With Mamadou Sakho ruled out until the new year with a knee injury, Jurgen Klopp could be forced to turn to the Liverpool academy’s centre-backs as cover.
Sakho is expected to be out of action until the beginning of January after damaging the joint in his right knee during Liverpool’s 2-1 loss at home to Crystal Palace, leaving Klopp with little choice in terms of centre-back options.
Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren will likely form the German’s first-choice partnership, with Kolo Toure the only recognised senior centre-back available as backup.
With Toure suffering regular injury problems of his own when utilised this season – subbed off in the first half due to injury in two his three starts – Klopp will be forced to look to the Reds’ academy ranks to supplement his squad during Sakho’s layoff.
Here are Klopp’s options within the academy.
Years with Liverpool: 4
Irish-born centre-back Daniel Cleary was in line for a loan move away from the club at the beginning of October, with Brendan Rodgers suggesting that, while on the fringes of his first-team setup, his development would be best served elsewhere.
However, with Rodgers relieved of his duties shortly after, Cleary has remained on Merseyside—and has been regularly involved in first-team training under Klopp.
Wearing the No. 58, Cleary made his first appearance for the Reds’ senior side during pre-season, replacing Nathaniel Clyne at right-back during the closing stages of the 1-1 draw with a Malaysia XI, but the 19-year-old is more comfortable as a central defender.
A tall, imposing centre-back, Cleary is a mainstay in Michael Beale’s U21s side, making seven appearances so far this season, and serving as captain in the last three.
Typically right-sided, Cleary is comfortable bringing the ball out of defence, and capable of dealing with both pacy and physical strikers, after honing his ability in training alongside Jamie Carragher.
“Carragher has always stood out for me because of his work rate, which is just amazing,” he explained in 2013. “I’m a player who tries to have a high work rate all the time and so I look up to players who are dedicated to working hard in training and out on the field.”
If Klopp added Cleary to his first-team ranks, he would find a defensive option close to his heart: bold, impassioned, resolute and hard-working.
Years with Liverpool: 8
After captaining Neil Critchley‘s U18s side throughout last season, Tom Brewitt was promoted to the U21s setup for 2015/16, with Cleary’s former centre-back partner, Lloyd Jones, joining Blackpool on loan.
Developing swiftly under Beale’s tutelage, Brewitt has developed a strong understand with Cleary, giving the U21s a solid foundation to build upon.
Born in Liverpool, Brewitt joined the club at U11 level with dreams of following in Carragher’s footsteps to wear the captain’s armband in the Reds’ defence.
“How he led the team and controlled the back four for so many years was brilliant,” he said in 2014. “He always gave everything and his leadership and organisation on the pitch was so important.”
Like Carragher, Brewitt is a full-blooded, aggressive centre-back who throws himself into challenges and dominates in the air.
Alongside Cleary, Brewitt slots into the U21s’ defence perfectly.
Possessing a strong positional sense, Brewitt is able to read the game to a high standard, and at just 18 he could well find himself within the Liverpool first team on a regular basis in the future.
As a left-sided centre-back, Brewitt would be an ideal option to cover for Sakho—though he would very much be learning on the job, with so little experience to date.
Elsewhere in the academy, Klopp could look to a pair of blossoming young talents in Corey Whelan and Conor Masterson.
Whelan, a versatile 17-year-old signed from Crewe Alexandra, is capable of performing at both centre-back and right-back, and has been a regular feature under Beale in the U21s this season, as well as in Critchley’s U18s.
Pacy, dynamic and confident in possession, Whelan is perhaps best suited to a full-back role at present, but his enthusiasm would no doubt endear himself to Klopp.
Masterson made his debut for Beale’s U21s in October’s 1-0 defeat away to Sunderland, after being named U16 International Player of the Year by the Irish FA in March.
Signed for £700,000 from Irish side Lucan United as in 2013, a 13-year-old Masterson chose Liverpool over Manchester City and Manchester United, and has impressed since his arrival.
A tall, committed central defender, Masterson is an intriguing prospect for Klopp to consider as cover in League Cup clashes this season.
With Cleary the standout option, however, and Brewitt a useful alternative, Whelan and Masterson would likely deputise as Beale’s U21s centre-backs in light of Sakho’s injury.
Adding Cleary and Brewitt to his first-team squad would allow Klopp to swell his defensive ranks without dipping hastily into the transfer market, with both capable of performing to a high standard and likely improving alongside the likes of Toure and Skrtel.
To further avoid unnecessary spending, the proven quality of Emre Can will be invaluable to Klopp, with the German capable of excelling at both left and right centre-back.
Meanwhile, the 48-year-old will no doubt explore the possibility of recalling loanees Tiago Ilori and Andre Wisdom in January.
Sakho’s injury is a major blow for Liverpool, but Klopp has a variety of options at his disposal when it comes to cover.