Date: 20th May 2010 at 7:06pm
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After following Liverpool loanee Mikel San Jose’s progress for most of the season, his £2.6million sale to Athletic Bilbao yesterday came as a bit of a disappointment to me. He has no doubt grown as a player as the season has gone on, cementing a place in the starting line-up after a difficult few months on loan at the Basque side. Until November 2009, he had only played seven minutes of league action and there was actually speculation about him returning early from his loan spell due to the lack of first team opportunities. His agent stated as much and there was even interest from Wolves and Blackburn Rovers if his loan move was cut short.

His fortunes however, turned around very quickly in the course of a few weeks in December. He scored on his first start against Austria Vienna in the Europa League, and followed it up with another goal on his first La Liga start 2 weeks later against Real Zaragoza. The run of games in December allowed San Jose to establish himself in the side and he has never looked back since then. A regular at centre half, he helped Bilbao challenge for a Champions League, although they fell short of their aim by finishing the season eighth in the table. Even when San Jose was not featuring in the first team at the start of the loan spell, Bilbao were still interested in signing the player permanently in the summer. Why you ask, because San Jose is Basque.

The 20 year old central defender started off his career at Bilbao and he made his way through the youth teams until he was playing in the Basque’s side equivalent of the reserves. At 17, he was still not allowed to sign a professional contract with Bilbao under Spanish law, and Liverpool took advantage of this by bringing the playing to Anfield in the summer of 2007, compensating Bilbao with £270,000. No doubt one of the main reasons for San Jose for signing was the prospect of signing a professional contract, but his heart obviously still lay with Athletic Bilbao. During his time at Anfield, San Jose was always an assured presence at the back for the reserves. Composed and good on the ball, he was also good in the air and could be a threat at opposition set pieces scoring his fair share of goals.

There was however always going to be the problem of getting first team action at Liverpool and Rafa Benitez decided to let him go out loan to Bilbao to give him some much needed experience. He certainly did and during his time back in Spain this season he has developed as a player and learned a great deal. Not surprisingly Bilbao wanted the player permanently as he was both Basque and a very good player. So why have we let the player go? There are two probable answers as to why. Liverpool already have two young centre backs in Martin Kelly and Daniel Ayala already at the club who have impressed for the first team. It would be difficult to ask San Jose to return to compete with them, alongside Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Jamie Carragher when he has already begun to start games for his home-town club back in his native Spain.

The second reason is far more interesting. San Jose was typical of a philosophy which saw many players from Spain and other foreign countries being brought in to improve the quality of Liverpool reserve and academy players. The technique that has been used with San Jose along with others such as Dani Pacheco and Gerardo Bruna is to take players developed at other clubs and take them before they can sign a professional contract with a Spanish club at 18. All English clubs have done this in recent years as they can undercut their continental counterparts by offering lucrative full-time deals before players are 18. Two cases in point were Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal and Gerard Pique at Manchester United, and these can be used as examples for my next point. The point of the academy revolution last summer was to negate the need for this and begin to develop and nurture young home-grown players. Although a player like Pacheco may well proceed to play for Liverpool’s first team, there are always more complications with young foreign players than young English players. Off the pitch they are less likely to settle in and therefore develop at the rate they might have done in their home country, and there is always a likelihood, like with both Fabregas and San Jose that they might want to return home after a short period.

The purchasing of players such as Jonjo Shelvey, Raheem Sterling and even the latest addition Callum Pilkington from lower league clubs is part of this philosophy. Rodolfo Borrell and Pep Segura were brought to Liverpool to replicate as much as possible the successful Barca youth academy at La Masia. Although it can’t be identical due to the peculiarities of the English game, developing young local talent who have an affinity for the club and have the passion to play for Liverpool is the end goal. Although they cannot develop players from the age of 12 like they could back in Spain due to laws that prevent the Reds from recruiting youngsters of that age outside of a small catchment area, they can purchase players from lower league football academies from the ages of 14 to 17, and they then can foster this talent in view to them becoming first team players. I would not be surprised to see San Jose’s transfer fee being spent on Danny Wilson, a player who would be perceived as a home grown player and could play in a similar position to San Jose. The difference in Rafa and Rodolfo’s mind is that he may develop a “passion” for Liverpool and become a stalwart of the club, unlike San Jose whose heart lies in the Basque country.

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