Liverpool FC. European Champions. World Champions. Premier League champions-elect. Over the last few seasons, the Reds have gone from strength to strength in all departments and are now challenging for trophies consistently. The first-team squad has settled very well, as is seen by the absence of any major signings over the last two seasons.
Work is still being done, most of it at the youth level. Ever since Jürgen Klopp took over, Liverpool have made significant structural changes in the way their academy is set up; aiming to ensure a smooth passage from the academy to the first team. The German’s influence can’t be understated; as they cut the numbers at the youth academy at Kirkby by 15% within a month of his appointment to ensure quality over quantity and aimed to instil a measure of realism within their prospects with a salary cap of £40,000-a-year for first-years in the senior academy. This policy came into effect in 2016.
And there is more. In 2018, it was announced that Liverpool FC would construct a new training complex in Kirkby worth £50 million with the first team and youth football operations coming together on one site for the first time in the club’s history. It was supposed to be completed by the summer of 2020, but with the coronavirus pandemic amongst us, it is expected to be delayed.
Klopp would hope that a chance to train alongside the first team squad will inspire the youngsters at the academy, who are always ever so hungry to impress the pros; and he will hope more prospects graduate from the academy into the main team; challenging for minutes in every game of the season. Klopp has never shied away from playing youth. In his first few months at the club, Klopp handed debuts to eight youngsters, and league debuts to three of them. In January 2017, the German gave a certain Trent Alexander-Arnold his first ever league start at Old Trafford. A bold move, but it paid off as Alexander-Arnold’s performance was praised by many. He remained around the starting line-up throughout the season and in the following summer, when first-choice right-back Nathaniel Clyne suffered a long-term injury, Alexander-Arnold pounced on the opportunity and made the position his own. Now, almost three years on, the scouser has never looked back and is considered as one of the best right-backs in the world. Great examples, both Klopp and Trent.
More youngsters are making a mark at academy level in the club. Here are some of the players who have a realistic chance of breaking into the first team.
Local lad, and it’s always special with local lads. You are under an extra bit of pressure, high expectations from your family and yourself. Curtis Jones has grown beyond leaps and bounds since impressing in the pre-season tour of the USA in 2018. Klopp singled him out for praise about his mobility and dribbling, while also stating that ‘he has a very long way to go’.
Still considered very raw back then, the scouser is one of the most exciting talents to come out of the academy recently. He hasn’t featured a lot this season but has already made his ability known. He scored the winning penalty in the shootout against Arsenal in the EFL Cup and netted the winning goal in the FA Cup tie against local rivals Everton. The latter was special. Playing with a team mostly made of academy graduates due to fixture congestion, Liverpool were the unlikely winners when they beat Everton 1-0 with Jones scoring the sole goal of the match. It must have been so special for the local boy; netting his first professional goal for Liverpool in the Merseyside Derby. He followed that up with another goal in the next round of the FA Cup, against Shrewsbury Town.
Usually deployed as a midfielder, Jones can also play as an attacking-midfielder or the most attack-minded of the three central midfielders. He has been in top form this season for the U-23s with 23 goal involvements in 27 games in all competitions. Jones has been around the fringes of the first team for quite a while, threatening to breakthrough.
If Jones continues his improvement and keeps putting in impressive performances whenever given a chance, it is only a matter of when not if he becomes a mainstay in the squad. The evidence so far suggests it’s not too far.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is not the only home-grown right-back making a name for himself at Liverpool.
A year ago, only regulars at the Reds’ U-18 fixtures would have known Neco Williams. Within a year though, the teenager from Wrexham, North Wales is making waves. Five appearances, three assists and bags of promise.
It has been suggested by fans and pundits alike that Trent Alexander-Arnold might be more suited to play in the midfield due to his creativity and eye for the pass. In such a scenario, Liverpool might not have to navigate the transfer market and spend millions on his replacement. Neco Williams has been hugely impressive in his outings this season, and they might have a first choice right-back available at the club itself.
Like Alexander-Arnold, Williams is a relative newcomer to playing in the back four. He was a centre-forward when he arrived at Liverpool at ‘pre-Academy’ stage and was eventually moulded into a right-winger by the time he has reached the U-16s. It was there that he made the switch to right-back. Always an instinctive, off-the-cuff type of player, blessed with bags of energy and stamina, Neco Williams has shown his versatility in the youth level and if this season’s performances show anything, it is that there is no reason he won’t be able to replicate in the first-team either.
The current understudy to Trent Alexander-Arnold, Williams certainly presents an interesting prospect in Liverpool’s ranks, and it remains to be seen how he will feature next season and beyond.
Originally signed from Fulham after they were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2018/19 season, Harvey Elliot is one of the most talented youngsters in Liverpool’s youth setup currently. A silky winger with beautiful feet, coupled with great awareness of the game at such a young age, Elliot has been making headlines across the academy level for quite some time now.
