Now finding the back of the net on a regular basis, Liverpool U23s captain Matty Virtue faces a decisive second half of the season as he aims for the first team.
Though the young Reds continue to stutter through a disappointing start to the season under Neil Critchley, there remain a clutch of positives to cling to.
Those include Adam Lewis’ seamless step up, Bobby Adekanye’s flashes of brilliance, the maturity of teenagers Curtis Jones, Rafa Camacho and Neco Williams and first goals for Liam Millar and Glen McAuley after their promotion.
But perhaps most impressive is the way in which Virtue has risen to the challenge as Critchley’s new captain, following the loan departures of Harry Wilson to Derby and Corey Whelan to Crewe.
At 21, this is a natural progression for the midfielder, and one which could set him in motion for the next step in his career.
Born in Epsom, Virtue’s first big move in football came at the age of nine, when he joined Chelsea‘s youth setup, making the short, seven-mile trip across Surrey to train.
He only stayed there for two years, however, with his family relocating to the north to settle on Merseyside, where his mother was born.
There, the high-potential youngster had a big decision to make, with both Everton and Liverpool keen to acquire his services.
It was not a difficult decision for Virtue, as he told the club’s official website in 2017.
“I was a Liverpool fan, I’ve always been a Liverpool fan, so I think it was that,” he recalled. “My mum is from Liverpool so I got attached to that team.”
His development at Kirkby was aided by the arrival of a familiar face in 2012, with Michael Beale joining from Chelsea to eventually settle in the role of U21s manager.
Virtue established himself as a regular under Beale, operating as a right-back and a central midfielder and impressing in both, though the coach was eager to stress a patient approach.
A steady rise at Liverpool led to a half-season loan move to Notts County at the beginning of 2018, joining Kevin Nolan’s promotion chasers with a view to learning the ropes as a goalscoring midfielder.
“It’s always tough when you come into a new environment but you can already see he’s more than capable,” Nolan told the Magpies’ official website on securing the deal.
“We’re hoping when he crosses that white line it suits him and we start taking him on an upward curve.
“He’s going to be given a great opportunity to excel here and go back to Liverpool a better player. We’ll help him as much as we can.”
Nolan’s dedication to ensuring Virtue’s progress and aid the Reds was encouraging, but after starting the first three games a red card against Crawley Town saw him drop out of the side.
Between the start of February and the end of March he started just once, that being in an 8-1 thrashing at the hands of Swansea in the FA Cup.
When he came back into the side he was deployed in an unfamiliar role on the right, and though Nolan was impressed—telling the Nottingham Post he was in “fantastic” form—it was far from the productive loan spell Liverpool expected.
This, combined with the departures of Jordan Williams and Paulo Alves, and loan moves for Ovie Ejaria and Herbie Kane, may have informed the club’s decision to retain him this season.
Instead of sealing another temporary switch, Virtue was instead kept in place to provide a young U23s with much-needed experience and leadership.
In Neil Critchley, he is working under a manager enamoured with his work ethic, with the coach praising him as a “great role model” in his academy column in 2017:
“The longer the game goes the stronger influence he seems to have.
“He is one of those players that will do extra work after training to try and improve.
“He is a great example to all of our younger players around him.
“If you put the hours in, if you practise and you are dedicated to your profession then you can improve and you will improve.
“He is a great role model for the boys.”
Now wearing the captain’s armband, he can pass on some of this humility and determination to the likes of Jones, Lewis, Liam Coyle, Elijah Dixon-Bonner and Edvard Tagseth, but the focus should remain on his own development.
In an ideal world for Virtue, as he told Anfield Edition in April, this would lead him to playing “week in, week out in for Liverpool in the Premier League.”
“That’s always been the goal ever since I was a lad and I’m going to do the most I possibly can to accomplish that,” he explained, confidently.
Critchley believes the best way to do so will be to take responsibility and improve his numbers in front of goal, continuing his shift from functional, deep-lying midfielder to a prolific No. 8.
“One of his best attributes without a doubt is getting into the penalty area and scoring goals,” Critchley told LiverpoolFC.com in October.
“If you are a goalscoring midfield player then people take notice of you.”
Those ‘people’ the U23s manager alluded to are, most importantly, Jurgen Klopp and Pepijn Lijnders, and so far this season it has paid off.
Virtue’s goal in the 3-1 win over Leicester City at the beginning of November was his fifth in the last four Premier League 2 games, bringing his tally to six in 11 appearances so far.
Having already trained under Klopp at Melwood in the past, the midfielder has been a more regular presence in recent months, and will likely be involved again this international break.
It is difficult to see Virtue breaking into the first-team fold when competing with Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Adam Lallana, however.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain still on the books and Jones awaiting his opportunity, too, it seems the most beneficial move would be another loan spell.
This could see Virtue follow in the footsteps of Wilson, who was set a similar challenge by Critchley this time last year—before joining Hull City, scoring seven goals in 14 games and earning Klopp’s recognition.
Whether his futures lies at Anfield remains to be seen, but after catching the eye in the first half of 2018/19, Virtue must build on this to ensure his chance doesn’t pass him by.