With the academy season officially over, an opportunity to assess Liverpool’s 2019/20 campaign highlights a number of standout performances over the past 10 months.
Following the suspension of football in March the decision was made to end the youth season early, cancelling six games for the Reds’ under-23s and seven for the under-18s.
It is yet to be agreed how final placings will be determined, but the tables as they stand indicate a mixed campaign for Liverpool across the age groups.
The U23s sit fifth in the Premier League 2, with new manager Barry Lewtas looking to inspire an improvement in 2020/21 as he leads a new group comprised of many of the U18s that he took to second in the U18 Premier League.
Many of Lewtas’ youngsters make up this list of the 10 best Liverpool academy players of 2018/19, along with some staples of the U23s squad.
We’ve omitted the likes of Neco Williams, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott, as despite Jones in particular excelling at academy level this season with 17 goals and 10 assists in 20 games, they are now full-time members of the first team.
So who makes the cut? We kick off with a No. 10 spot that could have been taken by any of four players…
10. Ben Winterbottom
But the spot goes to Winterbottom, who made more appearances than any other goalkeeper at academy level in 2019/20, with 20, and was backup to Caoimhin Kelleher for the League Cup clash with Aston Villa in December.
With Kelleher travelling with the first team and Vitezslav Jaros injured for the majority of the campaign, last year’s signing from Blackburn played more than he likely would have expected.
And a consistency of starts saw the 18-year-old improve over the course of the season, particularly with his shot-stopping and long-range passing.
Jaros’ return will see him face a battle to keep his place, but Winterbottom made a strong case for himself this season.
9. Luis Longstaff
It has been a strange season for Longstaff, who was faced with a tussle for a place in the U23s’ attack due to competition from Elliott, Jones and Rhian Brewster, but then settled in an unusual role.
Having caught the eye previously as a skilful winger, he was then tasked with taking up duties as No. 9, with Neil Critchley lacking a consistent presence up front.
Longstaff adapted well, and across the age groups scored six goals and teed up another three in 22 appearances, as well as leading the line at senior level against Villa and warming the bench at MK Dons.
He has spent time at Melwood, too, and next season should take up further responsibility as one of the more experienced players in Lewtas’ U23s.
8. Tyler Morton
The early end to 2019/20 came at a frustrating time for Morton, who was just coming into his own in a focal role with the U18s.
With Leighton Clarkson and Jake Cain promoted to the U23s squad, Lewtas put his faith in the 17-year-old in a variety of roles, and he was rewarded with strong displays both deeper and more advanced in midfield.
Morton is a fleet-footed midfielder with an eye for goal and a pass, having scored three and assisted five in 16 appearances this season—only 10 of which came as a starter.
Next term will be a big one for the Wirral native, who should look to establish himself as a key figure with the U18s, and perhaps make quick progress through the age groups.
7. James Norris
One of the Reds’ leaders at U18 level, Norris’ presence driving down the left flank was a focal part of Lewtas’ game plan, able to rely upon the tenacious Scouser.
Having only turned 17 in April, it is a testament to the academy staff’s belief in Norris that he was called into the U23s squad on a number of occasions, as well as coming off the bench in the League Cup at Villa Park.
That technically made him the fourth-youngest player to debut for the Liverpool first team, three-and-a-half months shy of his 17th birthday, and there will be high hopes for Norris in the future.
Able to patrol the midfield, too, Norris can be compared to another local lad in Adam Lewis, and with time on his side he could leapfrog him in the pecking order if he continues his progress.
6. Tony Gallacher
Having enjoyed the fanfare of a personal welcome from Kenny Dalglish when he made the £200,000 move from Falkirk in 2018, things may not have gone quite to plan for Gallacher at Liverpool.
The full-back had already made 17 appearances in the Scottish Championship prior to his switch to Merseyside, but has been left to settle with a functional role in the academy so far.
