Sunday’s away tie at the Emirates looked like a tough obstacle to hurdle when the draw was made back at the beginning of December.
When the line-up was announced with no Virgil van Dijk (illness), Dominik Szoboszlai (hamstring) and Mohamed Salah (international duty), as well as Joe Gomez still filling in at left-back, it looked even tougher.
The starting line-up included Jarell Quansah (20), Harvey Elliott (20) and Curtis Jones (22). It was a tough game, and one the side could have easily found themselves behind in – especially in a first half where Arsenal’s pressing caused continuous turnovers. Yet, at half-time, Jürgen Klopp made adjustments, and the team improved.
On the 75th minute, with the game at 0-0 and heading towards a replay, Klopp adjusted again. This time, with resources depleted, he turned to another 20-year-old in Conor Bradley, and an 18-year-old in Bobby Clark.
Four minutes later, Liverpool were in the lead. Clark and Bradley may not have had a direct impact in that event, but what they did in their 15 minutes (plus added time) on the pitch was huge for their team advancing to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Bradley – who I wrote about back in pre-season – was Bolton’s Player of the Year in 2022/23, and came in and handled Gabriel Martinelli defensively, whilst giving Trent Alexander-Arnold the platform to dictate the game from midfield.
Clark was less involved but positioned himself well defensively and his foul on Declan Rice (whilst the game was still 1-0) was the sort of smart fouling Liverpool missed massively last season.
Bradley was signed by Liverpool at 16 from Northern Irish side Dungannon Swifts as part of a scholarship program. Clark, son of former footballer Lee Clark, cost the club a much more significant fee – £1.5m was paid to Newcastle for the then 16-year-old.
Elliott – signed from Fulham for a record fee for a 16-year-old (£4.3m in total) in 2019 – also made a huge impact in the second half, as he moved from right-wing to central midfield.
After producing talents such as Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, and of course, Steven Gerrard, in the 90's, Liverpool’s academy had gone through a baron spell for quite some time during the late 2000’s to early 2010’s. Big expectations were usually put on foreign talents, such as Dani Pacheco (signed from Barcelona) and Suso (signed from Cádiz), with local talent, such as Martin Kelly, not up to the standard to play for the club – even if their application and effort can’t be faulted.
There was Raheem Sterling, recruited for £450,000 from QPR and sold for a huge profit to Manchester City, but he felt more like stumbling upon an incredible talent than a structured plan at the academy.
Then, things changed.
Fenway Sports Group – for all their faults – tried to improve things. Alex Inglethorpe was recruited from Tottenham and went from Brendan Rodgers’ assistant coach to Academy Director. Jürgen Klopp and his passion for giving youth a chance accelerated things, combining the training facilities for the youth teams and first team with one clear plan – to make it easier for standouts in the academy to train with the first team, as well as making it a motivational tool to push themselves by seeing and being around the first team.
Vitor Matos was recruited from Porto with a huge reputation too, given the task of being Klopp’s middleman between first team and the youth setup.
Things improved drastically. Klopp’s brand of football and personality seeped all the way down to the bottom of the academy. You could watch an Under-16’s side and recognise it as a Liverpool team right away. Thanks to the foundations that had been built, the senior team started to reap the rewards.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is the standout of these, making his debut in 2016.
Liverpool’s talismanic manager’s ethos has helped the club massively in the youth football department. He is an advocate for using the academy and will throw players into the deep end if he feels they are good enough to contribute. In his time on Merseyside, he has given out 86 debuts, and 63% of those have been to players who are aged 21 and under (this stat is thanks to Michael Reid, a Football Data Editor at Opta).
I can't do "youth team players" as such (would you count Harvey Elliott, for example, who was obviously very young when he debuted but was bought from another academy?
But Klopp has given 86 players their LFC debut, 54 of whom were aged 21 or younger, and 42 were teenagers.
— Michael Reid (@michael_reid11) January 9, 2024
The message at the club is simple – if you train hard and are good enough – you will get game time, no matter what age you are.
This season alone has seen Klopp give 3,026 minutes to players aged 20 and under (perhaps helped by the fact he’s been able to use the Europa League).
By showcasing the fact that you are willing to give opportunities to youth players it then becomes easier to recruit, parents and players can choose Liverpool with the confidence there are no empty promises – something that can’t be said of all the top teams.
The Brexit effect
However, the youth recruitment landscape changed drastically with the introduction of Brexit. The United Kingdom being in the European Union meant it was much easier for the top English academies to recruit players from around the continent. Now, it’s much more difficult. There is a complex points-based system in place to evaluate if a player can obtain a work permit, and you likely must be an already established senior player to do so.
That has left the elite academies in England with a challenge and looking closer to home. We’ve seen a shift in the status quo, with clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City looking to poach the best talents from throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. It’s something that the Reds have done extremely well.
I’ve already mentioned Bradley’s move from Northern Ireland, and Clark being poached from Newcastle’s academy, yet there is a long list of others who have already contributed to the first team.
Kaide Gordon arrived in 2020/21 from Derby County and scored for the first team before dealing with injuries. Calum Scanlon arrived from Birmingham City in the same season. James McConnell arrived the year before that from Sunderland.
Then there is Ben Doak, recruited from Scotland’s biggest side, Celtic, for just under £1m – he’s already made several first team appearances and is on the path to stardom.
Trent Kone-Doherty was brought in from the League of Ireland’s Derry City and has impressed in the UEFA Youth League. Then there is Trey Nyoni, signed from Leicester City in the summer and already making progress in the youth setup – even featuring on the first-team bench twice this season.
There are many more that have been recruited from academies across the country.
Reaping the rewards
While the obvious best outcome is to get players who can impact the first team, the focus is giving these players the best situation possible to develop as players and as humans – and if they end up being good enough to play for you then that’s huge.
There’s also the obvious benefit that these players are considered total profit when it comes to Financial Fair Play rules.
This sort of aggressive recruitment across the country has been huge to the club – and to the other players already in the academy. Local talents such as Tyler Morton have benefited from being pushed by others, there has been a great balance between recruiting outside talent whilst focusing on local ones – something that’s important to the feeling within the club (look how much Alexander-Arnold and Jones are celebrated).
Balance is the hardest part of all of this though. Liverpool are (to use a cliché) in the business of winning. The ultimate focus is to lift major trophies, and using young players is often related to risk – experience is apparently key to doing these things.
Whilst that is true, Klopp has always seen the benefit to using these players and giving them a platform to grow. Youth might be inexperienced but it’s also brave and willing to challenge the status quo. He’s used the early rounds of cup competitions to give them a platform to make mistakes and to be themselves, let them build up confidence before rewarding them with Premier League minutes or cameos in bigger cup games. This sort of ‘reward system’ has been key to the success of youth development at the club.
Merseyside is a hotbed of football talent, but Liverpool (and Everton) are not blessed with the catchment area of the London clubs. This means they must act differently, and the approach that has been taken over the last few years is starting to reap rewards – the future of youth football at Anfield is exciting, and the best it’s been in my lifetime.