Monday afternoon saw the Liverpool U21s host a gritty West Ham team at the Kirkby Academy. It was by no means a walk in the park – but it was interesting how even the youngsters were employing similar characteristics to those seen in the first team.
Alex Inglethorpe put out a strong side for the visit of the Londoners; with Andre Wisdom, Jonjo Shelvey, Raheem Sterling and Suso all dropping down from first team duty to get some game time under their belts
An attacking line-up also saw the young Reds dominate proceedings, with flair and pace all over the pitch. Goals firstly from Sterling, and later a brace from Suso earned Liverpool a point, with the full time score a thrilling 3-3 draw, in one of the most one sided stalemates you’ll see at any level this season.
A lot of focus is on the youngsters at Liverpool currently, with Brendan Rodgers and owners Fenway Sports Group keen on turning the academy into a conveyor belt of talented players, ready to make the gradual step up from youth football to the first team.
The key to youth football is getting players from the academy into the first team, the results don‘t matter, and while it is nice for the players to win, the style of play, the coaching and the shaping of the next big talent is the sole purpose of existence for the impressive Kirkby complex.
The style of play right from the Under 7s to the first team is coached in the same way, Liverpool are now operating in a one style fits all mantra, so to see the similarities between the Under 21s and the senior side was no surprise and Monday’s match showed just how precise an operation the club are running.
Amongst the spectators at the academy were Brendan Rodgers and his assistant Colin Pascoe, along side them were academy technical director Rodolfo Borrell and academy director Frank McParland. Rodgers’ involvement in the youth set-up and presence at these kind of games has been brilliant all season, not often do you see a first team manager at so many youth team matches, and in Borrell and McParland, two of the best in the business at what they do, Liverpool’s future is in very safe hands.
The men to impress were in attendance, and impressed they were. On a blustery day on Merseyside, after a slow, scrappy start, culminating in Liverpool conceding from a corner in the fourth minute, the young Reds dusted themselves down and started to play their football with the midfield trio of Shelvey, Suso and Portuguese schemer Joao Teixeira not the most orthodox choice of three, the young triangle certainly made up for their lack of balance with their stylish, confident football.
Teixeira was quiet yet tidy, as he continues his rehabilitation from a long spell on the sidelines. The ex-Sporting Lisbon youngster is still getting back to full fitness and he will start to effect matches more and more as that fitness returns. Shelvey, who was deployed in a more defensive role showed maturity throughout, spraying the ball around like a seasoned pro, while Suso was by far and away the best player on the pitch. Every slaloming run had the Hammers defenders back peddling, every cutting pass was done so with purpose and conviction. It is clear to see how far the diminutive Spaniard has come since last season, and it’s also clear to see why Rodgers rates Suso and his wand of a left foot so highly.
His brace was brilliant, the first goal saw Shelvey rob the ball in midfield, leaving Suso in acres of space to run at the West Ham defence, the Cadiz-born playmaker proceeded to beat two men before firing home to make the score 2-1 and restore Liverpool’s advantage. His second again restored the lead at 3-2, having been played through by the impressive Sterling, Suso cut in from the right wing onto his left foot, before firing the ball low into the bottom corner.
At the top end of the pitch, trialist Daniel Carr and Spaniard Nacho joined Sterling in a three-pronged attack. Carr started brightly as he worked hard, holding the ball up well and making some clever, darting runs, but the Dulwich Hamlet forward failed to make a telling impact on the match and quickly ran out of steam before being replaced by Adam Morgan on the hour mark. Nacho fluttered in and out of the game, as he often does, making little impact. The forward seems to be stuck between age groups, with so many similar flair players ahead of him at Under 21 level, he’s finding it difficult to get minutes, yet he’s too old to play for the Under 18s.
Sterling however was quite the opposite. As brilliant as it was to see him dazzle with the ball at his feet, with some mazy, jinking runs, his work rate and attitude were equally as impressive. It would be easy for a young player who has earned a full England cap and a lucrative new contract to sulk after being drafted down to Under 21s level, often you see promising, young talents believe their own hype before they’ve made a real impact at first team level, but Sterling’s willingness to tackle back and track opposition runners was evident throughout. These are the kind of traits Rodgers will look for when he visits the youth matches, everyone knows how much pace and quality Sterling possesses for his tender age, his equalising pile-driver struck with his laces on the half volley from outside the box demonstrated exactly why he’s been fast-tracked to the first team, but players’ attitude at this stage in their development is equally significant as an individuals ability.
It wasn’t all rosy attacking play though, with Alex Inglethorpe’s defence looking like they have studied the senior teams defending of corners. In truth, Liverpool could easily have won the game by a three goal margin, which again has been the case so often for the first team, but as well as a few missed chances at the top end of the pitch, the defence looked shakier than a new born kitten at Crufts each time the visitors got a corner.
All three of West Ham’s goals came from corners, their third arrived with the last kick of the game. Too many times this season we have witnessed the first team concede goals from crosses or a set piece, and the similarity in the Under 21s was uncanny.
The defending in open play was, in stark contrast, brilliant – with Andre Wisdom looking exceptional as he returned to his natural position of centre back. Wisdom possesses all the qualities to make his step up to the first team permanent, his reading of the game is very good, he dominates in the air and is calm and assured on the ball. Wisdom is also a real athlete, he’s very quick for a centre back, his strength is also a huge asset, and possibly the main reason he adapted to life in the first team so well. With the likes of Wisdom in this team and Jamie Carragher in the first team, at both levels Liverpool have players who are aerially excellent, which begs the question why are both sides so dreadful when it comes to defending high balls.
Right back Ryan McLaughlin looked like he had never been away on his return from injury, marauding down the right hand side. In the 4-3-3 formation Liverpool are employing across the age groups, the teams are set out to allow the full backs to bomb forward. We’ve seen it numerous times this season in the first team with Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique often finding themselves in and around the opposition eighteen yard box. This is the main reason I see McLaughlin as one of the next batch of youth players breaking into the first team and making their competitive debuts next season.
Connor Coady had an assured, if not quiet game with Wisdom doing most of the work at the back, and left back Craig Roddan struggled to impact on the game, often being caught out of position and found wanting in possession, hardly a surprise as Roddan is naturally a holding midfielder, but the difference between him and McLaughlin on the other side was glaringly obvious.
In the sticks for Liverpool was Danny Ward, who is at times susceptible to the high balls into the box, but in general play looks a good fit for how the Reds are looking to play. The Welshman as well as being a good shot-stopper likes to release the ball early, and not just punt it up the pitch like you will often see at this level, but Ward continuously looks to role, pass or throw the ball to a team-mate, much like first team goalkeeper Jose Reina.
There are clear similarities between the first team and Inglethorpe’s side, not only in terms of the style and structure of the sides, but in a lot of cases, also the type of individual they have in each of the eleven positions on the pitch, and their clear instructions, be it the full backs bombing forwards, or the wide forwards tracking back.
Results don’t matter at youth level, it’s the progress and performances that count most and the dominance and some of the play will have left Rodgers more than satisfied with what he saw. After all, pass and move is the Liverpool groove.