Young Stars Outshine Liverpool's Brightest Supernova
Since Steven Gerrard’s announcement that he would be ending a 17 year association with his beloved Liverpool, there has been much concern over who could pick up the mantle. Not doing a great deal to dispel this concern, the ex-England captain scored a double in his first game after the news, sending The Reds through to the next round of the FA Cup in the process. However, a recent hamstring injury has put pay to his time on the pitch and is ironically quite possibly a result of too many minutes in successive matches. Citing this as a primary reason for his departure, several fans are now coming around to Brendan Rodgers’ way of thinking. In his absence which should continue for at least a week or two, the club’s youngsters have stepped up to the plate and demonstrated beyond doubt that; if their rate of progression continues, Liverpool are set to possess a highly talented side in a few years. Furthermore, when you look deeper still into the lower echelons of the Anfield playing staff, there is hardly a shortage of prospective first team players bubbling along below the radar.
The flying forward has stood up as a main man for this season, being forced to ply his trade for the vast majority of the campaign without his chief partner in crime; Daniel Sturridge. Having to learn the far from simple role of a centre forward while being on the job, Sterling has used his natural abilities to make the position his own. Although he does not have the classic physique for a central striker, defenders do not find it an easy task to dispossess the slight figure of Raheem Sterling. While he can hold off a stronger man, he provides more of a problem when using his pace to stretch the opposition in behind.
One of the key requirements of a side’s main striker is that he secures the goals that decide the fate of his team. As something that has never before been one of Sterling’s primary demands, it was not an instantaneous transition but something that has clearly been worked on. Several key goals have now been snatched by Sterling at vital moments in games of any magnitude. The Jamaican-born speedster has always had a good understanding with Philippe Coutinho and this has not deserted him when he has been employed further upfield.
Although I do not foresee Sterling being deployed as a central striker when Rodgers has Sturridge or perhaps an on-form Mario Balotelli as an option, but it is encouraging nonetheless. Sterling’s stint in this new-found role will certainly not hinder his or Liverpool’s success in the future, as the learning experience has been invaluable and could well help the production of a more balanced side down the road.
In a rather unexpected turn of events, Philippe Coutinho has become something of a talismanic figure for Liverpool since the turn of the year. 19 consecutive starts in the famous red shirt was a fantastic feat in itself, and an even greater one when you begin to chart the quality of his performances spanning across those games. Several times did he take the role as match-winner, especially when coming up with some vital goals in recent times against Bolton, Southampton and Manchester City; all of which were stunning strikes from over 20 yards out.
When Coutinho was finally granted a well-deserved rest after the almost relentless frequency of games in 2015, Liverpool looked bereft of ideas or invention in the attacking third. I still believe that it was the correct decision to leave him at home while the remaining fit players in the squad flew to the scene of Then Red’s dramatic European triumph in 2005. He has played so much football this season compared to any before, and at such a young age he still needs protecting.
The dazzlingly quick-witted Coutinho is the vital link man between midfield and attack for Liverpool, adding that essential guile and intelligence that makes unlocking the tightest of defences that much easier. On the kind of form he is exhibiting at the moment, the diminutive Brazilian number 10 offers something that cannot be found anywhere else in the Liverpool squad. Adding goals; and brilliant ones at that, to his already invaluable contributions has placed him at the forefront of the hopes for the Anfield faithful. That performance against Manchester City yesterday has demonstrated what he can achieve as the linchpin of this Liverpool side. At the beginning of February, Rodgers claimed that “Coutinho can emulate Luis Suarez”. A pipe dream at the time, but now who would doubt it.
After a less than blistering first few months of his Liverpool career, Emre Can has rapidly grown into a mainstay of the side. The 21 year old German powerhouse was unable to force his way into a midfield role despite struggles for the Merseysiders in this area and throughout the team more generally. It was unclear why this was the case, as what few minutes that were granted to him did provide fans with the promise of better things.
In the end, it was perhaps by luck rather than judgement that Can cemented a place in the Liverpool side. It was known from his time in Germany before the eventual £10 million transfer to The Reds that he was not averse to performing in a multitude of different positions. A rash of injuries in midfield and at the back made it a necessity for Rodgers to change to a formation with 3 centre halves. Can was deployed from the right, and he has flourished in the role.
