Not long ago the old-fashioned street footballer was pronounced dead, but they are making a return on Merseyside, as Jurgen Klopp and Pep Lijnders harness Liverpool’s streetwise talent.
Two years ago, David Moyes proclaimed Wayne Rooney to be the last of the street footballers, attributing his adaptability and talent to growing up playing on the streets.
Moyes would declare: “I don’t know if there are many of what we call street footballers around anymore. For me, he was the last of that type.”
There was a school of thought around this time, in the collective handwringing following England’s abysmal Euro 2016 campaign, that the street footballer had died out, epitomised by Henry Winter’s account of English football in Fifty Years of Hurt.
I can’t speak for the rest of the England, but the street footballer has never died out in Liverpool, just ask Pep Lijnders.
Klopp’s second-in-command recalls his first season at Liverpool Football Club affectionately. It was the 2014/2015 season and he was coaching with Liverpool’s under-15s and under-16s.
Speaking to The Athletic, Klopp’s right-hand man reflects fondly upon this campaign, one of his “favourite years of coaching”:
“We trained for two hours each day and every session ended with three teams of seven. Goal on, goal off.
“The better you played, the more you played. With the streetwise Liverpool boys that was the way to push them.”
The foremost of these streetwise talents was Trent Alexander-Arnold who was, by own admission, obsessed with football.
Trent doesn’t appear to fit the street footballer mould. He may have grown up near Liverpool’s training ground, but it is within the relatively affluent suburb of West Derby and he attended a fee-paying school.
However, Liverpool’s homegrown star recalls a childhood spent with his brothers climbing on bins to watch the first team at Melwood and having kickabouts whenever and wherever they could.
Trent had a serious illness, remembering: “I had something in my veins. I was just…obsessed.”
The nature of his illness was indeed severe; Liverpool Football Club had seeped into the very fibre of his being.
Trent always possessed the talent—just five minutes into a trial at Ellergreen school expletives were resorted to—but it was his streetwise determination which elevated him.
Having tripped up an opposing forward to save a goal as a youth player, his determination to win was duly noted, proudly reflected on by a former coach as “a Scouse trait.”
Trent may not have a big Scouse personality, but his character and the spirit of his city comes out on the pitch. Klopp describes it thus:
“He is very aggressive in a positive way…He is absolutely a Scouser in the best understanding.
“It’s a big task and a big job to be a Scouser as a Liverpool player because you are responsible for pretty much everything.”
Like others before him, Trent never forgets the streets he played on, and in fact appears to derive confidence from playing alongside those same streets he grew up on.
To paraphrase an old Shankly phrase: playing football at the highest level isn’t pressure, it’s the reward. And Trent epitomises that mindset; he absorbs pressure like a diamond.
At the age of just 21 and always under the close family influence of his mother Diane and brother Tyler—his manager—Trent is involved in numerous projects to help his community.
Klopp summarises his development: “[He] was a big talent but we were not sure he could do it physically. Now he is a machine.”
Trent could, of course, be seen as a one-off; something of a fluke, a generational talent.
Like Trent, Curtis Jones has long been a standout talent, something of an inside secret within the academy.
If Jones is a little rougher round the edges it’s because the streets gave him his identity, explaining to the Independent:
“I grew up the way a lot of Scousers do, just being a street kid, not having the best facilities, and making the most out of everything you can.
“Growing up [in Toxteth] made me the player I am today—confident, brave, knowing where I need to get to.”
Reflecting upon the differences between his two Scouse talents six months ago, Klopp declared: “Curtis is a proper Scouser.”
“I don’t know if I have the right words, but he is not shy to say a few things and probably that’s a surprise for one or two players!” the manager continued.
Brash and self-confident, Jones was a raw player with flair who loved to dribble and take people on, but sometimes to the team’s detriment, as Klopp went on to note.
“[He is] good at dribbling and stuff like that,” he explained, “but now we need to make sure he finds the right moment to pass the ball.”
Lijnders provides greater detail on the team’s requirements:
“You can have a lot of passion but if there’s no structure then you have no chance.
“You need organisation, tactical discipline and the right distances…that’s the father and mother of football.”
At Liverpool Football Club, Klopp and Lijnders are the father and mother of football personified, with their relentless drive to improve.
And yet they are far from mechanised drones.
Klopp and Lijnders want their teams to be aggressive, relentless; but they are also harnessing the natural instincts—the inherent confidence, flair and talent—of players who cut their teeth on the streets, to fit within a world-class structure.
It is not about eradicating the street instincts, it is about enhancing and building upon them.
After viewing Jones’ wonder-goal in the derby, Klopp wasn’t even surprised, noting: “That he scores that goal? I am not surprised. He is for these situations.”
In the Liverpool coaching staff’s mind, the goals are the easy part for players of such abilities.
Trent and Curtis are not outliers in this Liverpool team: although superbly talented players the likes of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Andy Robertson, amongst others, have come from well-documented tough backgrounds.
This Liverpool team is a team of superbly talented grafters and the next generation looks no different.
Klopp recently revealed how the older and younger players regularly face off in training every week, but the experienced players were always victorious—until this season.
“At the moment, the young lads are one up. It shows the development and that the players are pushing like crazy in training,” said Klopp.
The older lads had better watch out: Klopp and Lijnders are proving to be the perfect men to develop a new generation of Merseyside street footballers, and they intend on shaping them into the beating red heart of this Liverpool team.