Liverpool: NextGen Stars Ready To Step Up Thanks To Rafa's Revolution
The need for clubs to produce homegrown talent has never been more critical in the modern game: both the Premier League and the Champions League have installed mandatory quotas stating that at least 8 members of the submitted 25 man squads in the respective competitions must have trained for at least three seasons at an English or Welsh club between the ages of 16 and 21, and with the FIFA financial fair play ruling coming in to effect this summer meanings clubs must become entirely self-sufficient, the need for clubs to produce talented British players is paramount.
Of the eleven players that started for Liverpool in last week’s 3-0 win in the Merseyside Derby, four of them - Carragher, Gerrard, Spearing and Kelly – are products of the club’s youth system. To have four local lads who have successfully come up through their youth system is certainly an encouraging sign that the club are heading in the right direction, yet the gap in age and experience between the Carragher and Gerrard, and Spearing and Kelly, also serves as a damning indictment as to where the club’s academy has failed over the past decade.
In the summer of 2009, Rafa Benitez oversaw a revamp of the clubs academy, bringing in ex-Barcelona duo Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell
Since the emergence of Steven Gerrard in 1998, Liverpool’s Academy had failed to produce any players of a sufficient quality to go on and forge a successful career at the club; the likes of Neil Mellor and Steven Warnock featured intermittently for Liverpool - but neither was good enough to become a regular for the club. Despite winning back-to-back Youth Cups in 2006 and 2007, a combination of substandard youth coaching and politicking between the Academy at Kirkby and the first-team training camp at Melwood meant that the clubs youth setup was in dire straits. Change was desperately needed.
In the summer of 2009, Rafa Benitez oversaw a revamp of the clubs academy, bringing in ex-Barcelona duo Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell as academy technical manager and U18s coach respectively - the pair had worked at Barcelona’s world famous La Masia complex, helping develop the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, so with such impressive CVs, expectations were high.
The pair were quick to dispel any suggestions that they were directly trying to incorporate the Barcelona philosophy in to the players and the coaches, instead stating vociferously that Liverpool needed to establish their own identity and philosophy from the first team right down through the youth sides. A return to the ‘pass and move Liverpool groove’ ensued, and despite this clearly being a long-term project, it didn’t take long to see that progress was being made.
In 2011, Borrell was appointed as the reserve team coach and Mike Marsh, formerly the U16s coach, moved up to coach the u18s
With Segura overseeing the whole setup, the U18 side, under Borrell’s tutelage, began to play some fantastic attacking, free-flowing football and despite failing to win either the youth cup or league title (which went down to the final day of the season and was ultimately won by Everton). In 2011, Borrell was appointed as the reserve team coach and Mike Marsh, formerly the U16s coach, moved up to coach the u18s.
The poor format of the reserve league is seen as a major factor as to why the standard of players being produced in England is not rivalling the other top leagues around the world. Therefore, the inception of the NextGen Series (practically the U19’s Champions League) last summer was seen as a way of giving the players in the youth/reserve setup a higher calibre of opposition which would, hopefully, be beneficial for the players involved, with 16 of the top clubs in Europe competing in a similar format to the Champions League. Liverpool made it to the semi-finals, losing 6-0 at the hands of Ajax.
It’s apt that Liverpool were so comprehensively beaten by a side they are trying to emulate. Ajax boast one of the successful academies in Europe and are arguably the most effective club in Europe at consistently bringing players through their youth side, bar maybe Barcelona and Manchester United. What’s important to remember is that the three aforementioned teams all have had the required setup in place for decades and whilst Ajax rely on developing players and then selling them on for a profit as a way to stay competitive with the richer teams, both Barcelona and Man Utd have managers who understand the importance of developing players and are not afraid to give those players a chance.
It is difficult not to get excited by the talent coming through at the club from all age groups
So, how close are Liverpool to being in a position where they too can develop players of a sufficient calibre to go on and play for the first team? Not far. In Kenny Dalglish they have a manager who not only exemplifies exactly what the Liverpool way is and knows what it takes to succeed as a player at Anfield, but he is more than willing to give young players a chance. Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly have already solidified themselves as valuable members of the first team squad, and Jonjo Shelvey and John Flanagan are certainly on the peripheral of the squad. Liverpool’s resources are vast, their facilities are fantastic, and whilst patience is required with these aspiring superstars, it is difficult not to get excited by the talent coming through at the club from all age groups.
With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of five players at the club that you should keep an eye on:
Jack Robinson (left-back)
Robinson became the youngest ever player to represent the club, having made his debut at the age of 16 years and 250 days old against Hull City back in 2010. He impressed in his few first team appearances at the back end of last season, showing both his solid defensive ability and the willingness to get forward regularly, but this year has been limited to just two games in what has been an injury ravaged campaign. Still only 18, however, he has the time and the quality to develop in to a very talented left-back.
Raheem Sterling (winger)
Signed from QPR in 2010 for an initial fee of £600k, which could potentially rise to £5m, the diminutive winger has caught the eye at both the U18 and reserve level, as well as becoming a regular for the England U16 and U17 teams - despite being born in Jamaica. With his electric pace, fantastic dribbling ability and a keen eye for goal, Sterling has earned rave reviews during his time at Liverpool, and although he has yet to make his first-team debut, if the 17-year-old continues to progress as he has done so far, a call up to Kenny Dalglish’s side won’t be too far away.
Suso’s flair and eye for a belied his tender years as he put in impressive performances for the reserve side at just 16
Suso (attacking midfielder)
Suso, or as his mother calls him, Jesús Fernández Sáez, was signed from Cadiz in 2010 and impressed from the off. Originally playing in the number 10 role off the striker, Suso’s flair and eye for a belied his tender years as he put in impressive performances for the reserve side at just 16. He has also been deployed in central midfield, but now mainly finds himself on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 which doesn’t really suit his strengths, but the young Spaniard still looks a very exciting prospect.
Jordan Ibe (forward)
Liverpool beat off competition from the likes of Spurs and Manchester United to sign the 16-year-old forward prodigy for around £500,000 in December 2011. Still in senior school, Ibe became the youngest ever goalscorer in Football League history when he scored a wonder goal for Wycombe against Sheffield United in October 2011 days before his 16th birthday. Similar in both stature and playing style to Sterling, Ibe is capable of also playing in a forward role. The precocious phenomenon is definitely a player to keep an eye on.
Adam Morgan (forward)
Being a left-footed, Liverpool born forward with an impressive goalscoring record, Morgan has already been compared to Kop hero Robbie Fowler and, whilst such comparisons are clearly a tad premature, the young striker possesses a similar natural finishing ability that Fowler was renowned (amongst many things) for. Whilst not particularly physically imposing, his tenacity and selfless work-rate make him a real handful for opposing defenders, and his instinctive presence in and around the penalty box make him a very dangerous striker - he scored in 13 consecutive games for the U18’s and ressies in 2010/11 and apparently scored over 80 goals in a season for the club’s U10 side. If he maintains his impressive goalscoring feats, then a promotion to the first team may be on the horizon.
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