Barcelona, Ajax, Athletic Bilbao, and even the ‘rivals’ Manchester United are renowned for their great youth academies. Many players have been able to forge careers at the highest level with the education they gained from these institutions. The development of young talent is often at the top of many club’s ambitions and the forefront of fans’ minds.
An excellent academy is the key to a Football club’s long-term success financially and on the pitch. The academy can nurture a player’s talent to the stage where they can be sold for a good fee. We have seen the likes of Southampton and Crystal Palace over the years do this to good effect. Of course, not every team will want to sell their hottest talents. They can also be used to fill the homegrown quota and come in when needed. A club that has no doubt needed to use their academy prospects this season is Liverpool.
Liverpool find themselves in an injury crisis and Jurgen Klopp has looked to the youth to step up and they have somewhat delivered. The likes of Curtis Jones, Neco Williams, Caoimhin Kelleher, and Rhys Williams have stepped into the first team. Many thought injuries to Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez would completely curtail Liverpool’s ambitions this season but this has not been the case. The club find themselves in a hotly contested title race and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
The current Liverpool academy is a far cry from prospects like Nathan Ecclestone, Jerome Sinclair, and Dani Pacheco. All failed to become established members of the first team after time in the academy. The constant youth and scouse presence of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jones is almost like a throwback to the late ‘90s. In this time there were many homegrown talents coming through as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, and Steve McManaman. Liverpool beating Ajax to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages with a Jones header and Williams assist was a significant ‘coming to age’ moment for the academy. The ‘Kirky Boyz’ delivered on the biggest stage for the Reds.
Klopp has taken a keen interest in the academy since becoming Liverpool manager in 2015. He has looked to create an environment for the youth which reflects the first team. “Look, I’m the kind of coach who wants to be really connected with these boys. I want to know about them, and I want to see them, and I want to give the other coaches the opportunity to watch our training”. – Klopp said to LFC TV.
The under 23’s and 18’s play a similar way to Klopp’s men for players to transition easier. Former under 23’s manager Neil Critchley was offered the Blackpool managerial job after a fantastic job in developing the youngsters, The Reds’ academy had long been forgotten before Klopp was appointed. There had been a few managerial changes, and this pulls the academy in different directions.
The production line from the youth system to the first team reopened again with Alexander-Arnold. Academy players can now see a pathway, after witnessing Trent become the first choice right back in a Premier League winning side. “The younger players have to feel like they have an opportunity and the boss was fantastic at giving those younger players an opportunity. He believed in them and you can see from the way they play; they sense there is an opportunity there.” – Neil Critchley to the Guardian.
Liverpool born and raised Curtis Jones is the talisman of this new generation coming through at the Reds. The Englishman is a talented all-action midfielder who easily fits into Klopp’s system. Jones has a 92% pass accuracy rate so far this campaign. Jones also averages 1.1 tackles and 1.1 dribbles per game, showing how involved he is in all aspects of midfield. At 19 years of age, Jones has the confidence and swagger on the ball to take risks and win games on his own. His strike against Everton in the FA Cup third round is a great example of this.
I believe this ability comes from playing under Critchley and being under 23’s captain so he doesn’t shirk responsibility. Jones has a good combination of midfielders to learn from at Liverpool with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Thiago Alcantara, James Milner and even spent a lot of time with Adam Lallana before he left for Brighton. You can see aspects of many of these midfielders in Jones’ playing style, his dribbling, and close control ability is similar to Lallana’s however, he also has the defensive intelligence such as Henderson and Gini. The leader of the “Kirky Boyz” revolution is definitely one to watch.
Another graduate of Liverpool’s youth academy is Neco Williams. The Welshman has been at the Reds since the age of six and has progressed through the ranks at U18, U19, and U23 levels. The 19-year-old made his debut in October 2019 in the famous 5-5 penalty shootout win over Arsenal in the EFL Cup. In all honestly, Williams has had a mixed start to his professional career at the club, coming in for criticism for his performances against Brighton and Atlanta.
The right-back has great ability going forward and is a good crosser of the ball. Nevertheless, as expected for a teenager, the defensive side of his game needs some development. Being the understudy for Alexander-Arnold was never going to be easy. Klopp will hope the match-winning assist against Ajax will be a key indicator of things to come in the youngster’s Liverpool career.
Probably one of the more surprising names which the Reds have called upon this campaign is Caoimhin Kelleher. The Irish goalkeeper joined the academy from Ringmahon Rangers in 2015. He was even an unused substitute in the 2019 UEFA Champions League final. Kelleher played for Liverpool in the 5-5 win on penalties against Arsenal in the EFL cup last season and looked like an intimidated and wobbly teenager. The match was chaotic, and Kelleher didn’t cover himself in the best light.
However, when Klopp called upon him this campaign as Adrian was underperforming, Kelleher stepped up. Kelleher looks a different keeper to the two years ago. He looks a lot more assured and his distribution appears to have improved. Playing in a youth system that replicates the first team has allowed his ability on the ball to develop. The back-to-back clean sheets against Ajax and Wolves has put the youngster ahead of Adrian in the pecking order. He will be one to watch going forward.
With Liverpool’s defensive issues, there have been chances for young talent. Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips who were on loan at Kidderminster Harris in the National League and Stuttgart respectivel, have been given opportunities. However, whether they are ready to be fully-fledged Liverpool centre backs going forward remains to be seen. One thing is for sure is that there’s a new revolution in town at Anfield. Under the tutelage of Klopp, it will be a pleasure to watch the “Kirkby Boyz” grow.