Ovie Ejaria became the latest Liverpool youngster to step into first-team action, making his debut in Tuesday’s League Cup win at Derby County.
It was a night of firsts for Liverpool as they breezed past Nigel Pearson’s Rams with a routine 3-0 victory to seal their place in the competition’s fourth round.
Loris Karius made his long-awaited debut and kept a clean sheet on return from injury, while Marko Grujic marked his first Reds start with an impressive display and Ragnar Klavan notched his maiden Liverpool goal—a moment the Estonian clearly enjoyed.
But while memorable nights for each of those players, it perhaps proved an even more special occasion for Ejaria, who was handed his competitive debut by Jurgen Klopp as a late substitute, replacing Robert Firmino.
Playing the final 12 minutes, Ejaria became the latest youngster to step into first-team action, but who is the 18-year-old?
It hasn’t been the easiest journey into the professional game and Liverpool’s first team for Ejaria, who was born and raised in London.
A boyhood Arsenal fan, Ejaria joined the Gunners’ academy at an early age and progressed through the ranks, seemingly set for a bright future.
But aged 16, his aspirations were dealt a crushing blow, released by the north London side in summer 2014 after nine years as a youth player.
Without a club, Liverpool swooped in for Ejaria—reportedly ahead of Man United—a move which under-23s boss Michael Beale was a key factor behind, having known him well from his time at Chelsea’s development centre and as his ‘chauffeur’ to Sunday league training.
Ejaria joined the under-18s at Liverpool’s academy base in Kirkby where he adapted to new surroundings, and it didn’t take long for him to showcase the potential Beale instantly saw.
“Even at that age you could see what unbelievable technical ability he had,” Beale explained in September. “Now he’s starting to show that and I’m so pleased for him.”
Enjoying a productive debut season with the under-18s, Ejaria earned under-21 recognition—a signal of his rapid progress—and further involvement followed last season; aided by scoring a winning goal for the youth team in front of Klopp days after the German’s arrival.
Catching the Liverpool boss’ attention, Klopp quickly discovered he had a real talent on his hands—one he has taken little time in incorporating into his first team.
Ejaria’s progress saw him included in first-team pre-season duties, with the youngster handed his bow at Tranmere Rovers, and his eye-catching displays earned him a place in the US tour squad.
Progress was frustratingly halted by injury, but his bright friendly showings were not forgotten, and Ejaria was named on the bench in the Reds’ 2-1 Premier League win at Chelsea.
He didn’t feature at Stamford Bridge, but was made to wait just four more days to make the debut he wouldn’t have dreamt of just over two years ago upon his Arsenal release.
Style of Play
An exciting prospect Beale described to This Is Anfield after his debut as “a lovely technical player,” Ejaria is a natural central midfielder.
The 18-year-old boasts outstanding innate ability and impressive game intelligence which enables him to play various central roles—deployable in a box-to-box position, as the primary attacking influence from the centre of the park or even as a powerful No. 10.
A tall, rangy figure, Ejaria’s physicality also stands out, which often saw the youngster dominate midfields at youth level, and his developing wiry frame points toward a driving force in the making.
This physical development will naturally aid Ejaria’s defensive contribution, which Beale noted has also developed, saying: “He has always been a lovely technical player but now he is much more mature in his decision making and in his application to his defensive duties.”
Technique combined with power and improved aggression makes him such a prospect, with the youngster capable of driving past opponents to inject tempo into final-third play, where he looks to contribute with clever passes around the box or surge inside for a shooting chance.
Such features were seen in pre-season as he instantly impressed with the maturity of his play—happy to receive the ball either side of defensive lines.
This comfort in dropping deep to receive possession before driving forward or executing a penetrative pass, and equal happiness to play in the final third where he can use his quick feet to trick defenders, makes him a tough player to control.
One feature that really shone in the friendlies was his self-belief: Ejaria instantly threw himself into action alongside first-team stars, commanding the ball, dictating play and taking a leading role.
But perhaps most crucial is his willingness to learn, which Beale paid tribute to after his Pride Park bow:
“Ovie has developed so much since he joined the academy.
“He is a fantastic boy to work with both for his ability and also his desire to learn and improve.
“This has enabled him to make huge developments in the last 12 months.”
This confidence and desire to improve will take Ejaria forward, and if he can continue to develop his talent, a long-term role in Klopp’s squad could be earned.
Exciting Anfield Future
The latest from the academy production line to enjoy first-team recognition, Ejaria certainly has an exciting future ahead of him at Anfield.
His style of play, attributes—both technically and physically—and willingness to learn make him an ideal prospect for Klopp to nurture over the coming months and seasons, developing into a future first-team player.
Previously described as a “well-educated” player by Klopp, the fluidity and intelligence of his game and his suitability to various roles offer real encouragement for future progression.
First-team chances are likely to remain restricted to such controlled occasions as against Derby for now, which Ejaria will hope continue to be forthcoming in cup and domestic competitions throughout the season.
But bedding Ejaria into first-team duties will only assist his progress for when the he does inevitably make the full transition to becoming a member of Klopp’s squad.
As always, patience will be required, but for Ovie Ejaria, the future is bright.