It wouldn’t be UEFA if they weren’t having a pop at the top English clubs. Ever since the top sides became Europe’s elite, it seems that they are scrabbling to rewrite the rule book.
Now, with UEFA sticking their mighty oars in once more, Liverpool are being criticised for having a squad of “62 professionals”. Nothing is said about top Spanish clubs running two different professional sides, with a reserve team that competes in the lower leagues.
In slating Liverpool, UEFA are ignoring that the vast majority are teenagers who are only too happy to have a professional contract at that age, even though most know that their future will ultimately lie elsewhere.
No-one forces them to sign pro terms at such a great club, the poor lambs. And no-one promises them first-team football. And if their maths is any good, they will see how many players stand in their way of success. That’s modern football.
That so many of those players blocking their path to the first team are top internationals may be dispiriting. But does this mean Liverpool should only sign mediocre players instead?
If Torres being so good is off-putting to a youngster, that’s hardly the manager’s fault; it’s not like he’s going to swap Torres for Kevin Davies instead, to make the kids more optimistic.
And anyway, the very best will know that they will break through regardless. They will aspire to partner Torres, or if they really fancy themselves, displace him.
With less money to spend (Liverpool’s squad cost £80m less to assemble than United’s or Chelsea’s, and far less than even Spurs’ and Manchester City’s), Benítez is playing a percentage game with the young talent on the books.
And anyone who knows about players like Pacheco and Nemeth knows that there is some real quality about to come through into the first team.
These two, and Lauri Dalla Valle (whom Chelsea offered £1m to sign for them aged 16), are the best young striking talents I’ve seen coming through since Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. Nemeth and Dalla Valle are supremely natural goalscorers, and Pacheco is a little magician: a young Luis Garcia, but with pace.
They all look the part, even if they can’t all become first-team regulars, particularly if Fernando Torres is still around; you can’t play four strikers at once. But if they develop as hoped, they can all stake a claim.
Craig Lindfield, speaking to the Observer (who ran a large piece on the situation), was quoted as saying: "That's the difference between Liverpool and other clubs, young lads get more of a chance elsewhere." [Edit: these comments appear to have been taken out of context, see note later on.]
Do they at Chelsea?
And at Manchester United?
These are the teams Liverpool are competing with.
It’s a long time since United brought through scores of youngsters, and their strongest XI contains no home-grown kids from this decade, although Brown and Fletcher are important players. Yes, their younger players, like Rafael, get opportunities, and some have become valuable squad players, but that’s also the case at Liverpool.
Lindfield, 20, is on loan at Accrington Stanley. In many ways that says it all; he was a decent youth player, but a long way from where Liverpool need a striker to be in terms of quality.
Godwin Antwi, meanwhile, has had enough of being farmed out, moaning that the Manchester City players beaten in the 2006 FA Youth Cup Final have had more chances than his Liverpool team-mates.
Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Ched Evans and Daniel Sturridge are those he names, and yet to me, each, bar Evans, looked like a great player. Liverpool, by contrast (and as I said at the time), appeared to have eleven very good players, and a better team spirit.
There was no-one of Richards’ ability in Liverpool’s XI. It’s great to win the youth cup, but better to lose it and have three outstanding players instead. And even then, Manchester City were a mediocre mid-table side when these lads broke through to the first team; they didn’t have players like Gerrard, Torres, Alonso, Carragher, Mascherano, et al, in their respective positions.
For me, Adam Hammill, also talking to the Observer, hit the nail on the head:
“At 18 you'd be naive to think you're going to break into Liverpool's first team. You'd have to be a Gerrard, Owen or Rooney. It's also a hell of a lot of pressure to be playing for your home-town team. Darren Potter and Danny Guthrie were ahead of me [in age] and did well on loan. They ended up playing a few games for the first team. So if I do well I might get my chance. I'm a Liverpool player and want my future there. If not, well, the only way is down but you can try and work your way back up that ladder."
Jack Hobbs felt dispirited, but realistic: “[…] But Liverpool are one of the top clubs in the world. You wouldn't expect it to be easy. The way I look at it is if I play every game as well as I can I'm going to end up where I deserve. Ideally, I'd love to be playing for Liverpool every week, but the truth is it's going to be very difficult."
This is key: do the best you can and you will end up where you deserve. A manager just wants the best players with the best attitudes; he has no agendas. He can’t afford to have any. Young players should not have a sense of entitlement; they need to work as hard as they can.
Loan deals are important to the development of players; they are not, as many suggest, a precursor to a sale unless that player is older and on big wages (like Pennant). They are an education. But only so many can graduate with honours.
But if, at 20, like Lindfield, you’re only good enough for a struggling side in the bottom tier of English football, I don’t see how you can complain at not getting enough chances at one of the five best teams in Europe.
[Edit: I would advise people to read the comments section for a response from a friend of Craig Lindfield, speaking about how his quotes were taken out of context. I can imagine how frustrating it’s been for him if that was the case. I’ll leave the blog as is, because I make other points relating to the issues, but hereby apologise for my criticism of the player, seeing as it was based on misleading journalism.]
