Academy talent boosts Rodgers revolution
Earlier this week, it was announced that after six Premier League matches, Liverpool were the team with the youngest average age of the top flight’s 20 sides, which perhaps should come as no surprise.
The figure of 23.38 perfectly encapsulates the philosophy that Brendan Rodgers has attempted to install at Anfield since his appointment as manager in June of this year, with the Northern Irishman – in managerial terms a youth himself at 39 – showing no qualms about allowing a previously untested crop of youngsters shoulder the burden of representing one of England’s most storied clubs.
In the opening four months of his reign, Rodgers has already made a 16-year-old striker the youngest player to appear for Liverpool in the club’s 120-year history, while the trio of Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom – all teenagers – have grasped an opportunity to force their way into the manager’s first-team plans.
Pinpointed as the ideal candidate to bring a new identity to Liverpool following his highly-praised success with Swansea City during the previous two seasons, Rodgers was faced with a significant renovation task upon his arrival.
A bloated playing squad, and with it a debilitating wage bill, tied the manager’s hands to some extent in the transfer market, and although former apostles Joe Allen and Fabio Borini were recruited, Reds fans watched with frustration and confusion as £35million record signing Andy Carroll was allowed to leave on loan without replacement.
Talented playmaker Nuri Sahin was secured for a season from Real Madrid but, after consecutive Premier League finishes of seventh, sixth and eighth, outgoings considerably exceeded incomings and the optimism generated by Rodgers’ determination and vision was tempered.
Sterling stakes claim
Difficult opening fixtures against title contenders Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United – from which the Reds earned one point when performances arguably deserved six – and an injury to midfield anchor Lucas Leiva added further problems for Rodgers, who in a time of trouble turned to his youth teams.
Top of the class was Sterling, who scored two goals in four appearances for England at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico last year, a precocious 17-year-old winger whose early-season form has impressed to such an extent that Roy Hodgson handed the Reds starlet a call-up to the senior squad for the Three Lions’ FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Ukraine in September.
Signed from Queens Park Rangers in 2010 with whispers that Liverpool had secured a star of the future, the Jamaica native has surpassed all expectations during his ten appearances in this campaign to date. Blessed with raw pace and dribbling ability sorely lacking down Red flanks in recent years, Sterling has quickly dislodged Stewart Downing to cement his place in the starting XI.
“For me it's about talent, irrespective of age. Our future is bright with the young players,” enthused Rodgers after a team laced with budding talents came from behind to beat West Bromwich Albion in their League Cup tie last week.
“We have seen their confidence but, importantly, we have seen their character. If they have got talent and personality as well as the confidence and bravery to play football, for me it doesn't matter how old they are. As long as they show that hunger to learn I would have no qualms about putting them in.”
History made, chances taken
Rodgers made Liverpool history during that encounter at The Hawthorns when he introduced Jerome Sinclair as a late substitute. Having celebrated his 16th birthday just six days previously, the striker became the youngest player ever to wear the Red jersey and provided tangible evidence of the manager’s faith in youth.
While Sinclair clearly has a long road ahead, he can certainly take inspiration from those around him. Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey has been the primary beneficiary of the unfortunate injury to Lucas, with the 20-year-old impressing with his drive and enthusiasm from a central position. As well as four appearances in the Premier League, the former Charlton Athletic prospect has struck three goals in two UEFA Europa League group matches.
In a similar position, Spanish international youngster Suso – Jesus Fernandez Saez, in full – has also been fast-tracked into the first team by Rodgers. Another player with a thriving reputation from reserve football, the 18-year-old has featured in midfield and further forward to good effect since winning the UEFA U-19 European Championship with his country during the close season.
The Reds are not short of options at the other end of the field, either. Martin Kelly has emerged as an assured defender in a right-back or central position, and can claim one cap for England, although injuries have beset the academy graduate throughout his career.
Following in his footsteps is Wisdom, a versatile option like Kelly, who was handed a debut in the Europa League against Young Boys – during which he scored – and has continued to progress with appearances against West Brom and Norwich City, while aspiring full-backs Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson are also pushing established regulars for first-team spots.
That injuries and failure to strengthen adequately during the transfer window forced Liverpool to depend on their youngsters has been happily forgotten because of the quality of their performances. “It's funny how things work out," said Rodgers. “Maybe it's fate. Maybe this is all part of the story. Sometimes things happen by design, others by necessity.”