Having already made his Premier League debut for Fulham last season, Elliott impressed for Klopp’s first-team featuring sporadically in pre-season. He quickly grabbed attention with his quick feet and uncanny eye for a pass. He showed maturity beyond his years and from that moment onwards the Harvey Elliott hype begun amidst the Liverpool fans. Since then Elliott has been featuring regularly in the club’s academy with great stats and has proved himself in two League Cup performances for the Reds first team in which he both stood out, and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet.
A Liverpool fan himself, Elliot rejected advances from teams like Manchester City and Real Madrid to secure his dream move to Liverpool. “It’s easy to be convinced about him when you see him training,” Klopp said after Elliott made his Anfield debut in a League Cup tie against Arsenal in October 2019. “He is an exceptional talent, absolutely, and he’s a nice kid as well. To see him, how he encouraged the crowd around the corners..I had a couple of moments where I was really touched tonight, to be honest.”, added Klopp, not shying away from praising the youngster.
While Elliot still has a long way to go to become a regular in this Liverpool team, lack of signings this season and Liverpool on the brink of the Premier League with few games still left could mean Elliot gets the opportunity to impress. Trust him to be around the first team soon, as was evident by the three-year contract extension he signed back in February.
In January 2019, a 16-year-old centre-back came on to replace an injured Dejan Lovren in the FA Cup tie against Wolves. Hoever was already surprised to make the bench but was thrust into the tie within five minutes. What followed was defeat for Liverpool, but Hoever’s performance gave Reds fans something to smile about. Hoever showed “maturity beyond his years”, according to the ECHO’s then-Liverpool FC reporter James Pearce, covering the game at Molineux.
Surprised by the teenager’s performance, fans were eager to see more of him. However, Hoever’s outing was far ahead of schedule. Born six months after Liverpool secured the treble in 2001, Hoever had arrived from Ajax in August 2018 after the Reds pulled out all the stops to beat a host of top clubs to his signature, for less than £100,000. A good shout for a great bargain in recent history.
Still just 18, Hoever has a lot to learn. And this season has been all about learning for the youngster. A centre-back who can also play as a right-back, Hoever seems to have fallen behind Neco Williams in the right-back depth chart but the Reds boss revealed that no decision has been taken over the former Ajax man’s long-term position. “For now, the full-back is a little bit better for him in the moment. We have to see how he develops physically, playing in the centre is very demanding and you have to be physically 100% ready. He has the speed and the passing, his crossing can be improved which will be useful from the full-back position.”
Hoever has been concentrating on his physicality amid the break from play due to the pandemic and was on the scoresheet with a wonderful finish against Blackburn in a friendly recently. He is still very young and raw, but if his rate of development continues, he will be in the reckoning for first-team action soon.
There are other names which have also been grabbing headlines. Rhian Brewster was expected to continue his exceptional performances from the U-17 World Cup in 2017, but a terrible injury meant the youngster lost 18 months of development. The Chadwell Heath born striker is currently on loan at promotion-chasing Swansea and has acquitted himself well, scoring twice in four appearances since joining in January, but surely he needs to stay fit, and put in consistent performances to have a chance to break into this Liverpool team. Harry Wilson is another academy graduate who has gone out on loan four times. Currently, at Bournemouth, the 23-year-old seems not to be a part of Klopp’s plans; but a modest transfer window may change that.
It is hard to break into this Liverpool team. It is a well-oiled winning machine, chasing trophies and records. While Trent Alexander-Arnold did make his breakthrough some time back, we have to consider that the team was in a period of transition back then, with upgrades required in quite a few areas on the pitch. The current crop of youngster’s have their work cut out for them. It is going to take something monumentally special to break into the first team and cement their place there for good. There have been many who didn’t live up to the name, but the example of Trent shows that it is possible, and maybe that’s the inspiration these bright youngsters need.
A giant magnetic board on the wall in Alex Inglethorpe’s office includes a counter for every player on the books at the Liverpool Academy. They are divided into their age group squads from under-9s right through to under-23s. There are around 170 names in total – down from 240 over the course of Inglethorpe’s tenure as Academy director. Since he took over in 2015, the Director of Academy has placed a strong emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Conversely, the younger the squad, the higher the number of players. As the bar gets raised, only the best remain.
Under Klopp, the youth setup has certainly turned it up a notch. But still, it remains far from the mid-90s talent that the academy manufactured. It’s the correct path; and if there is patience and determination, there is no stopping these bright prospects. With the transfer window and club owners alike shaken by the coronavirus pandemic, the onus will be on the academy to produce world-class talents to avoid spending.
Written by Bhargav Joglekar | Feature Image by This is Anfield
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