At the same age, Paul Anderson is doing very well in the Championship. Adam Hammill is at Barnsley, having played for Blackpool and Southampton in the same division. Jack Hobbs, who played five times for the Reds in his teens, is excelling for Leicester in League One.
This is the route to success taken by David Beckham, Frank Lampard and John Terry.
Of course, players develop at different rates. But by this age Lindfield should be at least tempting loan deals from far better clubs. He is already behind others of the same age, as well as someone like Daniel Pacheco, just 18, or Lauri Dalla Valle, 17.
I don’t like this idea that young players don’t get a chance at Liverpool. Rafa Benítez has a background in youth development and has only now got full control of the Academy. He is very keen on bringing through top talent, particularly with less money to spend than some of his rivals, and the situation unlikely to change.
A problem for him dates back to a lack of really special young players in the system when he took over; in recent years that situation has improved, but mainly thanks to the scouting department.
However, it takes time for those scouted to develop, and Liverpool’s first team is not very old to start with; there’s only one regular in his 30s, and that’s Jamie Carragher. And in reserve, there are no 30-somethings beyond Sami Hyypia.
With players like Torres, Arbeloa, Reina, Alonso, Mascherano, Riera, Babel, Skrtel, Lucas and Agger all mid-20s or younger, it becomes harder to throw in a load of kids, particularly when the pressure to win the title is as great as it is now. Once you’ve already won it, it becomes easier to blood the youngsters, as you have a bit of breathing space.
In a year or two, these kids will be older, as will the aforementioned first-teamers. Their chances will come.
And let’s face it, Benítez doesn’t have time to go down the Arsenal route. The Gunners are famed for giving young players a go, but it’s a process that has arguably held them back from winning trophies in recent years. And the problem with it is that the best players, like Cesc Fabregas, can grow impatient.
It takes years to achieve what Wenger is trying to do, but it can be undermined if, before the group matures, its key figures are lured elsewhere. That way, the team never comes of age, and we’re always talking about “in three or four years’ time…”, as we were four years ago with Arsenal.
What Benítez is trying to do is mix that long-term planning with the ability to compete in the here-and-now; after all, he doesn’t have the goodwill in the bank that three league titles have earned for Wenger (although the natives grow restless).
The other end of the spectrum is Chelsea, with a bigger squad of established professionals and a far, far higher wage bill; but with all of their best players either edging towards their 30s, or already in the twilight years of their careers, their squad now looks horribly unbalanced. They can still field an exceptional side, but you sense major surgery is required before too long.
Liverpool cannot afford such a weighty, ‘senior’ squad. It has to be more of a mix of established players and young hopefuls. And at this stage of their careers, I’d guess that 30 of Liverpool’s squad of 62 can probably be employed for a combined weekly total amounting to less than what Michael Ballack earns.
The problem with young players, however, is that some will fail to develop (either physically or mentally), others will lose their way and think they’ve made it after a couple of first-team games, and some will get held back by injuries. So you need a large pool to choose from, and wait for the strongest to survive.
This season, Emiliano Insua, who has just turned 20, has made the first-team breakthrough, getting a run of important games before Argentina called him away to an U20 tournament. We knew he was special when he arrived as a 17-year-old.
Nabil El Zhar, 22, has featured far more than expected, and had some very good cameo appearances.
David Ngog, 19, has played a lot of football for the Reds; he’s not the finished article, but he’s scored in the league and the Champions League. Against Sunderland he showed great technique, with some lovely bits of skill, and is definitely one for the future, who, at the very worst, can do a job in the present.
Jay Spearing, 20, has made his Champions League debut and come on against Real Madrid. Damien Plessis, just turned 21, has played several times in the first team. Stephen Darby, 20, has played in the first team this season, as has Martin Kelly, 18.
And by first team, I do not mean in the Carling Cup. I mean the league and the Champions League.
Krisztián Németh, 20, was due to make the breakthrough this season, but missed the first five months with injury. Already called up for the Hungarian national team, he then went to Blackpool on loan but had his cheekbone broken 60 seconds into his debut.
This is a player who was excelling in the Hungarian top league at the age of 17, and who was sensational for the Reds’ reserves last year. His loan to Blackpool was for just one month, to get him fit for Liverpool’s first-team squad. But he got clattered by some hairy-arsed centre-back.
Francisco Durán, a very gifted midfield playmaker aged 20, is possibly the most naturally talented of the lot, but has had terrible luck with injuries. If he gets fit, watch this space….
Many of these players are the future of the club. Each is getting a great education by training with the first team at Melwood. Those who don’t make the grade can take what they’ve learned from Europe’s top coaches and apply it elsewhere. They get a good move, and Liverpool might get a handy fee.
If only two or three of these players are regular starters for Liverpool in 2011, that’ll make it all a big success.
But it seems to me that if Liverpool went out and bought a load of £20m players, UEFA would moan.
Now, by giving squad numbers and basic professional contracts to lots of kids, and looking to bring youth through, UEFA are moaning.
Seems that’s what UEFA does best.
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