Stephen McGarty highlights the philosophies of Liverpool FC under-16 coach Pepijn Lijnders, who joined the club last summer.
There’s nothing quite like youth football. Nothing in football gives you the same feeling as watching a 15-year-old Raheem Sterling score five goals in the Youth Cup. Nothing sticks in the memory like a young Jordan Rossiter making his under-18 debut, heralded by Robbie Fowler suggesting he could be the heir to our captain.
The problem is that over the last 15 years, the production line has been slow, and the goods often below the level we would have hoped for.
Since the major rebuilding of the youth setup began under Rafael Benitez, the technical ability of the players coming through has improved year by year, and this has never been more evident than in recent months.
Last summer, Liverpool reshuffled their youth staff, with most of the attention focusing on the Alex Inglethorpe’s promotion from under-21 manager to Academy Director. Very few people noticed one of the new names on the list of staff – Pepijn Lijnders, under-16 manager.
To say Lijnders is highly rated is a bit of an understatement. A youth operator of the highest level, the Dutchman already has impressive spells at PSV and Porto under his belt. I can’t recommend some of his written work more highly, his focus on increasing player intelligence and decision-making, as well as recreating what he refers to as the “street academy” is fascinating.
His ideas clearly match up with the origin stories of so many of the greatest ever players, playing in the streets. The teams would often be lop-sided, from a young age players like Gerrard would play against much older boys, and there was no referee to stop games for a foul. These are the circumstances that created Maradona, Pele, Messi and so many others. This is why Lijnders likes to make his team play against older teams, gets them to play 2 v 2 matches inside the dressing rooms (winner stays on, competitiveness is important!). If you can perform in a difficult scenario, then you can perform on the perfect pitches of the Premier League, protected by referees.
Another thing which Lijnders did at Porto (although I can’t be sure that he is doing the same at Liverpool) is working with what he calls Potential Elite Players. This involves getting the top prospects from the top youth sides at the club to do specific training sessions together. The idea behind this being that two players, with a two-year age gap, might come through the youth system and not play together (or not very often at least) until the senior team.
This allows these players who could one day be staples of the first team, to build up an understanding from a very young age (think Gerrard and Owen). He also trys to turn these players into role models for the younger squads (one of the best under-16 players working as a mentor for several u11 players), whilst the benefits for the younger players are obvious, it also builds character and leadership skills in the older player (I say older, we’re talking about 15 year olds here!)
He also believes that players should play their position within the first team’s formation from a young age, to become a master in that position. Once they reach under-18 level they are so good in that position that they can then work on other positions so that they are more diverse and can supplement the first team.
This is because once a young player is brought through to cover for an injured team-mate, they are too often dropped or sold because they are a jack of all trades but master of none. Lijnders’ methods gives players a greater chance of being able to stay in the first team once they get there.
Logically, the players who have spent the longest time in the youth set-up since the reforms (ie. the younger players) are better than those who have gone before them, and this has been proven to be true in recent matches. With under-21 players going out on loan, many of the under-18s have had to step up to the under-21 side. As this knock on effect has continued throughout the club, stories have begun to come out about a 13 year old that’s starting for the under-16s, but I’m sure we’ll know more about him in a few years.
It’s always the under18 side that are most interesting as a viewer however, as they’re the youngest age group to play televised games. Therefore they’re the first games that a completely amateur scout can form a purely uneducated opinion about a player I know nothing about. So,here goes.
I say it every year, the players keep looking more technical, keep playing with a greater technical ability, but this year it feels like Lijnders has taken that to a whole new level. It’s still early days to be picking out more than a couple to comment on, but two have stood out immediately.
Yan Dhanda has got it. Theres that old saying “I don’t know what it is but you’ve got it”, and seriously, he’s got it. Only recently turned 16, the kid looks a class above the under-18s. Usually operating as an attacking midfielder, he’s recently been playing at left wing-back in order to add even more diversity to his game.
Dhanda clearly struggles with some of the defensive aspects, but when it comes to getting on the ball, running at opponents and creating chances for his teammates he is top drawer. Originally signed from West Brom in 2013, I’m more than happy to put my neck on the line and say that Dhanda will be a premier league player within the next three years.
The other to stand out is Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 16-year-old box-to-box midfielder, who has recently captained Liverpool at under-18 level and England at under-17 level. He is the latest player, behind Rossiter and Adam Phillips, to be dubbed ‘the next Steven Gerrard’. Alexander-Arnold is as hardworking as he is technically gifted, and has the leadership to match.
There are a host of other young players I’d like to talk about in the next few weeks, such as Herbie Kane, although I want to watch them all a couple more times before I make up my mind on them. Needless to say however, there is almost unlimited potential in the squads below senior level.
In our current financial situation, the Kirkby production line is likely to play an important role in our growth as a team.
It won’t only give us genuine world class stars like Steven Gerrard and perhaps even Raheem Sterling, it can theoretically allow us to stop needing to buy squad players, by giving us a wealth of academy graduates that can supplement the first team.
It can also become a great source of income, just look at the prices a side like Barcelona can demand for youth prospects they don’t need. Also, with the importance of homegrown players and financial fair play on modern football, a strong academy system might just be the ace up our sleeve we need to beat the big money clubs to major trophies.
I seem to end every article the same way these days, but it’s a great point to end on all the same. The long-term future of Liverpool Football Club looks bright.
Correction: This article previously had the wrong image of Pepijn Lijnders, it was in fact LFC’s head of academy coaching Nick Marshall.