With Liverpool looking to streamline their academy ranks with a focus on quality, six players stand out from this current crop as future stars.
Academy director Alex Inglethorpe confirmed Liverpool’s plans to focus on quality over quantity within the club’s youth ranks, with a view to developing players for the first team.
“The changes started last season. We had around 235/240 before, it’s just under 200 boys now and that figure will head south still,” he explained.
“The focus here now isn’t on having a specific number in each age group, it’s around wanting a specific level of quality in each age group.”
The Reds’ U21s and U18s ranks have long been filled with high-potential talent, but Inglethorpe, working alongside first-team development coach Pepijn Lijnders and manager Jurgen Klopp, will be hoping to see the best players promoted to regular senior roles.
But which academy players are best placed to make the grade at this stage? Here are six standout talents.
Position: RB, CM
Alexander-Arnold was a surprise inclusion in Liverpool’s 2-1 win away to Swindon Town during pre-season, capping an encouraging rise through the youth ranks to become Neil Critchley‘s U18s captain in 2014.
A creative, box-to-box midfielder, Alexander Arnold is also able to deputise as a rampaging right-back, with his tall frame and ball-playing ability allowing him to suit both roles.
He is best in the middle of the park, however, as his two-goal display in the U18s’ 4-1 win over Newcastle United in September proved; though he will have impressed Klopp with an assist in November’s behind-closed-doors friendly win over Wolverhampton, after starting at right-back.
Signing his first professional contract with the club in October, Alexander-Arnold is poised to continue his development into a potential first-team regular on Merseyside.
His composure, technical quality and physical prowess make him a strong candidate for a senior role in the future.
After being promoted to the fringes of Brendan Rodgers’ first-team squad last season, Brannagan has continued his role under Klopp—though his lack of appearances for the Reds so far belies his quality.
A technically gifted central midfielder capable of thriving in a two- or three-man midfield and in a variety of roles, Brannagan has all the tools required to make the step up.
As U21s captain, Brannagan possesses strong leadership qualities, too, and fostered a strong partnership alongside Jordan Rossiter in Michael Beale’s side.
While he targets more first-team experience, Brannagan would be wise to develop the physical aspects of his game as, while the Manchester-born midfielder possesses the energy and tenacity to adapt to Klopp’s tactical outlook, he remains too slight to truly impose himself.
If he manages to do so, Brannagan can earmark a long-term role in the Liverpool squad.
Chirivella made his first-team debut alongside Brannagan in September’s 1-1 draw away to Bordeaux in the Europa League, and made a strong first impression in the centre of Rodgers’ midfield.
A cultured, Busquets-type midfielder, Chirivella takes up intelligent positions in space to allow his team-mates an outlet in possession or break up play with vital interceptions.
Able to link up play between the lines, Chirivella plays a similar role in the U21s to that of Joe Allen in the first team.
His ability to slot in as an early substitute in Bordeaux highlighted his mental fortitude and comfort at a demanding level, which bodes well for the future.
Though Phillips has been included in travelling squads for pre-season tours and Europa League away trips in the past, he remains something of a well-kept secret within the Liverpool youth ranks.
A well-built, all-action central midfielder, Phillips possesses an all-round ability that is very fleeting among young British talent.
Boasting a strong passing range, great delivery from the flanks and a rare set-piece prowess, Phillips has the potential to develop into a top-level Premier League midfielder.
Drifting between the U18s and U21s squads this season, Phillips’ development is best served at the academy at present, with the nuances of senior football—positioning, timing and movement—still in need of development, but he will no doubt make the step up in the next season or two.
One of many academy midfielders burdened with the ‘next Steven Gerrard’ tag, Phillips may not emulate the once-in-a-generation success of the former Liverpool captain, but he can certainly play a starring role on Merseyside.
Position: LW, RW
Currently on loan at Crewe Alexandra, Wilson’s development has stalled somewhat due to a lack of game time, but in the young Welsh winger Liverpool possess a fine attacking talent.
A diminutive midfielder at 5’6″, Wilson finds himself somewhere between the moulds of a natural winger and a line-breaking No. 10, and this versatility makes him a useful option for the club moving forward.
Already varying his movement in wide areas in driving towards the by-line or cutting inside to dribble through defences with pace and skill, Wilson is tactically advanced for his age.
His strongest attribute is his crossing ability, which saw him register eight assists for the U21s last season.
Wilson will need to make up for lost time when his spell with Crewe concludes, but the 18-year-old is destined for greatness.
Position: LW, RW, CAM
Ojo is Liverpool’s most physically prepared academy star, with his strong, 6’1″ frame making him a similar prospect to that of Daniel Sturridge when challenging defenders for the ball.
The former MK Dons forward is able of performing all across the forward line, as a winger, an attacking midfielder or an auxiliary striker, and has used his speed, strength and finesse to penetrate youth-team defences since his arrival at the club.
In loan spells, with Wigan Athletic last season and Wolves this season, Ojo has struggled to grasp the discipline required to excel in senior football, however.
But at just 18, this is to be expected, and like a young Sturridge, Ojo can iron out these kinks as he progresses through the ranks.
Liverpool paid MK Dons £2 million to secure Ojo’s services in 2011, but in time the England U19s man could prove that to be a true bargain.
– Danny Ward – A 22-year-old goalkeeper with great reflexes and command of the penalty area, currently shining on loan at Aberdeen. Could play a first-team role in 2016/17.
– Jordan Rossiter – Liverpool’s most well-known academy talent, and a bona fide first-team feature under Klopp. Not as advanced technically as Brannagan or Chirivella, but can star.
– Herbie Kane – An energetic, goalscoring midfielder, Kane is another player likened to Gerrard during his time at the club. Name-checked by Lijnders as a star of the academy.
– Sergi Canos – Similar to Ojo in terms of physique, Canos is a technically sound forward who is currently learning the ropes on loan at Brentford. Offers Klopp a useful wide option.
– Ryan Kent – More pacy and direct than Canos and Wilson, Kent is a confident, skilful winger capable of troubling goalkeepers with either foot. Can shine if he finds consistency.
– Yan Dhanda – Signed from West Bromwich Albion in 2013, Dhanda operates at a level above the majority of Critchley’s U18s in terms of tactical intelligence. A gifted, creative No. 10.
– Bobby Adekanye – A summer signing following a departure from Barcelona, 16-year-old winger Adekanye has started strongly for the U18s. Quick, versatile and confident in possession.
– Taiwo Awoniyi – Awoniyi is being overlooked on loan at FSV Frankfurt, but the strong, off-the-shoulder striker is a star in Nigeria’s successful youth sides. One to watch.