Though far from the most emphatic of results, Sunday’s 1-1 draw away to West Brom saw Liverpool’s young stars take another big step.
After Salomon Rondon’s strike very briefly silenced the travelling Kop just 13 minutes into the Reds’ last game of the Premier League campaign, a goal of real individual brilliance from Jordon Ibe secured his side a point at the Hawthorns.
Roared on throughout by a support eagerly awaiting Wednesday night’s Europa League final against Sevilla, Jurgen Klopp‘s side rewarded the away fans with a strong display, given the circumstances.
Klopp had made 11 changes to his side in anticipation for the trip to Basel’s St. Jakob-Park, with his starting lineup boasting an average age of just 24, and a combined shirt number of 361.
This included a number of the Reds’ most promising young stars, and coming at the tail end of the 2015/16 campaign, these prodigious talents provided a glimpse of Liverpool’s future.
As Klopp has navigated a congested fixture schedule this season, the academy can celebrate a real triumph of development.
In a season of many firsts for Liverpool, Klopp handed debuts to two more players on Sunday afternoon, bringing the total number of debutants for the campaign up to a remarkable 19.
Cameron Brannagan made his first league start of his fledgling career, joining Kevin Stewart and Joe Allen in a three-man midfield in Klopp’s 4-3-3.
Meanwhile Sergi Canos, fresh from a season on loan with Brentford in the Championship, came on for a second-half cameo, in what was his first ever appearance for the club.
Canos joins the likes of Connor Randall, Sheyi Ojo and Joe Maguire in making his first Reds outing following Klopp’s arrival, and much like Ojo in particular, both the Spaniard and his U21s captain gave a good account of their talents at the Hawthorns.
Brannagan’s role mirrored that of Allen, shuttling from box to box and looking to thread passes between the lines.
This outlook jarred somewhat with the abject Christian Benteke, but with Ibe and Ojo providing pace and width, Liverpool found a number of positive openings on the flanks.
After the game, Klopp hailed Brannagan, outlining how the 20-year-old “passed the ball really well, quick and simple,” and it is the midfielder’s efficiency, his control in confined areas and his creative vision that may force the German’s hand when it comes to Allen’s own future at the club.
Canos progressed positively in his role at Griffin Park this season, developing from an impact substitute to a fully fledged first-team star, starting in 10 of Brentford‘s last 15 league games.
The 19-year-old was awarded the Bees’ Community Player of the Year award, as well as scoring their Goal of the Year with an excellent strike away to Reading in December, and this recognition clearly gave Canos a boost as he joined Klopp’s squad in the middle of the week.
Taking Ojo’s place on the right wing on 80 minutes, Canos provided a constant outlet moving forward, demanding the ball whenever possible and making intelligent movements around the box.
It was far from the most remarkable performance from a young player, but the way in which Canos handled the occasion showed another talent capable of shining under Klopp.
As Liverpool have progressed in the Europa League, from trouncing Man United in the last 16, to battling back in style against Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-finals and producing a stellar semi-final display at home to Villarreal, Klopp has taken a measured approach in the league.
After a successful audition for some of his youngsters in Valentine’s Day’s 6-0 win away to Aston Villa, Klopp began to rotate his side for league clashes.
Against Crystal Palace at the beginning of March, Jon Flanagan came in for Nathaniel Clyne, with the 23-year-old captaining the Reds against Southampton two weeks later.
Clashes with Stoke City, Bournemouth, Swansea City, Newcastle United and Watford gave the 48-year-old the opportunity to utilises the likes of Stewart, Ojo, Ibe and Brad Smith, and this continued against the Baggies.
Despite their youth, these players are now established names within Klopp’s first-team squad, and while the Reds failed to secure the victory at the Hawthorns, a comprehensive display underlined this fact.
“The plan was to keep the ball as long as possible, and for these young boys it was a real challenge. But we did really well,” Klopp evaluated after the game, clearly pleased with how his young players have subscribed to his training methods and his tactical outlook.
Ibe was perhaps most impressive of the young players on Sunday afternoon, putting a hit-and-miss campaign behind him by netting his first Premier League goal for the club.
It was a moment of pure quality from a player who, despite his experience, with 41 league appearances to his name, is still only 20 years old—something that can be held up as a key positive by Klopp.
However, there were still clear warning signs in the West Midlands.
While the performances of Ojo, Brannagan, Ibe and Co. were hugely promising, and represented a real breakthrough for youth coaches Michael Beale and Neil Critchley, the absence of one youngster served to curb the enthusiasm.
Joao Carlos Teixeira, a veteran of Beale’s U21 ranks and a player who has been around the first-team ranks in recent years, was left out of Klopp’s matchday squad.
After the game, the German cited a slight back problem for the Portuguese playmaker, who joined the Reds from Sporting CP in 2012, but with Teixeira set to leave the club at the end of the season, this seemed a convenient standpoint.
No doubt Teixeira would have played through the pain given the opportunity, allowing him to make his full Premier League debut.
But that the 23-year-old failed to start for the club in a league game in his four years on Merseyside serves as a warning sign for Klopp’s young stars: fail to make the grade, and you will get cut.
Similarly, Jordan Rossiter’s move to Rangers, with the 19-year-old joining the Glasgow side on a free transfer this summer, highlighted a ruthless edge in Klopp’s management.
As while the new Liverpool manager has showcased a faith in youth in his seven months as Reds manager, this has always been based on individual merit, rather than filling gaps in the squad.
The emergence of distinct roles for midfielders Stewart and Brannagan, for example, points towards long-term planning, with the onus now on Klopp’s young stars to continue their development within this framework.
Sunday’s 1-1 draw with West Brom served as a landmark for the Liverpool academy, but the work cannot stop there.