AS Liverpool FC put in another solid, yet toothless display against the Ukrainian equivalent of Manchester City last Thursday, it was noted by many – the commentators on TV included – that Liverpool’s starting line-up consisted of what can only be described as a crèche.
Players like Flanagan, Wisdom, Shelvey and Morgan have all featured previously this season, with only Conor Coady never having made a first-team start until Thursday. Of course, Shelvey is well used to first-team football and is firmly established as a member of the first-team squad.
He is also the oldest of the five youngsters who started against Anzhi, at 20. The rest are either 19 or under and together, they helped reduce Liverpool’s average age on Thursday evening to under 24.
Just after the hour, Liverpool introduced first-team veterans Suso and Dani Pacheco, who between them have amassed 23 first-team appearances and only Pacheco has yet reached his 21st birthday. Even Assaidi who was brought on after 77 minutes is only just 24.
Between them this season, Liverpool’s young guns have roundly impressed; taking their chances and showing a willingness and fearlessness that has impressed everybody and given fans real hope that, at least the system put in place by Rafa Benitez a few years ago was actually working and is just starting to bear fruit. Again, on Thursday evening, these products of Liverpool’s academy and foreign youth systems put on a show, collectively, that totally belied their years and inexperience and, despite the result, it was hard to not be thoroughly impressed by each and every one of them.
However, the performances that the likes of Sterling, Suso, Shelvey, Wisdom, et al have put in so far, while only a good thing for the club, could be the death knell of a number of their more senior counterparts.
Against Anzhi on Thursday, the likes of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole were all on the pitch but there were times when you either didn’t notice, or plainly wish they weren’t, such was the amateurish performances they put in.
Jordan Henderson continues to do a great impression of a deer in headlights. For a player who was hailed as the next generation’s Steven Gerrard, he is starting to look more and more like a poor man’s Anderson. The only real difference being that Anderson occasionally hits the target with his efforts. Occasionally. And attempting to shoe-horn him into Lucas’s role in his absence is as offensive as it was when Dalglish was trying to do the same with Spearing all through last season.
On the other hand, Joe Cole often shows plenty of endeavour but a lot of his efforts tend to come to nothing. Many times over the years, Liverpool have had one or two attacking players that put in a lot of work but are often left wanting at the other end of the pitch, but through perseverance and faith, they have come good, even in short spells.
Unfortunately for Cole, he doesn’t have the luxury of time and every opportunity he gets, he really should be taking with both hands. The only problem for Cole is that he is just too slow in both his footballing brain and his feet to really fit in with the fast-thinking and fast-passing game that Brendan Rodgers prefers and, at 31, he isn’t going to be able to adapt to this as age isn’t on his side either in this instance.
Then for Stewart Downing: the biggest disappointment of the lot. At close to £20 million, he really should have given more back by now. With 2 goals and 3 assists in 15 games this season, he isn’t doing too badly on the face of things but for the fee and the expectation when he signed, Downing has seriously failed to deliver. Given that he is now primarily used as an emergency left-back, the end may well be in sight for Downing.
With the form of young wide-players Suso and Sterling, and the eye-catching performances from super-sub Assaidi, the 34-times capped England international now finds himself effectively as 4th choice winger and I feel that Rodgers probably knows that selling Downing for at least half of what we paid for him last summer is key to any potential signings come January, because I can’t see anybody taking Henderson off us and the owners would not doubt just be happy to get Cole off the books at the moment, even losing out on a fee for him in the process.
Given that all three of these players rarely get near the team during the regular league matches, it’s fairly obvious to anybody that knows anything about the club that they are far down the pecking order, and you would’ve liked to believe that seeing youngsters taking their places in the starting line-up against the likes of Everton, Manchester United and Chelsea would rile them into action, but that just doesn’t seem to have happened and, if anything, it has seemed to have the opposite effect.
Having all the talent in the world is meaningless, if you don’t have the attitude to match and I believe that that’s where these three senior players fall really flat: they just don’t seem to want it as much as the kids do. And it is that which is going to see the three of them touted around the league once the January transfer window opens.