But this has been a season in which he has blossomed, and it came in an unfamiliar role as he shifted from left-back to right-back to cover for Williams throughout the campaign; he soon found his feet and has impressed on both flanks.
Solid rather than spectacular, Gallacher has been one of the most regular features at academy level this season, and should be looking to head out on loan in 2020/21 to gain further experience.
5. Elijah Dixon-Bonner
Prior to his season-ending knee injury in February, Dixon-Bonner was the constant of Critchley’s ever-changing U23s side, benefiting in a regular role in midfield.
He took the responsibility with ease, and even captained the young Reds in the EFL Cup, responding well to the disappointment of shifting back down the age groups from U23s to U18s in 2018/19.
Dixon-Bonner has added more end product to his game, scoring five and assisting five in 31 games, and has established himself as one of the leaders in the dressing room.
Still only 19 and having signed a new contract with the Reds in November, Dixon-Bonner has already trained with the first team and debuted in the FA Cup win over Shrewsbury in February.
A campaign of big progress for the midfielder, who will now be eyeing a strong return from injury next season.
4. Tom Hill
“First saw him play when he was six,” recalled Jamie Carragher when Hill was named as a surprise starter in the League Cup clash with Villa, “smashing player and kid.”
Hill has long been a fixture in the academy, but as a first-year scholar this season has been the first time many fans have been given a glimpse of his talents.
And despite his inexperience and the competition around him, he has shone as one of the most dangerous attackers in Liverpool’s academy.
Only two players scored more than the 17-year-old’s eight goals, while Hill also laid on five in 28 games, with his ability in the air a particular asset, belying his slight frame.
He is hugely versatile, too, which could appeal to the first-team staff as they cast their eye over the next generation on their move to the new training facility at Kirkby.
3. Leighton Clarkson
Lijnders hailed him as “the type of No. 6 we really like,” and his combative, creative play from the base of the midfield was backed up in terms of numbers at youth level.
Only Elliott made as many assists as Clarkson (13), whose passing range and composure on the ball allowed him to set the tone for the U18s before stepping up fulfil a similar duty with the U23s.
He came off the bench at Villa Park and started in the FA Cup against Shrewsbury, not looking out of place against players of significantly more experience and physicality.
Next season he will likely be a prominent figure with the U23s, but a first-team berth cannot be ruled out for a player who caught the eye at Melwood.
2. Layton Stewart
Another player whose great strides were frustrated by injury, Stewart deserves a spot above Clarkson in this list regardless due to his staggering form in a first full season with the U18s.
Filling the void left by Paul Glatzel and Bobby Duncan, the Scouser scored 16 goals and assisted another seven in just 23 games at academy level, before suffering an ankle injury that ultimately ended his campaign.
His game-changing cameo in the 1-1 draw with Napoli in the UEFA Youth League in September was a standout, along with his hat-trick in the 4-0 thrashing of Sunderland and brace in the 3-0 win over Blackburn.
Tall and strong for his age, Stewart is also blessed with searing pace and the natural predatory instinct seen with many strikers to graduate from academy to first team at Liverpool over the years.
“He can be anything he wants to be,” is the testament of the Reds’ academy director Alex Inglethorpe, speaking to Goal in March, and this is evidence enough of Stewart’s talent.
1. Jake Cain
Purely based on performances at academy level, this was Jake Cain‘s season.
It was one in which found his goalscoring boots, having scored just three times in 2018/19 but boosting that to eight this time around, adding to his 11 assists in 32 games.
No players made more appearances for the youth ranks, with Cain making the step up U18s to U23s with ease at just 18, and there is considerable scope for further development in seasons to come.
A roving attacking midfielder who has subscribed to the high-intensity pressing game required at Liverpool, it is no surprise that he has featured on a number of occasions at Melwood.
He may be a more retiring character than Jones, but Cain could follow his pathway into the senior setup as he takes up further responsibility next season.
Cain could benefit more than any other player from Lewtas’ promotion to U23s manager; there is every indication he can go from strength to strength in 2020/21.