EighteenAndFive

In-depth and Intelligent Views on Liverpool FC & Football in General

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Liverpool Under 19’s Gear Up for NextGen Series; European Test Awaits Youngsters


In less than two weeks, Liverpool and fifteen other teams kick off their NextGen Series tournaments with the first round of fixtures in the new European under-19 tournament, with its Champions League-style format.

For Liverpool this represents another step up for the highly acclaimed Academy set up which has been overseen for the last couple of seasons by Frank McParland (Director), Pep Segura (Technical Director), Rodolfo Borrell (under-18 coach) and Mike Marsh (under-16 coach). This summer saw something of a change to the coaching set-up as Marsh took over the under-18 side and Borrell moved up to lead the reserve team, which functions mainly as an under-21 side for Liverpool these days.

Great strides have been made by the youngsters at the club and those directing them over the past couple of seasons, exemplified by the appearances and performances in the second half of 2010-11 of first Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing (though at 22, he has been more a reserve team product over the same time period than an under 18/academy player, despite obviously coming through the academy system long-term) and later in the season full back pair Jack Robinson and John Flanagan.

Robinson and Flanagan will no doubt feature further for Liverpool’s first team in the coming 2011-12 season but with senior players having now returned from injuries (such as Fabio Aurelio and Glen Johnson) they may find games not quite as regularly forthcoming as at the back end of last term, at least in the near future.

Both of those players, however, at just 17 and 18 years of age respectively are still eligible to take part in Liverpool’s NextGen Series side, despite featuring heavily in the first team’s pre-season campaign.

As well as the talented full-back duo, budding central midfielder Conor Coady played and scored for the first team while out on the tour of Asia last month, as well as featuring against Hull City and Galatasary.

Andre Wisdom, a powerful and composed on the ball defender who has featured for England’s youth sides regularly, came off the bench in Liverpool’s first four pre-season friendlies this summer and was involved in two first team squads last season, as well as training with the first team during the campaign.

Much spoken-about Raheem Sterling made a cameo appearance for Liverpool against Norwegian outfit Valerenga and also represented England at the recent under 17 tournament, while defender Stephen Sama also made his first team bow in the fixture against the Norwegians.

Such exposure at a young age – Sterling is still only 16 while Coady, Sama and Wisdom are all 18 – does not necessarily translate to future success in a Red shirt, but certainly serves to indicate the relative position of strength of the academy and reserve sides at present and perhaps shows that in such a high-profile tournament these players may get a taste of what could be to come should they continue to improve and challenge for a senior place in the coming months and years.

The Reds will face strong competition from Molde and Wolfsburg but arguably the toughest part of the draw – in terms of reputation at least – will come from the impressive youth outfit of Sporting Lisbon, heralded as one of the most prolific and consistent production lines on the continent and the side against who Liverpool’s youngsters will make their debut in the competition.

Whether Liverpool do well, win the tournament or get knocked out at the group stage is at this point almost irrelevant, certainly at least it is secondary to preparing the young players for the challenges that lie ahead.

A minimum of six mouth-watering clashes against some of the continent’s finest representatives of this age group could give a real indication of exactly where the promising youngsters are in their development – and impressive showings in the NextGen Series will certainly do their chances no harm at all of joining up with the senior squad again in the near future.

Robinson, Flanagan, Spearing and Kelly all made big strides last season under Kenny Dalglish; Rodolfo Borrell’s next wave of young charges will hope to emulate them this coming season and the upcoming tournament is a great platform for them to show just why each of them should be next.

Liverpool Pre-Season: Why Fans Shouldn’t Worry About Conceding Too Many Goals


Five games, fifteen goals conceded.

Whatever way you look at it and regardless of the standard of opposition, that is not a welcome statistic, nor one which would usually be associated with Liverpool Football Club.

It’s just a couple of weeks before the 2011-12 Premier League season kicks off and Liverpool appear to still have more than just one or two creases to iron out within the side.

Often during a period of change for a club, on-the-field performances can take a hit as a result of new faces, changing targets and fan expectancy. However, none of this really should be affecting the Reds.

Liverpool’s target this season is what it has always been – finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, so that hasn’t changed. Don’t confuse ‘targets’ with ‘aims’ – the eventual aim is of course to win the league, but the minimum requirement, the target, is to break back into the top four.

Fan expectancy can fluctuate wildly, but again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to people that Liverpool fans expect success; that is what we have been brought up on and that is what we aspire to get back to. In the main part, fans realise that success is not an instant reward and that there is a long process to get through, though of course some demand immediate returns in the form of constant silverware.

