Liverpool head into 2020 with a crop of new talent emerging in the academy ranks, including two teenagers taking weighty responsibility in midfield.
As ever, the Reds’ youth setup is undergoing a readjustment midway through the campaign, as some players return from loan and other depart.
This means those who remain at the club are given new opportunities, with promotions between age groups or simply an increase in game time due to the freeing up of places in the squad.
Both under-23s coach Neil Critchley and under-18s boss Barry Lewtas have cause for optimism heading into 2020, for the remainder of the season or beyond.
Here we take a look at 10 academy players who Liverpool fans should keep an eye on this year.
Bearne was a relatively high-profile signing at academy level back in 2016, when he made the switch from Notts County as a 15-year-old, with Liverpool benefiting from financial trouble at Meadow Lane to seal a £150,000 deal.
A versatile forward, arguably at his best up front but also comfortable as a No. 10 or out wide, Bearne’s campaign was initially disrupted by injury.
But he has since made his comeback and, having signed his first professional contract in October, made his senior debut as part of the young side that lost to Aston Villa in the League Cup.
Bearne is currently splitting his time between the U18s and U23s, and should enjoy considerably more game time in 2020, with his canny knack for scoring late goals lending itself perfectly to the Reds’ never-say-die attitude.
With Jake Cain and Leighton Clarkson making the step up to the U23s for the second half of the season, Lewtas has put his faith in Morton as his new creative outlet.
“It was the challenge we set Tyler: he’s got to be Tyler Morton and not Jake or Leighton,” Lewtas explained of the nimble midfielder at the start of January.
“At the same time when you take their assists and goals this season for us out of the team, somebody has got to come in and replace them…”
So far this season, Morton has tallied two goals and four assists in 12 appearances, with three assists coming in the first two games of 2020; he is clearly stepping up to the plate.
The mid-season acquisition of Hardy from Brentford represents one of necessity.
A local lad from the Wirral, Hardy was brought in following a half-season that saw Critchley routinely struggle for options up front, with this magnified with the loan exit of Rhian Brewster.
Three games in and the ex-Man City youth has already taken to the task at hand, with a brace in the U23s’ 5-0 win over Southampton.
Far from the tallest, Hardy’s game is built on hard yards and a predatory instinct in the box—and though he has seemingly not been brought in with the expectation of a first-team chance, stranger things have happened.
With Bobby Duncan departing under a cloud and Paul Glatzel‘s strides into the first-team picture undermined by long-term injury, Stewart was earmarked as the U18s’ next big hope up front.
The Scouser has delivered emphatically, with 13 goals and seven assists in 22 games so far seeing him become the second academy player to break the 20 mark in terms of direct goal contributions this season, following Curtis Jones.
Great with his back to goal and devastating working off the shoulder of defenders to feed off lofted balls from deep, Stewart is another clinical striker in the Reds’ youth ranks.
Given the arrival of Hardy and the recall of Liam Millar from his loan at Kilmarnock, Stewart could largely spend the rest of the season with the U18s—which as Glatzel will attest is no bad thing.
It has been a miserable season for Sharif so far.
The 19-year-old signed his first professional contract in June, ending speculation over a summer exit, but as he prepared to make a full-time step up to the U23s squad he suffered an ACL injury.
His layoff is expected to be nine months, of which six have now passed, and Sharif will be hoping to get back onto the field before the end of the campaign.
Critchley will be eager for him to do so, too, as his relentless work rate and overlapping runs from deep could give the U23s a different edge.
One of those set to profit from a mid-season reshuffle, Beck is poised to take up duties as first-choice left-back for the U18s as James Norris enjoys more regular outings for the age group above.
A tenacious full-back who joined after a spell with Stoke, Beck is also useful further forward, and has scored two and assisted two in 16 appearances for the academy so far this campaign.
Beck’s great-uncle just so happens to be Ian Rush—big footsteps to follow!
Position: Right-back / midfielder
Northern Irish teenager Bradley was among those to join the Reds in the summer, along with the likes of Sepp van den berg, Harvey Elliott and Jakub Ojrzynski, but his appearances for the academy have been limited so far.
His versatility and changes in the ranks with the U18s has provided an opening in 2020, however, and Bradley began the year with a start in the 3-0 win over Blackburn and a match-winning substitute’s role in the 2-1 victory at Stoke.
While he faces competition from Jack Walls at right-back, the ex-County Tyrone youngster seems better-placed for a long-term role, particularly as he is able to perform on the wing too.
He turned down Man United for Liverpool in the summer, telling the Belfast Telegraph in June that “it’s a bit overwhelming that I’m going to join the club that I support but hopefully I can take it all in my stride.”
Position: Winger / midfielder
Hill has been one of the surprise success stories of the season so far, and the 17-year-old from Formby is already one of Critchley and Lewtas’ most important assets.
Having made the step up from the under-16s last summer, Hill has made the fifth-most appearances of any academy player (24), has contributed the sixth-most goals and assists combined (11) and is now a regular option for the U23s.
His flexibility is crucial, with Hill able to play at right-back, up front, as a box-to-box midfielder and on either wing, and made his senior debut on the left flank in the loss to Villa in December.
Before kickoff at Villa Park, he received a glowing endorsement from Jamie Carragher, who lauded him as a “smashing player,” having first seen him play as a six-year-old.
Ritaccio’s campaign began more promisingly than Sharif’s, but the American has endured a similarly tough layoff due to a leg injury sustained in September.
Prior to that, Ritaccio was finding his feet in a more advanced role in Lewtas’ 4-1-3-2 formation with the U18s, which saw him score one and assist three in his first five games of the season.
He signed his first professional contract with the club in November, with his return pencilled in for early in the new year, after which he can provide Lewtas with a high-level option following a spell of relying on players from the U16s.
It could be that Ritaccio is considered for an immediate promotion to the U23s, and though it could take time for him to recapture his form, his enthusiastic attacking play is certainly worth the wait.
While this list is predominantly comprised of ‘new’ faces, it would be remiss to omit Clarkson ahead of what will hopefully be a breakout year for the midfielder.
Having been a key player at U18 level for the past season-and-a-half, the deep-lying playmaker has been promoted to the U23s setup along with Cain, and so far both have settled in perfectly.
With Herbie Kane and Isaac Christie-Davies already having left on loan and Pedro Chirivella likely to follow this month, Clarkson can expect to be given plenty of opportunities within Critchley’s squad.
No Liverpool player in the academy or the first team has laid on as many goals as the 18-year-old so far this season (13), with his aggression, agility and eye for a pass ensuring he is on Pepijn Lijnders‘ radar—and by extension, Jurgen Klopp‘s.