Monday, 26 January 2015

Is there a problem with the way Liverpool handles its youth?

Liverpool, for a long time, never had a great academy. Prospects were sparse and of the few that were there, none of them were ever good enough. From Nabil El Zhar to Damian Plessis, players have come and gone with so much hope and yet nothing to show for it. There have been numerous players touted as the ‘New Gerrard’: Connor Coady, Craig Roddan and Jay Spearing to name but a few. However, when they did come into the fray, it was painfully obvious that they never had the quality to even lace the boots of the great captain.

In fact for many years, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher were the only players to actually make into the Liverpool team from the academy. I found this fact very worrying. The academy of a club is its soul. It is the part of the club that is fully ingrained to the club’s tradition. Academy culture has declined in the past years with big name and big money superstars more in vogue.

Clubs just do not want to spend the time maintaining the part of the club that matters to the fans. At clubs like Man City and Chelsea, youth players are often shunted out on loan with no chance of breaking in. Josh McEachran, once regarded as the next Paul Gascoigne, is now just a forgotten name. Gael Kakuta, once the subject of vociferous debate, is now in anonymity. At one point, Chelsea had more than 30 players out on loan. There is a problem.

Kakuta was once sought after but not anymore

For a while in time, it seemed as if Liverpool was stepping out of academy dormancy. After coming in, Rafa Benitez completely revamped the youth system and inculcated his European roots. Suddenly, there were people at the academy who knew what they were doing. While La Masia was still far away, Kirkby was gaining prominence. This was epitomized when the Reds beat stalwarts like Real Madrid and Barcelona for the signing of then youngster Suso. It showed a huge signal of intent and that times were changing.  Benitez’s tenure also brought players like Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, Martin Kelly and numerous others.  All the foundations were set up and with Rodolfo Borrell at the helm, there was finally some stability in the academy.

McEachran was once the hope of all Chelsea fans.
Not anymore.. 

But, despite all the positivity, youth players have still not been able to make a firm entry into the first team. After Brendan Rodgers arrived, numerous players were given debuts and runs into the team but these runs have never been sustained. Players like Jonjo Shelvey and Suso, players who initially looked so promising have now departed the club. With the exception of Raheem Sterling and maybe Jon Flannagan, no other academy graduate has yet been a mainstay in the first team squad. Why is that despite so much of investment in academies and the talent coming out, no one is given a chance or always mismanaged?

In theory, there should be no logical reason for this happening. Liverpool plays more than 40 games each season so there should be plenty of time to integrate young players. The clich├ęs like ‘You do not win anything with kids’ have all been debunked in the past. Why is there a certain hesitancy to play younger players? Liverpool have been very profligate in their transfer dealings making superfluous signings hindering the development of younger players.

Many a time, these players signed have been no better than the ones already at hand. The prime example of this is the signing of Luis Alberto. This was a completely needless signing as the Reds already had Suso, a similar type of player. In the end, Suso was sold and the same fate is about to meet Alberto. These dealings are not those representative of Liverpool Football Club. We do not buy and sell players like on a stock exchange. Alberto served no purpose after he was signed and there was no reason why Suso could not have played. The fundamental part of the club that is the academy is being neglected without much thought and that is wrong.

If a club like Southampton can integrate their youth and still achieve success, why can Liverpool not. In their last game against Newcastle, the Saints had 5 of their 7 bench players from the youth academy. By slowly integrating youth players into the first team, the Reds can build for the future. Also, this can save a lot of money in transfer fees and wages. For example, the signing of Adam Lallana could easily have been avoided by playing Teixeira or Suso. That is not to say that he has been a bad buy but limited funds could have been used less spendthrift. The same could have been done with Jordan Ibe instead of Lazar Markovic. While they have not been bad players, they were bought in areas of lesser requirement. Consequently, the Reds missed out on the required positions: striker, goalkeeper and defensive midfielder.

Many a time, young players are loaned out in hope of ‘gaining experience’. But, as is usually the case, players are often in loan limbo and are never seen again. While anomalies might be there like Joe Hart with Birmingham or Kyle Walker with Aston Villa, those are exceptions to the rule. Players like Conor Coady, Suso and Stephen Darby have all been loaned out, never to be seen again. Unless players are given meaningful opportunities instead of random loans, nothing is ever going to be achieved.

Stephen Darby was the victim of numerous useless loans

Liverpool now has one of the most promising academies in the world. Players like Cameron Brannagan have been touted by Barcelona while players like Sergi Canos were actually got from the Cataln giants. There is a lot of potential in all positions. Tricky wingers like Harry Wilson do not come around too often and neither do attackers like Sheyi Ojo or Ryan Kent. Liverpool’s academy has been the best in years but without the support of club and fans, these players will meet the same fate as their numerous predecessors. So, how can we solve this?

My solution would be to have at least 3 academy players on the bench for every game and increase the number of possible bench slots like in the Serie A and International Football. Also, a mandatory rule must be made that two academy players feature in a game. That way, young players are given live match day experiences and can get game time. Otherwise, the youth of tomorrow will be ostracized leaving all clubs to conform to the Real Madrid policy of buying the trendiest options when others get old. If that is to happen, prospects are grim for the future of football.

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