And changing faces? Well, unlike previous summers, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the back of too many people who we wouldn’t really want to be rid of, Alberto Aquilani potentially aside. The new players, Henderson, Adam, Downing and Doni, have settled in well and quickly and have arguably been some of the most consistent players during this pre-season, so that doesn’t appear to be much of a factor either.

So why is it that Liverpool have conceded three goals every match this summer?

Sunray Cave, Malaysia XI, Hull City, Galatasary, Valerenga; probably not a list of teams which have an awful lot in common with each other. Each of those five sides have put three past the red (and grey, and white) of Liverpool this pre-season. Valencia await in the final friendly and with the likes of Soldado, Mata and Aduriz providing the ammunition there is every chance that the nets at the Kop and Anfield Road ends will bulge again for the away side.

A week later Liverpool face Sunderland at home – the beginning of the new season and the first full term in charge for Kenny Dalglish since his return.

Will the Reds be ready in defence? Will they find their resolute performances which saw four clean sheets in February, three in four games in March, and three more in four games in April and May?

If they will be, why can’t they do it now, only a week or two before hand?

Let’s look at this objectively:

In five friendly matches, Liverpool have fielded five goalkeepers. Peter Gulacsi, Brad Jones, Martin Hansen, Alexander Doni and, finally last night, Pepe Reina.

The constant changing of a goalkeeper behind a defence – any defence – will always have a degenerative effect on the organisation of the team. We all know Reina excels at commanding the players in front of him and ensures that areas are properly monitored at set pieces. Brad Jones is the opposite of that, preferring to remain rooted inside his six yard area letting a more deep-lying defence do its job before he has to.

Hansen and Gulacsi are untested at first team level and nerves will no doubt have played a part in them attempting to direct the more experienced players in front of them – certainly Hansen’s spill on the Asian tour betrayed hints of that inexperience.

Then Doni, the new arrival from Roma, was only making his debut against Hull City. I don’t know how good his command of English is but I’m sure that after only a couple of training sessions he isn’t quite yet up to speed with how Dalglish and Steve Clarke like to organise the defence, where they hold the line, how they mark and many other facets of the defensive system.

Pepe Reina only returned to the fold against Valerenga after sitting out all summer recovering from a double hernia operation. He’s a great ‘keeper but even the best might take more than twenty minutes into their first game back to shake off the rustiness, even in something as automatic as communication.

Next we can look at the defenders who have played.

How many defenders would you expect to feature during the league campaign in a run of five matches? Just four, repeated each match? Throw in a few subs and make it six? An injury, maybe seven?

In these five matches no less than TWELVE defenders have featured at various times; John Flanagan, Jamie Carragher, Danny Wilson, Jack Robinson, Martin Kelly, Danny Agger, Soto Kyrgiakos, Andre Wisdom, Emiliano Insua, Dani Ayala, Glen Johnson and Stephen Sama have all played in different defensive roles, while outcast Philipp Degen also played, though in midfield.

While you could argue that the full backs have the same role regardless of who plays left or right, some of them have played on both sides. They have all played next to different team mates and with alternating players ahead of them in midfield. They have played different amounts of minutes and some, such as Johnson, have only just returned from injury. Fabio Aurelio, arguably the first choice left back at present when he can keep himself fit for more than five minutes at a time, hasn’t even made the pitch yet this summer.

Centrally, last season’s ever-present Martin Skrtel has yet to play as he recovers from a calf injury. The pairing in the middle has been asvaried and mixed up as a lucky dip fantasy football team. Kelly and Wilson barely played in the centre at all between them last season and have both been asked to feature there in the pre-season.

Throw in the added fact that ahead of the defence, the first choice organiser, water-carrier, ball-winner and loose-ball-picker-upper has been absent all summer through international commitments (along with the energy and determination that Lucas Leiva brings to the side) and it is clear that there are more than enough circumstances surrounding the defence at present that we shouldn’t be surprised that goals are being conceded.

Look also at the times that lots of the goals have been conceded: vs Malaysia, goals went in after 79 and 80 minutes; against Sunray on 90 and 91, Galatasary scored one after 83 minutes and Valerenga equalised last night three minutes into stoppage time.

Six goals out of the fifteen scored in or around the last ten minutes of the game.

This is pre-season; aside from the fact that the games mean nothing, the players are having to get through an awful lot of fitness and conditioning work prior to and after matches. Late on in essentially meaningless games there is a high chance that due to tiredness, lack of concentration or just that small edge of sharpness which comes as standard in Premier League games is missing – leading to goals needlessly conceded.

