The lowdown on the Liverpool youngsters Jurgen Klopp sees as the next generation Reds stars
It was at Prenton Park, the home of Tranmere Rovers, eleven days into last month that Jurgen Klopp's growing suspicion that Liverpool's renaissance goes below first team level was confirmed.
Sat in a meagre crowd in the only stand that was open, Klopp looked on as Liverpool's under-23 side romped to a 4-0 victory over Leicester City. Eight days later, they went to Tottenham Hotspur and won 6-2.
The greatest indication of how satisfied Klopp had been with what he had seen did not transpire immediately; his determination to protect Liverpool's most exciting emerging talents prevented him from indulging them with public praise. It was always going to come sooner rather than later, though, and the moment arrived on Sunday when five players were withdrawn from the Liverpool' under-23 team which went on to defeat Everton in a typically competitive local derby.
Each of the quintet – Trent Alexander Arnold, Ovie Ejaria, Kevin Stewart, Marko Grujic and the fit again Danny Ings – trained with the first team instead with all five in contention for a starting role when Liverpool face Tottenham in the fourth round of the EFL Cup at Anfield on Tuesday.
Contemplating making several changes to the team that won against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, Klopp's raid on his junior ranks could have gone even further only for him to continue erring on the side of caution in the case of Ben Woodburn, arguably Liverpool's most talented youngster, who only recently turned 17.
Who starts against Spurs remains to be seen but what is not in question is that Klopp's intention to create a clear pathway between Liverpool's Academy and their first team set-up is now starting to be realised.
“Watching that under-23s game [against Leicester], it was really close to what I was thinking about when we first spoke about what the second-team squad should be like,” the Liverpool manager said recently. The next stage is to discover how those who impressed him so much on that occasion fare when given the opportunity to prove themselves at a higher standard.
Whatever happens, Klopp will continue to shield them from the limelight but he knows that it can't be averted for ever, particularly if they are as good as he believes them to be.
“I think there’s a lot to say about a few of our young players, the problem is that it’s not for public because they are still young and they are really in a good way,” he said earlier today.
“That is why they are completely involved in the training sessions and everything we are doing. We are really happy about the situation. One of the reasons why it is so easy for them to use the situation of training with world-class players and improving every day is because they don’t have to think about anything else. We try to keep this situation as long as possible.”
Ejaria, a midfielder who spent nine years at Arsenal before being released, has made significant progress since joining Liverpool with his technical ability catching the eye of several of his more senior team mates, most notably the Brazilian contingent, when Klopp involved the 18-year-old in his preparations for the new season.
Grujic, signed from Red Star Belgrade for £5.1 million, was recommended to Chelsea by their scouting department last year only for the proposed deal to go awry as a result of the uncertainty caused by Jose Mourinho's dismissal.
As a result, Liverpool were left in pole position to complete the signing of the Serbia international midfielder whom they had scouted extensively before Klopp backed the judgement of his recruitment team shortly after his arrival as manager.
It is Alexander-Arnold, though, whose development is causing the most excitement, particularly locally, with the teenager having long since been earmarked as a future first team player. Steven Gerrard, who worked with Alexander-Arnold while gaining coaching experience at the club's Academy in Kirkby is among those who believes the England youth international is destined to establish himself at Anfield.
“Trent Alexander-Arnold has a terrific chance of making it as a top professional,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. He's quite leggy but he's got a lovely frame and seems to have all the attributes you need. He has the right attitude and comes from West Derby, home to Melwood. So Trent is another Scouser and apparently, just as I tried to be John Barnes and Steve McMahon, he grew up pretending to be me while playing in the Merseyside parks. He can play as a number six, a holding midfielder, but he's versatile and I've seen him fill various positions. I know England are all over him.”
It is at right back, the position in which he has excelled for the under-23s, that Alexander-Arnold will be given his first team debut whether it comes on Tuesday night or at a later date. The feeling within Anfield is that the 18-year-old has developed sufficiently to be regarded as a deputy to Nathaniel Clyne with his emergence reducing the need for Klopp to turn to the transfer market in order to strengthen the full back positions.
The progress made by youngsters like Alexander-Arnold meant Klopp, tongue pressed gently into the inside of his cheek, was able to look to a future in which he could celebrate fielding a first eleven made up entirely of Academy graduates like Alexander-Arnold.
Such a vision might be unrealistic but it is a virtuous one that is wholly in keeping with Klopp's ideal of development through coaching and his commitment to creating a route into the first team for those youngsters who have the talent and the mentality to thrive at that level.
“I’m not interested in the money. Of course it is cool if we have ten players from the Academy and if we make no signings in the transfer window, I would love to be part of the press conference when I say this. ‘No signings this year’ and then it is ‘but we need this, this, this and this’ and I say ‘we have already’ and nobody believes. Once a year I have to listen to the question ‘Is he really in a position to play in the first team?’
“It [the situation] is good, really good. We spoke a few months ago about how we should change a little bit the second team, the U21, the U23s and a lot of players need to stay here and play together in a really good team, get results, score goals and win games, plus the opportunity to train with us in different moments.
“To keep a lot of these players and let them play together and that was a real decision we made. They are doing well. I watched only one game live in the stadium but a few live on TV. It’s good to see how they improve. It’s good for their development and good for us that we can make the joys and decisions about their futures at LFC.
“If we have to make a decision that a player is not good enough for Liverpool first team then they need to be good enough for another Premier League club, or the minimum a Championship club. That is what we have to create, we have to give them the opportunity and that is what we are doing.
“They can still stay a little longer in their situation and be patient, they can use the time in the corner with not the biggest public watching, not lots of people asking about you and watching each step of you. Hopefully we can bring through a few of them in the red shirt of Liverpool at Anfield in the first team. That is the dream of all of us.”
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