It was almost an unbeatable, unthinkably incredible season for Liverpool – yet turned out to be merely exceptional. And one of the pillars for success in 2022 was the club’s academy, which cannot have had many better years than this one.
The Reds moved training base from Melwood to Kirkby midway through 2020/21, making this term the first full campaign with the seniors and youth sides fully integrated in the same location.
It is, of course, impossible to objectively measure any impact of such a move, though players, coaches and staff alike have often cited the positives behind it as, alternately, an inspiration, an opportunity and a reminder of the work required to reach the top.
One thing is for sure: youngsters in the club’s setup could not be any closer to the pinnacle of world football, while simultaneously realising how far away they remain.
From one corridor to another is the same distance as from youth football to major trophy-winner.
The good thing is that this manager and his group of coaches continue to hold the door at the end of that corridor wide open.
Vitor Matos clearly continues to play a crucial role, not just in bridging the knowledge gap between youth and senior coaches, but increasingly taking a first-team spotlight too.
His path is looking somewhat similar to that taken by Pep Lijnders, which only means that the first team gains another coach with immense knowledge of the youngsters pushing for inclusion.
The academy has, in every way imaginable, contributed to what was an outrageously good year-long run of form, victories and challenges for silverware, from the most impressive individuals in the entirety of English football to those just starting out and hoping to make the grade.
At one end of the scale, Trent Alexander-Arnold has been one of the most crucial parts of the puzzle, the top-assisting defender of the Premier League and named in the Team of the Season by UEFA.
At the other, eight players from the youth teams were named on the bench without getting onto the pitch, another seven did play but for fewer than 100 minutes each, while six had between very reasonable and totally crucial inputs into the season.
In total, 8,311 minutes on the pitch were earned by academy graduates (or 242 fewer if we don’t count Kaide Gordon), from Alexander-Arnold being the team’s third-most used player this season down to James Norris’ one-minute sub appearance in the FA Cup.
It’s worth noting that Liverpool’s academy has, of course, had an exceptional impact on fantastic seasons and achievements plenty of times before.
Two main contenders spring to mind in relatively recent terms: one under Klopp, one under Rafa Benitez.
After the Champions League triumph in 2019, Liverpool’s fixture list piled up relentlessly and ridiculously, culminating in the December trip to the Club World Cup on the same day of domestic cup commitments.
Up stepped the under-23s in large part, including then-boss Neil Critchley.
They couldn’t triumph every time of course, with a five-goal defeat to Aston Villa in a League Cup quarter-final coming due to a lineup with an average age of less than 19.5 years old.
Fast-forward a couple of months and it was 19 years and just 182 days – and the Curtis Jones-inspired youngsters did triumph that day against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup.
No silverware directly, of course, but their efforts kept real momentum going at times and the rests afforded to senior stars (and Klopp!) did lead to trophies.
The Premier League was won just a few months later, as Liverpool became champions of Europe, the world and England for a period.
Prior to that, Benitez’s 2004/05 renewal and revival of Liverpool saw a host of young hopefuls get a run of games in domestic and indeed European cup competitions, en route to the crazy win in Istanbul.
Remember Zak Whitbread, Mark Smyth and David Raven? John Welsh clocking up seven appearances? Darren Potter in the Champions League qualifiers?
They were vital squad-fillers that year, but playing an even more prominent role were Neil Mellor (16 games), Stephen Warnock (30) and of course the two legends, Steven Gerrard (43) and Jamie Carragher (56).
Warnock was Man of the Match against Leverkusen in the knockouts; Mellor notched one of those goals against Olympiakos.
Both these were big seasons for the club, with massive involvement and support from the academy.
Naturally, it was our No. 66 who had the biggest impact this season.
His 4,234 minutes were beaten only by Virgil van Dijk (4,620) and Alisson (4,710), again highlighting his importance to the team – and the scale of the challenge for any positional rivals, which explains Neco Williams amassing fewer than 400 minutes before switching on loan to Fulham.
Trent Alexander-Arnold: 4,234 minutes (all competitions)
All other academy graduates combined: 4,077 minutes (all competitions)
Alexander-Arnold put in countless match-winning performances, showing time after time that the concept of him being a ‘poor defender’ is outdated and based far more in ignorance than actuality.
But beyond Alexander-Arnold, the stories are numerous and varied.
Jones had several standout performances in an up-and-down season (or rather an in-and-out one) – Porto and Brentford come to mind – while Caiomhin Kelleher excelled on League Cup duty to the extent of fully deserving his Wembley place and ensuring a medal, after netting his own penalty kick.
Kelleher didn’t play beyond December except in the FA Cup, but it should not be forgotten that during the darkest winter months, Tyler Morton played a vital role when midfield numbers were decimated – and he passed every challenge impressively.
Then there was the memorable occasion in the San Siro, when no fewer than five academy graduates took to the pitch for the Reds as Liverpool beat AC Milan.
Crucially, none of those five were Alexander-Arnold, Jones or Kelleher.
Top six clubs – Academy game time, PL only
• 2,284 mins
• 5 players
• Highest: Phil Foden (93% of total mins)
• 3,968 mins
• 6 players
• Highest: Trent Alexander-Arnold (72%)
• 9,522 mins
• 6 players
• Highest: Mason Mount (25%)
• 6,227 mins
• 5 players
• Highest: Harry Kane (52%)
• 6,092 mins
• 6 players
• Highest: Bukayo Saka (49%)
• 7,918 mins
• 9 players
• Highest: Scott McTominay (30%)
It all shows that the Reds remain not just a team that can beat the world’s best, but are doing it in such a way that while their recruitment is the envy of the entire sport, so too should be their commitment to producing and coaching young stars.
There is still room for improvement, of course.
Alexander-Arnold is a one-off, but others can certainly play and force their way to, for example, a Jones-level of contribution over the coming seasons, boosting Liverpool’s squad depth without the need for additional signings.
That would, thereby, raise the overall contribution at first-team level of the youth group, especially in the league.
The pathway from academy to Anfield remains wide open and welcoming for those good enough, and determined enough, to take it.