Of course we shouldn’t be happy that the Reds are conceding a lot of goals, nor should we ignore the fact. But it also shouldn’t be made to be a bigger issue than it is.

Its not an elephant in the room that nobody wants to see – Reina, Kuyt and Dalglish himself have already all alluded to the need to improve and I’m sure that the whole squad will get a thorough work out in the finer points of defending back at Melwood this week.

There are more than four weeks left of the transfer window and it is still possible that defensive reinforcements will arrive. But even if they don’t, it is not that big a deal.

Come Saturday 13th August, Reina will be in goal, Carragher and (presuming he stays injury-free) Agger will play in the centre and Glen Johnson will man one full back area with Dalglish likely to choose between Kelly, Flanagan and Robinson for the other, assuming nobody new arrives before then.

Lucas will be back, the formation and playing system will be decided upon, set and practised endlessly and the Kop will be so busy roaring Kuyt, Carroll et al on to score goals that the defending will take care of itself as Liverpool seek to start the season with a win. Hopefully there won’t even be that much to be done as Sunderland will have their own problems in integrating an entire new XI to play together.

Personally speaking, I am more concerned with Liverpool stepping things up with their movement, ball retention and energy, as well as getting more support to Carroll so things don’t have to be fired towards his head every time, rather than worrying about conceding goals and bringing in a new centre back. If Agger is fit he is better than anybody else we can bring in so I’m not bothered about arguing over Dann, Shawcross or anyone else.

But if you still aren’t convinced and think that stemming the flow of incoming goals before the match against Valencia is definitely, absolutely, can’t-possibly-be-anything-more-important-to-focus-on more essential, then ponder on this:

In the summer of 2006, Liverpool’s last friendly was against lowly German opposition Mainz. They battered us 5-0.

Later that season, we went all the way to the Champions League final in Athens.

So do pre-season issues and problems reflect on how the season is going to pan out? Not a chance. Just look at Bruno Cheyrou’s heroics before the serious games started.

So don’t worry about it. Don’t panic. Don’t criticise and write off the experienced stars and the promising youngsters, just because a bunch of players you’ve never heard of scored a few goals one month against us.

After all… it’s only pre-season.

Victory Over City Gives Glimpse of Liverpool’s Youth Culture Future


For the first time in what seems like an age, Liverpool’s conveyor belt of young talent, somewhat rusty and creaky in recent years with disuse, is finally back in motion.

Last night’s victory for the Reds over Manchester City was a point of celebration for many reasons, not least of all the comprehensive manner in which Kenny Dalglish’s patched-together team disposed of Roberto Mancini’s expensively-assembled legion of international stars, nor the occasion of Andy Carroll’s first goals for the club as our new number nine, but also because of the noticeable effect on a good first team performance from a number of locally-produced players.

Vice captain Jamie Carragher, central midfielder Jay Spearing and teenage full-back debutant John Flanagan made up almost a third of Liverpool’s outfield players who came directly through the club’s academy programme, local graduates who have made it to the biggest of all stages, playing in the Premier League at Anfield.

Add to that list left back Jack Robinson, still only 17, who was on the bench for the game as an unused substitute and the missing club captain Steven Gerrard and defender Martin Kelly, both ruled out through injury, and the local-bred influence in first team affairs is once again beginning to rear its head, with four local-born ‘regulars’ and two very promising full backs in the squad.

Not since Gerrard himself broke through to establish himself as a first team regular have Reds fans had someone local to back as they bid to make the grade; at least, not for any significant period of time.

Plenty of players have come and gone of course, some making a dozen or more appearances before succumbing to being released, sold on or deemed not good enough and replaced by imports from the continent and beyond.

Stephen Warnock, with 67 appearances, heads the list of those who ran a hard race but ultimately failed to make it as a regular, while the likes of Neil Mellor (22 games, 6 goals), Stephen Wright (21, 1) and Darren Potter (17) all had their moments in the first team before moving on. The list of players who graduated from the academy to make a handful of appearances is even longer – Lee Peltier (4), Danny Guthrie (7), John Welsh (10), Jon Newby (4), Jon Otsemobor (6), David Raven (4), Richie Partridge (3), Zak Whitbread (7), James Smith (1) and Layton Maxwell (1) are just some of them – while the likes of Paul Harrison, a goalkeeper who was on the club’s books during Rafa Benitez’s reign, made the bench over a dozen times for the first team without actually playing. New Wolves recruit Adam Hammill was another youth player who after several loan moves found himself transferred permanently without having worn the Red of Liverpool in a competitive game. Current full back Stephen Darby, on loan at present to Notts County, has also made 6 appearances and looks set to be another offloaded without quite proving good enough.

