By Kevin Koczwara
When Brendan Rodgers met the media in Boston I asked him about his history of getting young players into a squad and having them succeed. Rodgers was starting to get a grip on what it meant to be the Liverpool manager and had just completed his first signing – Fabio Borini, a young Italian forward who played under Rodgers while he was the youth coach at Chelsea and then again at Swansea City on loan – but it didn’t look like he was going to be given the chance to sign too many more players, which meant he would need to look towards the young players in the Academy, something managers are usually scared to do because it’s always easier to work with proven players. Rodgers’ response was quick and telling: every player was going to be given a chance to prove themselves, and if they worked hard they might see first-team action.
“Many of my experiences have been with young players, and for me, like I’ve said, the age isn’t a barrier. If they’re good enough, have the personality and the talent, then I’m always willing to put them in,” Rodgers told the media in Boston on July 16.
Yesterday, Rodgers proved he wasn’t bluffing when he put out his Liverpool side against Young Boys in Switzerland. The youngsters were getting their chance to prove to Rodgers that he didn’t need to spend in the next transfer window. That this group of players was ready to step up and fill in when senior players weren’t living up to expectations or went out with an injury.
Now, there was little else Rodgers could do besides look towards the Academy this week. Over the summer, the first team squad had been thinned out. The club wanted to cut ties with older players on large wages, with few replacements coming in. He needed to go to the Academy and give a chance to the products who were close to breaking through because Liverpool plays Manchester United this weekend and needs senior players rested as the Reds search for their first win of the Premier League season against their bitter rivals on what will surely be an emotional weekend at Anfield with the planned Hillsborough remembrance.
That doesn’t mean that Rodgers wasn’t sure of his selection. He was positive beforehand and knew this was the kind of game where the young Liverpool players could show what they were made of, and demonstrate to the coaching staff that they have the right makeup mentally, not just technically and physically, to fight week-in and week-out with the senior squad.
“I’ve brought young players [here] who I feel, from what I have seen in the early part of the season, can come in and contribute. I know they’ve got talent, the question now is can they come into the first team and fight? That’s what we’re looking for,” said Rodgers before the game. The team responded and showed it has the fight needed to win tough games, to stave off adversity and push for a win when nothing seems to be going right.
The plan could have been a volcanic disaster if Liverpool lost, and for much of the game it looked like the plan was teetering on the edge of collapse. Liverpool went behind, 3-2, in the second half. Senior players Jamie Carragher, Jose Enrique and Stewart Downing were all struggling. With the introduction of 20-year-old Jonjo Shelvey, now a senior player, Liverpool put the game out of reach and found a way to get the win, 5-3. Shelvey netted two goals, both fluid attacks with wonderful movement and passing, something that the senior side has had a hard time doing.
The first goal was perfect one-touch counter-attacking. Fabio Borini, a second half substitute and still only 21, picked a poor back pass by Young Boys and found a streaking Jordan Henderson in the box. Henderson then hit a pitch-perfect tough pass to Shelvey, who buried the shot in the back of the net. All three players involved in the goal are the future for Liverpool. Borini is a deft forward who works tirelessly and picks good spots to pop up in the box. Shelvey is still just 20 and full of raw potential and power in the midfield. Henderson, 22, is the kind of metronome that Liverpool could use in the center of the midfield, and he showed Rodgers that his ability to read the game and keep the ball moving will be vital assets soon enough. Henderson may play the easy pass and play it quickly, but like his perfectly placed hair, rarely is there a loose ball leaving his feet when he operates in the middle of the field.
The second goal was a break where Shelvey found space in the middle of the field to run at the Young Boys defense. As he got closer to the box, Borini made a smart run and pulled his defender away, opening a lane for Shelvey to attack his own defender and let go a blistering shot that finished off Young Boys and gave Liverpool the 5-3 victory it deserved.
Rodgers was impressed with the team’s display, especially its ability to gather itself and continue to compete and fight for the victory when things looked bleak.
“I thought the boys were brilliant. It was a really tough game for us. The biggest thing we showed tonight, alongside our quality, was our character,” Rodgers told the media after the win.
“We’ve got a lot of young players within the group but to come from behind away from home in a European game makes me really proud. We ran out very good winners of the game and it was a fantastic game to be involved in.”
The big question is how the momentum from the win will carry over into the weekend. Liverpool is still winless in the league and face a United side that has a Liverpool killer from last year in its ranks: Robin van Persie. The senior players should have been watching as their young teammates showed the kind of spirit needed to win games, and now need to feel the pressure that their starting spots aren’t permanent. Rodgers isn’t afraid of youth and the unknown. Instead, he embraces young players looking to make an impact, and that means the senior players have to continue to prove they’re good value for the extra wages and worthy of their starting positions. The gap is closing and the youth revolution is happening, which could mean a bright future for the Liverpool Academy and the many talented players there.
Rodgers didn’t build the youth Academy or establish it as a safe haven for young, talented players. A lot of credit needs to go to Rafa Benitez who brought in the likes of Suso, Raheem Sterling, Dani Pacheco and Jonjo Shelvey, as well as coach Rodolfo Borrell to develop the Academy by drawing on his extensive experience with Barcelona. That story is for another day, though.