Although he is not a completely natural defender, evidenced at times when occasionally switching off at vital moments, his physical attributes make him a natural fit for the situation. Barrel-chested and an incredibly powerful runner, Emre Can is more than capable of carrying the ball out from the back. This has become a dying art in recent times, but the German international is a fine exponent of the skill. Of course, his more natural position in midfield results in a composure on the ball that is unrivalled by most other defenders. This provides both an increased sense of security and also the option of finding a striker behind the line of defenders with an early ball out from the back.
I do not imagine that his future with Liverpool will lie in defence in the long-term, but his performances for the rest of this campaign will be vital in The Reds’ charge towards fourth place and glory in the FA Cup. Looking past the summer and life without Gerrard, a midfield pairing of Can and Henderson is something to anticipate keenly for Liverpool fans. With both constantly improving their technical aspects week on week and already exhibiting physical attributes up there with the best, Steven Gerrard may not be missed quite as much as is currently feared. What is also surprising is the immense leadership that Emre Can is already displaying, despite being a newcomer to the side and only just into his 20s. Such desire is a huge part of his personal game and his vocal presence can only translate a similar attitude to his team-mates around him.
Liverpool acquired Jordon Ibe from lower league Wycombe Wanderers while the winger was still many years away from emerging from teenage life. He always had the potential to be special, possessing the natural talent that if matched by work rate and desire, could lead him to the pinnacle of world football. Brendan Rodgers handed the exciting prospect his first start in the last game of his first campaign at the Anfield helm and ever since that point, has clearly been in the Northern Irishman’s plans for Liverpool’s future.
In what may well prove to be a crucial spell in Ibe’s career, he spent a very successful six months on loan at Derby County. Goals and assists aplenty certainly sent a message to Rodgers and despite Steve Mclaren’s desires, the number 33 returned to Anfield from Pride Park. I would be amazed if anyone could have predicted what would transpire over the following month.
The first game for Liverpool after Ibe returned to training at Melwood was the always hugely significant Merseyside derby. The speedster was thrust into the limelight with an immediate opportunity as a starter, playing as a right wing-back in Liverpool’s recently successful 3-4-2-1. As the brightest spark in the day’s proceedings for The Reds, Ibe drew a great deal of attention from the footballing public and since that display, has played a part in every match when available. Quite a feat for a 19 year old.
Onlookers have been astounded by Ibe’s direct attacking threat that he provides from the flanks, aligned with supreme skill, pace, and an incredible absence of fear. Similar to Sterling, Jordon Ibe is deceptively strong and uses this physique to his advantage. He also seems to possess a defensive understanding and maturity well beyond his years. To have the awareness to tuck in behind the centre half to guard against crosses directed to the back post is something that you generally only see experienced professionals producing with regular frequency. One only has to hope that this is not a flash in the pan and Ibe continues to surprise and perform on the highest level.
In addition to the players discussed previously who have already staked a claim for consistent first team action in the coming years, there are several more in Liverpool’s youth setup who are hardly without promise. Firstly, Sheyi Ojo is making great waves in the reserve game and has earned himself a loan move to Wigan in order to progress his long-term future at Anfield. Although he is a different sort of player to Raheem Sterling or Jordon Ibe; less direct but perhaps with a greater natural technical ability, his rise reminds me a great deal of the current Liverpool starters. Repeatedly proving to be of a higher standard than his own age group, he is performing at a level above his station at only 17 years of age and having already taken his place as an un-used substitute this year, I expect that next season will stage Ojo’s breakthrough campaign.
Furthermore, the combative and energetic midfield pair of Jordan Rossiter and Jordan Williams, lively tricksters Harry Wilson and Cameron Brannagan, and pacey forwards Jerome Sinclair and Divock Origi are waiting in the wings for their chance on the biggest stage at Anfield. While the next season or two may still be a little too early to establish their place in the side on a regular basis, I believe that they could all be superstars in the making, shining brightly in the latter half of the decade and beyond.
Do you think the future is bright for Liverpool with these youthful prospects all currently plying their trade in Merseyside Red? Who holds the key for success, or are they still a long way off challenging for the Premier League again with this current squad? Let us know in the comments section below or on twitter @TBRFootball .