Add to that the list of players who were signed as youngsters, either at Academy or reserve team level, and had brief spells in the first team and the picture begins to take shape that perhaps things were not quite being done as they should have been somewhere along the line; whether in the scouting department or that of the coaching, perhaps we will never know. Sebastian Leto (4), Lauri Dalla Valle (1), Antonio Barragan (1), Miki Roque (1), Jack Hobbs (5), Frode Kippe (2), Gabriel Paletta (8, 1), Damien Plessis (8, 1) all came and went, while the likes of Paul Anderson, Haukur Gudnason, Miki San Jose, Alex Kacaniklic, Godwin Antwi and of course Krisztian Nemeth all left without a single minute of first team action to their name.

But now a new clutch of youngsters are at the club; both locally-born and signed from afar.

And perhaps a new era of Liverpool Football Club is upon us; not just in terms of the owners and the manager – which will surely be officially Kenny Dalglish, sooner or later – but also in terms of the effectiveness of producing our own new crop of first team players.

Martin Kelly, so excellent during the middle part of this season until his injury sidelined him, has now made 27 appearances for the club, more than any other academy graduate since Stephen Warnock left for Blackburn Rovers in January 2007.

Jay Spearing, repaying the faith shown in him by Dalglish of late and completely dominating the midfield last night alongside Lucas Leiva against £12 million Gareth Barry and £24 million Yaya Toure, has now played 21 times for the Reds, and recently penned a new contract as he continues his development. At 22 years of age, his push into the first team has come slightly later than some might say is the right age, but Spearing is now showing ample proof that he can be a part of the rebuilding of the Liverpool squad – certainly is some distance ahead of the vastly more experienced Christian Poulsen, who failed to even make the bench last night.

Flanagan and Robinson have each now made their Reds bows, while Thomas Ince also made his debut earlier this season, Andre Wisdom has figured on the bench and on-loan forward Nathan Eccleston has made 9 Reds appearances. Add to that Conor Coady who was recently handed a squad number and has been involved in first team travelling and training, as well as free-scoring striker Adam Morgan in the under 18’s (17 goals in his last 12 games at the time of writing) and it is clear that the young contingent at the club, brought up through the Academy at Kirkby from a variety of ages, are now reaping the benefits of both the faith in them by the main man at the helm, Dalglish – who of course oversaw their development as part of his Academy ambassador role – and also their string of coaches on the way up the Liverpool Youth teams’ ladders, culminating most recently in Rodolfo Borrell with the under 18’s and (latterly) John McMahon and Pep Segura in the Reserves.

At first team level this season, Danny Wilson and Jonjo Shelvey have also had some limited impact – neither bought to the club as ‘youth players’ as such, but at just 18 years old each certainly signings with more than half an eye on the future of the club. Current back up to Pepe Reina, Peter Gulacsi, joined the club as a 17 year old, initially on loan and later permanently.

Other youngsters plying their trade in both the under 18’s and reserves this season who have been brought to the club from other teams include the likes of much-talked about Raheem Sterling, a pacey and tricky wide man; Suso, a creative left-footed attacking midfielder from Spain, Kristjan Emilsson, an Icelandic forward with a knack of scoring goals and Toni Silva, a fleet footed and skilful Portuguese winger – all have impressed at various stages this season and look like they could make the next step, which would be to perform regularly at Reserve team level.

Of course, nothing is to say that any of these players are going to go on and have the kind of impact at the business end of the club as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have had. Those two combined have played over 1200 games for Liverpool and have won countless trophies and will go down in history as two of the finest players to grace the Anfield turf.

Indeed, it is even probable that despite the promise shown by many of these players, not all of them will make the grade at Anfield. Young Gerardo Bruna, still a reserve at the club, was highly thought of and a ‘sure-bet’ to make the left side of midfield his own but has even yet to make the bench for the first team and in all honesty does not look close to it now.

But it takes all kinds of players to make a club work and if we get even three or four of the very best of these youngsters into the team on a regular basis over the next couple of years, and the under 18’s coming up behind them can offer a similar output, then the long-term future of the club will certainly be secure – both in terms of quality and in having a good core of local-based talent playing their part in the revival of the club.