Liverpool winger Sheyi Ojo is set for a defining summer, after enduring a disappointing season hampered by injury and inconsistency in 2016/17.
Ojo’s season with the Reds is over, having departed for South Korea with the England U20s squad, ending a disappointing campaign for the 19-year-old.
Having broken through to the first-team setup in 2015/16, Ojo found himself in limbo this term, drifting between appearances for the Liverpool U23s and first-team training at Melwood.
It is this senior stasis that often spells trouble for a promising youngster, and one that has plagued many of the bright talents on Merseyside in recent years.
Struggling for breathing space in 2016/17, Ojo now faces a summer of contemplation, as Liverpool move forward and Jurgen Klopp plans for the future.
Ensuring he remains part of that will be Ojo’s key focus, and a response to his season of setbacks is essential.
Ojo’s Disappointing 2016/17
Ojo made his senior debut for the Reds exactly three months after Klopp was appointed as manager: in the 2-2 draw with Exeter City in the third round of the FA Cup.
Replacing Jerome Sinclair with 20 minutes to play at St James Park, Ojo marked a promising start to life at Liverpool.
His first goal came in the resulting replay, 12 days later, sending a wonderful lofted effort beyond the hapless Bobby Olejnik and into the top corner for one of the strikes of the season.
He went on to add four assists to his season’s tally for the Liverpool first team, with three of those coming in the Premier League, averaging a goal contribution every 90 minutes.
That breakthrough saw Ojo included in Aidy Boothroyd’s England U19s squad for the summer’s European Championship in Germany, with this call-up arguably hampering the winger’s following 12 months.
Ojo featured in all four of the Young Lions’ clashes at the tournament, scoring in both of his starting appearances, before England crashed out at the semi-final stage to Italy.
Klopp offered Ojo an extended holiday after the Euros, but instead he opted to fly straight out to Liverpool’s pre-season training camp in Palo Alto, saying “being out here is definitely best for my development.”
It showed admirable commitment from the youngster, but a lack of rest may well have contributed as he picked up a back injury after a goalscoring turn in the 2-1 friendly defeat to AS Roma.
Ojo was ultimately sidelined until November, and after initially joining the first-team squad for training, dropped down to the U23s in a bid to regain his fitness.
This did culminate in a pair of appearances in the FA Cup in January, in both clashes with Plymouth Argyle, but Ojo failed to add to this in the second half of 2016/17.
Instead, Ojo has spent the season back with the U23s, serving up moments of fleeting brilliance under Mike Garrity, who in January insisted he needed to be “more consistent” in order to prevail.
His final outing of the campaign, the U23s’ 2-1 win away Everton, did hint at this, scoring the opener and performing with a remarkable intensity in an unfamiliar role as No. 9.
But did it come too late for the former MK Dons youngster?
Doomed to Repeat History?
If England go the distance in South Korea this summer, Ojo and Ovie Ejaria will be away until June 11, spending three weeks taking part in a gruelling tournament.
They could feasibly play a game every three days on average if so, and while this should be seen as a positive, with international activity hugely productive, it is reminiscent of last summer for Ojo.
Liverpool will begin their pre-season preparations at the start of July, with domestic friendlies expected prior to the trip to Hong Kong to take part in the Premier League Asia Trophy.
While this would therefore give Ojo and Ejaria at least three weeks’ rest, it is significantly less than their team-mates.
And factoring in travel to the Far East, with both likely involved in Klopp’s plans for pre-season, this could take its toll on their conditioning.
Ojo and Ejaria both struggled with niggling injuries in the second half of the season, and have only recently returned to full fitness, with a busy summer serving as a red flag.
With Klopp seeking to add to his attacking ranks in the upcoming transfer window, with Roma winger Mohamed Salah one of his targets, Ojo cannot afford another injury setback ahead of 2017/18.
If he does, he could experience another frustrating season working back to health as the Reds move on without him.
Finding a Role for Next Season
As with in 2015/16, this will bring an increased schedule for the Reds, and for players like Ojo this will be hugely encouraging.
While Klopp will be reinforcing his squad, and adding depth to his wide options will be a priority, the German will no doubt retain his faith in the club’s youth.
Liverpool’s failure in the FA Cup, and their streamlined fixture list, no doubt played a part in Ojo’s marginal role this season—the opportunity would have been there otherwise, as he still spent much of the campaign training with the first team.
But next season could be a turning point for Ojo, as he seeks to carve out a long-term future; a goal on the final day of the campaign is no guarantee of longevity, as Jordon Ibe will attest.
Ojo is clearly a hugely talented young player, and given his injuries a record of eight goals in 19 appearances for the U23s this season proves he is still largely producing when called upon.
“I’m always improving and trying my best and I believe I have a future with this club,” he said after the win at Goodison Park.
“Hopefully, if I keep doing well and keep working hard, the rewards will pay off.”
He’s clearly confident, but Ojo must get everything right this summer, and improve his consistency and application, otherwise he could face falling onto the scrapheap.