Academy'Let's showcase our identity' - LFC U21s season preview
As Liverpool U21s prepare to get their new Premier League 2 season under way on Sunday, manager Barry Lewtas admits his young players are buoyant after getting plenty of first-team exposure in pre-season.
During the tour of Asia and the training camp in Austria, several Academy hopefuls were given opportunities to impress Jürgen Klopp and his coaching staff.
Luke Chambers, Isaac Mabaya and Stefan Bajcetic were regularly seen during the summer schedule, including an appearance against Manchester United in front of more than 50,000 supporters in Bangkok.
Manchester City visit the Kirkby Academy in the Premier League 2 season-opener this Sunday, with the young Reds eager for a good start to 2022-23.
Ahead of the 2pm BST kick-off, read on as Lewtas looks ahead to a busy forthcoming campaign for his side…
On the pre-season programme for the Academy…
It’s been brilliant. I’ve said it before but we have a manager who gives young players a chance and the support from the likes of Pep [Lijnders] and Vitor [Matos] is fantastic. We are always extremely fortunate that the first team are so keen to integrate the young players and fully integrate them into training. The lads have had an unbelievable experience for those that went to Asia, Austria and we’ve also had boys who have been involved when the first team have been back at the AXA.
So, the amount of exposure these boys have had with the first team and the staff has been brilliant. For us, our U21s programme, in terms of the games, has been exactly what we wanted because we wanted it to be a real challenge. Obviously we played Wigan Athletic’s first team, Kidderminster, which was a different challenge, and then Porto’s B team in Portugal. We really wanted to push the lads in all aspects. Overall, I’m really pleased.
On Layton Stewart enjoying an encouraging pre-season and netting a few goals after being out of action for so long…
Layton returned towards the end of last season and it was fantastic to get him back on the pitch again. He was training really well and we were able to give him some game time before the end of the season. It was a shame for us as a group, as well as Layton, that the season finished because we were in such good form, the lads were playing extremely well and Layton was really champing at the bit. Obviously in pre-season he has been back and part of the group, fully integrated into training, he’s played games, scored goals and looked a real threat. He’s not played in any walkovers, he’s played in tough, challenging games, so it’s a real promising pre-season for Layton.
On the likes of Oakley Cannonier and Harvey Blair moving up to the U21s this season after a very encouraging campaign with the U18s…
This season we are pretty well loaded at the front end of the pitch, which is great and what we want with competition for places. We have a number of options in those attacking areas and we want to try to push players to play in as many positions as we can. We have a number of exciting players in the squad, which is a really positive thing, and hopefully that will drive the levels up. It is a big step up from the U18s to the U21s in terms of the physicality. It’s a natural step in the right direction and the challenge is different in the opposition we play and the level does become a little bit higher because the players are older. We are in a number of other competitions as well, like the Papa John’s Trophy and others, so these challenges are exactly what we want for the boys.
On competing in the Premier League International Cup following the competition’s return for 2022-23…
It’s great to play in this competition and you add the UEFA Youth League to that and it’s a fantastic experience for the young players. We are always keen to try to expose our boys to European football and the UEFA Youth League gives us a minimum number of six games. The Premier League International Cup gives us four group games, so it’s great to test ourselves against high-quality European opposition, which I think is really important to the lads’ development.
Top 10 U23s goals of 2021-22
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On Sunday’s Premier League 2 opener against Man City…
A really good game to start with. Last season, to say we played out two goalless draws with Manchester City in the division is a strange one really. I thought both games were excellent. In the first one we were a little different in terms of numbers but then in the second game at the Etihad, it was a fantastic game with two teams full of quality.
It’s two styles that really compliment and make it a good game, and at first-team level obviously as well. It will be two new teams in reality at U21 level but the same expectations will be there. We will be ready to play the best version of Manchester City and I’m sure they will be ready to play the best version of us as well. We have had a really good pre-season in terms of what we wanted from it and we will see where we go.
On what he will be looking for from his team this season…
It will be about us doing that hard work day in, day out, so the boys know what we want from them and show our identity about what we are all about. The difficulties and the tough games and tough moments we had in the first half of last season, we spoke about them after each game. We didn’t feel we were the worst team when we lost and we didn’t feel like we were the best team when we won.
We were able to find that real balance where we understood that we were still a developing team in that first half of the season. There were ideas we wanted to try to get across that were complex and difficult but we stayed really consistent in terms of what we believed in and how we wanted to play the game. I think what just happened, in terms of our strong second half of the season, was we just became better at the things we were trying to do.
The players were really demanding of each other and we were really demanding of them – that will be the key this season as well. We are really clear of what we want to try to do and achieve both individually for players and also collectively. I would imagine the team you will see on the first day of the season, I’m hoping by the time we get to the end of the season, you will see a better team because that’s the idea. We want to improve and develop individually and collectively, so that will always be our message and keep getting better.
On the changing back of the U23s to the U21s in 2022-23…
To us, there’s no real difference and I’m pretty easy with it whatever team we are called. The flexibility of the team is there and it changes so often. Sometimes the team changes for different reasons. We move the U18s up and they play, sometimes boys come back off their loan and need some minutes and opportunities, and sometimes you have some late developers physically. The age is not what’s really important to us. We are really clear on how we want it to look and also very clear on what direction we want our players to go in, and I think that’s what is important.
However any other team wants to do it, they are entitled to do it whatever way they want as well. In reality, the league is called Premier League 2 and it’s not called the U21s league. The reality is we are really comfortable trying to promote younger players and putting them in that challenging environment at the right time for them. It’s a really interesting one but it’s not changed our mindset in how we want to approach it. I think the real beauty I’ve found for the past two seasons with this division is I’ve found it to be really competitive and that is what we want. I’m sure it will remain that way this season and be a really competitive competition.