By Sam Mathius
It’s a bit like Christmas morning. You’re not sure what’s wrapped up inside. It could be something really fantastic. Excitement abounds due to the injection of something fresh and new. Everyone needs that surprise moment once and while. So do football clubs.
If there was a silver lining to the Reds defeat to relegation battling Wigan, it was in the form of a seventeen year-old kid who made his debut: Raheem Sterling. In just minutes, the QPR product showed glimpses of why he’s a highly coveted prospect. The first thing that stood out was the pace. After a long-ball was sent his way shortly after his introduction, he had no trouble making up a 20 yard advantage a Wigan defender had on him. It was tantalizing. A moment of respite from the scoreboard that highlighted another low-light at Anfield this campaign. All Liverpool fans certainly had a rush of euphoria. We we’re imagining the future he has. The headaches his pace and youthful tenacity could bring to a squad that at times has looked stale and unimaginative had us all taken away from the pain of a dreadful performance but only for a moment.
Then we all were brought back down to Earth with another thought: why didn’t he come on sooner?
The reluctance to put faith in those that have come through the academy ranks this campaign has been disheartening. Although it was largely a result of an injury crisis, Kenny Dalglish marked his return to the dugout last January with a youth movement. The likes of Martin Kelly, Jon Flanagan, Jack Robinson and Jay Spearing all played serious minutes in serious matches. And it paid off.
In seventeen of the eighteen EPL matches Dalglish took charge of last year, Kelly, Flanagan, Robinson or Spearing started. From those matches, the club took 30 points, averaging out to 1.6 points per match. This season, the contrast has been stark.
Those same players have only featured in 17 of 30 EPL matches. In those matches, the club has averaged 1.4 points per match. Without them, they average 1.3 points per match.
It may not seem like a huge difference but it can’t be ignored. When the table is as tight as it is (6 points separate the club from West Brom whom sit in 14th) no point can be taken for granted. Among some of the most sobering matches this season are the 3-1 loss away to Bolton, the 1-1 draw versus Norwich at Anfield, and the 1-0 loss to Stoke at The Britannia Stadium. None of these matches featured young blood.
Liverpool’s woes this season can’t be boiled down to one reason. The fact that Kelly, Robinson, Flanagan and Spearing (all defensive minded players) haven’t featured as often as last year doesn’t shed light on The Reds anemic ability to score. It also doesn’t explain how Liverpool has the third best defensive record in the league. However, it does point to something Liverpool has lacked this year: youthful exuberance. The rejection of youth and denial to simply put faith in our young products has been a dreadful hallmark of the club in recent seasons. The steps taken by Damien Comolli and Co. have been admirable in recruiting young talent such as Sterling. Still, there needs to be more of a commitment to get them on the field.
Most disheartening is the approach taken by a certain rival club to the east. Evans, Welbeck, Macheda and Rafael are just a few of the young names that have done important things for that club in recent years.
Trophies aren’t won by eleven teenagers. But they can be won by shrewdly bringing them through the ranks when needed. With a Europa League spot locked up and fourth place out of reach, now is the time to see what the kids are made of.
We’ve heard about the stellar play of Conor Coady, Adam Morgan and other Reserve and Academy players. We’ve seen a glimpse of what Raheem Sterling is capable of. Now let’s see where these pieces can fit into the puzzle.