With a gruelling fixture list awaiting Liverpool in January, Jurgen Klopp is likely to call upon his young players at key times.
2016 is almost at an end, with the Reds facing just two more Premier League matches before the New Year.
Stoke City visit Anfield on December 27th – very much a must-win for Liverpool – before a huge game at home to Pep Guardiola’s Man City on New Year’s Eve.
The hope is that Klopp’s men pick up maximum points from those games, as they look to stay in touch with Chelsea going into a hectic January.
Manic start to the year
In total, Liverpool are set to have eight fixtures in the first month of 2017, assuming success in the FA Cup third round.
Up first are Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on January 2nd, less than 48 hours after the City game, which is utterly ridiculous. It will be especially interesting to see how much the team is rotated for that one.
The Reds host League Two opposition of either Plymouth or Newport in the FA Cup third round on January 8th, before the first-leg of their League Cup semi-final with Southampton three days later.
Then there’s a crucial trip to Old Trafford on January 15th – one that could be so pivotal in both the title and top-four reckoning.
Liverpool’s congested January
- Sunderland (h) – Jan 2nd
- Plymouth/Newport (h) – Jan 8th
- Southampton (a) – Jan 11th
- Man United (a) – Jan 15th
- Swansea (h) – Jan 21st
- Southampton (h) – Jan 25th
- FA Cup fourth round – Jan 28th/29th
- Chelsea (h) – Jan 31st
Swansea City visit Anfield the following weekend, followed by the second-leg against Saints, and barring a huge shock in the previous round, the FA Cup returns for Liverpool on the weekend of January 28th.
The month ends with perhaps the biggest game of the season so far, with Klopp’s side taking on title favourites Chelsea on Merseyside.
It really is a make or break month in a relentless run of important matches, and Klopp has to rotate his squad wisely. It should provide a great opportunity for several youngsters to shine.
Can Liverpool’s youth deliver?
Expecting too much from the young Reds is helpful to nobody, but a number of them have already shown they can stand up and be counted this season.
With Sadio Mane off on Africa Cup of Nations duty, Philippe Coutinho needing to be eased back in and other key players in need of a rest, this is a real chance for them to influence Liverpool’s hunt for three trophies.
Joe Gomez has made a very encouraging return for Liverpool’s U23s in recent weeks. The 19-year-old has looked both classy on the ball and a strong physical presence, and it is clear that Klopp thinks very highly of him.
Admittedly, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and Lucas Leiva are all ahead of him in the centre-back pecking order, but if Klopp feels he is ready, he will play him. He could quite well get his first appearance under Klopp in the FA Cup third round.
Sheyi Ojo‘s stock has fallen slightly since the summer, through absolutely no fault of his own. The teen winger has been hampered by a back injury in 2016/17, but he is another who has been thriving in the U23s of late.
We saw glimpses of Ojo’s class last season, not least when he provided a beautiful assist for Daniel Sturridge against Stoke, and with Mane away, he is one of the few Liverpool players who can offer similar pace and trickery in wide areas.
The FA Cup clash with Plymouth or Newport would be tailor-made for him to come in and showcase his talent – the same may well apply to Gomez.
Then there’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn, arguably the two brightest youngsters at Liverpool at the moment.
This season has been a breakthrough one for both, and they haven’t looked out of place in their first-team appearances so far.
At just 17, Woodburn is still expected to be used less, but as he showed on his goalscoring Reds debut in the League Cup against Leeds United, he possesses composure beyond his years.
Alexander-Arnold looks a good replacement for Nathaniel Clyne at right-back, with his athleticism, intelligence and end product making him a player of vast potential.
Of all Liverpool’s young players, he is the one you would bank on featuring in a crucial Premier League game and delivering. That could happen against Sunderland – who knows how many players Klopp will rest for that match.
Kevin Stewart is a limited but solid option in the middle of the park, particularly in cup games, although it is easy to forget that he is actually older than Emre Can. Ovie Ejaria will also get further chances in January, as could Marko Grujic who is also returning from injury.
It would be worrying if Klopp was in a situation where he needed to use these emerging talents regularly in January, but it shouldn’t fill us with concern if they appear in the FA Cup games and the odd league match.
Make or break month
It is easy to be hyperbolic at any stage of the season, but January does genuinely feel like a defining month in Liverpool’s campaign.
To have so many key games in several competitions will test of the mental and physical resolve of the Reds’ squad, and we will know a lot more about their mettle by the time February arrives.
The legs will be heavy from that first game against Sunderland onwards, and who knows how the title race will be shaping up by the time Chelsea arrive at Anfield.
What we do know is that Mane won’t be around and other first-team regulars are bound to be in and out of the side, paving the way for the youngsters.
Likes of Gomez, Ojo, Alexander-Arnold and Woodburn all have the ability to be future stars, but Klopp may well need them to deliver in the present.
The German has always been a manager who promotes youth, and we should have total faith in him if he does rely on several teenagers during January.