhaps didn’t previously stand out as the most talented player, will get an opportunity due to injuries or suspension.
There are many factors that contribute to the chances of a youth players breaking into the Liverpool team. They have to be naturally talented, liked by the manager and in good form for the U21 team but this will rarely be enough and most players careers at Liverpool will come down to being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of any easy games at first team level or injuries which leave the squad short. There is a lot of luck involved and there will be some excellent talents who are allowed to slip through the system due to not getting a break at the right time but Liverpool hope that with the sheer volume of quality they have managed to stockpile that luck will be on their side and their target of two first teamers from every age group will be met.