Respected football writer Paul Tomkins is back on Liverpoolfc.com and in his latest column he examines the promise of youth at Liverpool Football Club...
As a football writer, you have to accept that you will get stuff wrong. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, but for a writer, it stays in black and white. And whereas yesterday's newspapers can become chip wrappings, the internet retains every little folly.
I hope that I've been vaguely correct on the bigger issues, but when it comes to young players breaking through to the first team I've probably got more than my fair share wrong. I guess I'm not alone here; even the coaches themselves often have high hopes for players who just don't push on as expected. Some will get injured; some don't develop physically; others will let the first taste of senior action go to their head.
Whether or not they end up delivering one, young players always represent a bright future. It's easy to project visions of greatness onto certain kids. Of course, even Moneyball - the book-cum-baseball theory that gets mentioned with Liverpool (often erroneously) - centres around an absolutely outstanding young player - Billy Beane - who later realises that he just didn't have the right mentality for the big time; he was too tough on himself, too 'in his head'. He looked the part - tall, handsome - and had great technique. However, looking back, he notes that an inferior peer at the New York Mets went on to have a great career simply because he was more relaxed at the plate.
Many shrewd observers in football note that the age between 19 and 22 is when many players drop off the map. Some simply won't be good enough - it's one thing being good in your age group, but top-flight football is the best of all age groups (and these days, with so many top imports, all worldwide age groups).
However, often it's the lack of competitive football that causes them to stagnate: not good enough for the first team, but in need of experience to improve; and, snared in a catch 22, not going to get that experience because - of course - they are not yet good enough.
The loan system is fairly ideal, in that it lets players gain their heads on someone else's pitch (a kind of reversal of Bob Paisley saying that you let your older players lose their legs on someone else's grass.)
Indeed, the loan system suited new Reds' star Fabio Borini, who did exceptionally well at Swansea under Rodgers in helping seal their promotion to the Premier League in the spring of 2011. At the time, Borini had been on the fringes of the Chelsea first-team squad, and was marked out as a great prospect by Carlo Ancelotti. But by late in 2010-11 the young striker's contract had run low, and despite the Blues wanting to keep him, he opted to move to Italy. A year on, he's 21 and at Liverpool.
However, picking the right club to loan to is clearly important; unless they are very good indeed, the kids probably won't be thrown into a relegation battle or a promotion or title fight. Then there's the worry of loaning them to a team that plays a totally different style of football, where they won't be coached properly and can pick up bad habits.
Like Manchester United, Liverpool were blessed in the '90s with an unusual amount of high-class academy graduates. Both teams have had players come through the ranks in the new millennium, but none have been as exceptional as names like Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Neville, Fowler, Gerrard, McManaman, Owen and Carragher. That batch of players raised expectations for what kids can achieve. And, in particular, Giggs and Owen suggested that it was possible to be a star at 17. (Wayne Rooney subsequently lowered that to 16.)
For every 18 and 19 year old who shows impatience (or fans who do so on their behalf), it's worth noting that Scholes and Beckham didn't make break through until 20. Players with exceptional pace and/or strength tend to progress more quickly, because shortcomings can be disguised with blistering speed. I recall seeing some of Michael Owen's early games, and he gave the ball away, missed chances, drifted offside, ran into defenders, and so on. But if he got away from the last man, he couldn't be caught.
This is possibly the reason that Raheem Sterling - a special talent - is already in the first-team picture. Like the young Owen, he is raw, with lots to learn; but phenomenal pace allows him to terrorise defences. Even if he doesn't yet know when to pass, shoot, cross or check back, he can cause mayhem for others to profit from.
He's the first potential superstar since the '90s, but it can easily go to waste if he doesn't work hard and remain grounded. Plenty of young players have made the first team in their teens, then disappeared off the map.
John Welsh was heralded as an extremely bright prospect. Why didn't Houllier give him the 15-20 games he promised? When was Richie Partridge ever going to be given a game? Anthony Le Tallec was going to be the next big thing. And remember when, to much excitement, Liverpool nearly bought Millwall's 16-year-old goalscoring sensation Cherno Samba?
(Until Googling that saga, my memory suggested it was from the '90s; it was in fact just 10 years ago, and Samba is still only 26. He can currently be found in the Norwegian second division.)
In the summer of 2007, I felt that Paul Anderson - swapped for former bright hope Welsh - would become the pacy flyer we'd been craving. At U18 level he looked sensational, as the Reds won the Youth Cup, and in the March of that year he'd appeared on the bench in the Champions League. But he never went on to make his debut. He's 24 now, and has had a fairly reasonable time in the Championship.
He's a prime example of the gap between youth football and reserve level, and, at a club like Liverpool, the even bigger gap between reserve level and the first team.
I was sure that Krisztián Németh was the closest thing I'd seen to a Robbie Fowler clone, with the way he finished with such an easy grace, but injuries didn't help him, and he never looked quick enough to get in behind defences. Liverpool sold him, and nothing really happened for a couple of years. However, now, aged 23, he's doing fairly well in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Lauri Dalla Valle was the next highly impressive young striker, but he was sold to Fulham in 2010. Now 20, he's on the fringe of things at the London club, but not pulling up any trees. By contrast, Alex Kačaniklić, who was part of the same deal that saw Paul Konchesky join Liverpool - and who didn't have quite the same stellar youth reputation - has forced his way into the Fulham first XI.
All of this makes me wary of going overboard on any of the current crop of youngsters, although this does appear to be the strongest collection I can recall since the '90s.
(Though neither are guaranteed starters, Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing, aged 22 and 23 respectively, are now part of the first-team squad, and have been for some time. As such, I'd no longer class them as youngsters.)
Jack Robinson, now 18, made his first-team debut at 16, and Jon Flanagan was getting quite a few starts aged 18. The aforementioned Sterling is making waves at just 17, just as Giggs did 21 years ago.
The young Spaniard Suso, 18, has incredible ability, but given that he is more like Scholes and Beckham than Giggs, he may have to wait longer to make his mark; clever players who aren't speedsters often need to build up their strength and stamina first. The same applies to Krisztian Adorjan.
Adam Morgan, 18, had his praises sung by Robbie Fowler after the north American tour. He's quick, tenacious, and can finish, so there's some hope there.
Morgan reminds me a little of David Villa in his physique and playing style, and while that doesn't mean he'll definitely go on to become anywhere near as good - this is not me saying that "Morgan is the new Villa!" - it's worth noting that until the age of 20, Villa was playing for Sporting Gijón B in the third tier of Spanish football, and then spent two seasons in their first team, in the Spanish Segunda División. He was 22 before he made his top division debut, and even that was with newly promoted Zaragoza. The potential of great players is not always picked up on at an early age.
Andre Wisdom, 19, seems to have a bright future, and German Stephen Sama has developed into a tall, powerful centre-back - although it's a position, along with goalkeeper, where youngsters are least likely to be risked in first-team action, due to the costly nature of a mistake. (And of course, defending is an art perfected by experience, which leads to better positional sense. Young youth-team centre-backs tend to get promoted as full-backs to start with.)
There are plenty of other names - too many to mention - with talent at every age group.
The Spanish influence at the Academy has clearly helped reshape the club's fortunes, with two of Barcelona's top coaches instilling a style of play that Brendan Rodgers - an hispanophile - should find helpful.
Even if the Academy only produced a regular succession of very good squad players, that'd help the club in the long-term. One or two world beaters, though, and things could get very interesting.