Liverpool are no strangers to headlines lately, usually for all the wrong reasons. With Luis Suarez finding the floor more often than he finds the net and a litany of public relations gaffes, sometimes it’s more like watching a gag reel than reading about a professional football club.
Needless to say, there haven’t been many positives on the pitch. Languishing in 14th with just six points to their name, it’s as if nothing has really changed since the unceremonious departure of Kenny Dalglish led Brendan Rodgers to his new Anfield throne – nothing but, perhaps, the personnel.
Don’t get me wrong; the stench of mediocrity still lingers around Merseyside. However, having introduced much-needed class into Liverpool’s midfield in the form of Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin, Rodgers has reinforced his renaissance with talent from Liverpool’s Academy.
Raheem Sterling, Suso and André Wisdom are just a selection of the youngsters the Northern Irishman has deemed ready to feature for the senior side.
Rodgers will have a certain goateed Spaniard to thank for Liverpool’s sudden deluge of youth talent. Many of the teenagers were brought in by Rafael Benitez in a spate of Academy-boosting shopping by the former manager towards the end of his Anfield tenure.
Together they have dragged the average age of a squad down to 23.38. That’s the youngest in the Premier League, even topping notoriously youth-friendly Arsenal by a few tenths of a year. So, who are these kids? More to the point, are they really any good?
You may know Raheem Sterling as the disconcertingly young winger that has been keeping Stewart Downing out of the Liverpool first XI with relative ease. Born in Jamaica, Sterling moved to London aged five, and found himself on QPR’s books aged 10. He was just 15 but already hotly tipped for a big future when the heavyweights came a-calling. Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal were circling and ready to pounce, but Sterling was bound for Merseyside.
Since signing for Benitez’s Liverpool, Sterling has crested the waves of change, surviving three managers in just two years. Cream always rises to the top, they say, and so Sterling has risen past the floundering Downing with an array of impressive performances under Brendan Rodgers this season.
Handed his first Premier League start against holders Manchester City, you could have forgiven him for a shaky start at the deep end of the pool. On the contrary, the teenager flourished in the 2-2 stalemate, ensuring Kolo Toure had a busy afternoon. Rodgers was undoubtedly impressed. “For a 17-year-old playing against the champions, I thought his performance was fantastic,” said the manager.
Sterling has started every game since, and has created more chances than anyone else in the Liverpool side apart from Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard. Gerrard leads the chance creation table with 20, Suarez is close behind with 17, while Sterling has notched 10. While he has still has some way to go to match the league’s best (somewhat surprisingly, top of the chance creation charts so far is Everton’s Leighton Baines, with a massive 30 – albeit, inflated by his status as a set-piece taker), Sterling has done superbly given his relative inexperience.
Not bad for a lad who still can’t legally buy alcohol, eh?
Just when you thought Liverpool had run dry of Spaniards with questionable haircuts, 19-year-old Suso’s advent arrived. Signed from Cadiz in 2010, Suso is another for whom Liverpool have the exiled Benitez to thank. On the brink of signing for Real Madrid, a phonecall from his countryman gave Suso something to think about. He made a quick impression with Liverpool’s reserves, marking himself out as a player as creative and technical as his nationality would have you imagine.
Rodgers gave Suso his Premier League debut against old foes Manchester United, where he replaced the injured Fabio Borini at half time. He impressed even despite the resulting defeat, was involved in the build up to Steven Gerrard’s opening goal and completed all of his passes. Since then, Suso has continued to make an impression, assisting Nuri Sahin’s second goal in the League Cup fixture versus West Brom and earning his first league assist at Carrow Road three days later.
Last year’s young success story as far as Liverpool were concerned was home-grown centre-back turned full-back Martin Kelly. Since Kelly’s cruciate ligament injury, however, the door has been opened for another young defender to take the spotlight. Step in, Andre Wisdom; the 19-year-old plugging the gap at right-back left by Glen Johnson’s switch to the opposite flank and Kelly’s unfortunate exclusion. He’s doing a fine job, too.
Brought in by Benitez in 2008 when he just 14, Wisdom was integral in England’s U-17 European Championships victory, even scoring in the final against Spain. Typically a central defender, like Kelly before him, Wisdom has been deployed on the right instead. It’s not unusual for young players to deputise at unfamiliar positions when injury strikes a regular squad member but according to Rodgers, that’s not the case with Wisdom.
“When I came in, Andre Wisdom had been playing a lot at centre-half but he has the physical and technical capacity to play full-back. The modern day full-back has a lot of the ball and he has got to have strength, pace and power. Andre has that,” says Rodgers.
Wisdom debuted in the League Cup in the 2-1 victory over West Brom. He put in an assured shift then and in the Premier League appearances against Norwich and Stoke that followed. He clocked up an impressive 96% pass completion rate in the 5-2 thumping at Carrow Road and won all of his tackles and six out of seven 50/50 duels. On the evidence to date, Kelly might have difficulty winning back his spot next season.
You won’t win anything with kids (or older players)
Liverpool may not have impressed a great deal as a unit before the international break, but there is certainly cause for optimism in the form of their young guns’ individual performances. They have looked confident and secure despite the pressures of the Premier League, growing week on week, and their hunger to impress will no doubt boost Liverpool’s chances of remedying their dire start to the season.
One ex-Red once said: “You won’t win anything with kids.” If you ask me, Liverpool won’t win anything this year at all, but it certainly won’t be because of a lack of experience on the part of their new youth dimension.
As Rodgers prioritises solidifying the team’s ascent up the league table, he’s likely to put much of his cup hopes on the shoulders of these young players. From what we have seen so far, it looks as if they could easily handle it. They might even teach the older stars a thing or two.
Amy Eustace is sports editor at UCD’s College Tribune and a football writer. Follow Amy on Twitter here.