Jason Harris discusses the potential Jürgen Klopp’s youthful Liverpool side has to redefine the way football managers in England look at youth development.
Nothing warms the heart like a youngster coming in from the youth ranks to make an impact on the team.
In the 90s and the early 00s, the Liverpool academy at Melwood was famed for bringing through the cream of young British talent.
Reds fans openly speak of the pride they felt when they saw the likes of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Dominic Matteo, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard take the field for their debuts.
The football education gained from such a highly regarded institution held them in very good stead for the rest of their football career. However, as we moved through the last decade and into the current one, we saw less and less local talent make the grade.
The latter part of Gerard Houllier’s reign, throughout Rafa Benitez’s tenure and Roy Hodgson ill-fated few months on Merseyside saw a swathe of young players come from the continent or in Hodgson’s case, players signed who had reached their peak and were on the decline.
While there were times when they got an opportunity, overall it was a tale of disappointment as they had to look elsewhere for their footballing dream. However, in the past six seasons, we have seen a gradual return to looking at what the Academy has to offer.
Kenny Dalglish started the process by giving the likes of Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson a taste of the big time, along with Martin Kelly who had taken small steps under previous managers, but whose body had failed him at the crucial moment.
When Dalglish was sacked, his replacement Brendan Rodgers who had extensive knowledge of youth set-ups due to his time at Reading and Chelsea, followed the same path by bringing through the talented duo of Raheem Sterling and Jordan Ibe.
Now with Jürgen Klopp in charge, the German has taken it to a new level.
Klopp, like Rodgers, had an extensive background in youth development when he was a manager in his homeland and has not been afraid to start youngsters like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn at daunting venues such as Old Trafford and the Britannia Stadium.
The debate about top clubs giving local youth a chance has sprung to life in recent times courtesy of the victory by the England team in the U20 World Cup and a solid performance in the Euro U21 Championships where they made it to the semi-finals, losing to Germany on penalties.
Liverpool made a wise investment in signing Dominic Solanke from Chelsea who was named the best player in the U20 tournament award following in the illustrious footsteps of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Javier Saviola.
While Solanke was at a top club already, the 19-year-old decided to allow his contract to run down, quite possibly because he saw the writing on the wall with the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Ake all struggling for game time with the Blues.
The frustration that many of the Academy coaches have is, while the top clubs are looking to sign young players, they are continually looking abroad instead of looking in their own backyard and promoting within.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have mid-tier teams like West Brom, Watford and Stoke who should be willing to blood youngsters but instead had the three highest average starting line-ups in 2016/7.
This shows the reluctance to play the youngsters is a league wide problem, not just isolated to the ‘big boys’. Naturally, players get disheartened by the lack of playing time and in quite a few cases disappear into obscurity.
With European football now back on the agenda for the Reds, it will mean that Klopp will be looking to use his whole squad more regularly and opportunities will be available for the youngsters like Alexander-Arnold, Woodburn, Solanke, Sheyi Ojo and Ovie Ejaria to shine.
The manager is in a fascinating position where he can look to develop the players of tomorrow while still maintaining his focus on the present day. However, it will certainly be a formidable challenge.
Alan Hansen famously said over 20 years ago that ‘you can’t win anything with kids.’ History seems to illustrate that point with only five teams in the Premier League era having won the title with an average age below 27 y/o. No club has been able to do so since the Chelsea teams of 04/05 and 05/06.
The average number of U23s playing regularly in a title winning squad since the inception of the Premier League in 1992 stands at 2.5.
With Liverpool and Tottenham the poster teams for the ‘youth movement’ as they have the youngest squads in the league (average age around 25y/o), it wouldn’t be surprising to see the footballing world follow their progress with a great deal of interest.
Klopp thinks outside the box compared to the majority of managers. If he is able to build a title winning side using this formula, expect others to follow the German’s lead and start a new trend where youth is the way forward.