Tag Archives: player analysis

5 Liverpool Academy Players Who Could Break Through Next Season

When England manager Roy Hodgson named five Liverpool players in his starting XI in last week’s friendly against Denmark, Reds boss Brendan Rodgers rightly took the plaudits for his work in developing homegrown talent at Anfield.

Indeed, the current Liverpool and England teams provide wonderful examples of Rodgers’ management: Raheem Sterling’s rise to prominence; Daniel Sturridge’s rapid evolution to become England’s deadliest striker; Jordan Henderson’s turnaround in form, confidence and stature.

As we continue to witness the current generation of English talent at Anfield, let’s also keep an eye on the future and on the good work that is being done at the Liverpool youth academy.

Here are five players from the Liverpool youth setup who could break through next season. Enjoy and let us know your picks.

 

Jordon Ibe

Jordon Ibe
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Our first name is someone who will be familiar among Liverpool fans—and, increasingly, Birmingham City supporters.

After making a cameo off the bench during Liverpool’s 5-1 rout of Arsenal in February, Jordon Ibe joined Championship side Birmingham on loan until the end of the season, per BBC Sport.

And according to the Daily Star, Ibe already made a good enough impression on Blues boss Lee Clark that he was sent on as a substitute in a 2-1 win at Blackpool just 24 hours after signing for Birmingham.

Blessed with pace, power, dribbling, tactical intelligence and an eye for goal, Ibe has a big chance to impress during his stint at Birmingham, and Brendan Rodgers will likely afford him further opportunities to catch the eye over preseason.

A look at Raheem Sterling’s exciting development already shows what could lie in store for Jordon Ibe next season.

 

Ryan McLaughlin

Ryan McLaughlin
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Our next candidate is also out on loan in the Championship: Ryan McLaughlin joined Barnsley on loan in January, per BBC Sport, in an initial 28-day deal that was subsequently extended until the end of the season.

Currently sidelined with a hamstring problem, McLaughlin made a positive impression on his professional debut in January—coincidentally also against Blackpool—and will be looking to become a part of Barnsley’s starting XI in the months to come.

Having impressed against AS Roma legend Francesco Totti during Liverpool’s preseason tour of the USA in 2012, McLaughlin has had to bide his time in the reserve setup, but Barnsley will be a good test for the 19-year-old.

As Glen Johnson’s contract situation continues to be uncertain, McLaughlin could get a chance to stake his claim for a first-team place this summer.

 

Joao Carlos Teixeira

“I watched this kid a couple of years ago playing for Sporting Lisbon against Liverpool at Anfield in a youth game; I could see straight away he was the best player on the pitch.”

Steven Gerrard’s post-game praise for Joao Carlos Teixeira, via LiverpoolFC.com, after his debut in a 3-2 win over Fulham in February showed just how highly the Portuguese youngster is rated within the halls of Melwood and the corridors of Anfield.

It was Teixeira’s pass that led to Daniel Sturridge winning the match-winning penalty that Gerrard converted, and his appearance off the bench when the match was tied at 2-2 was a huge show of faith from Brendan Rodgers.

Since joining Liverpool from Sporting Lisbon, Teixeira initially struggled with a back injury, and a loan spell at League One side Brentford in 2013 ended early, making his recent rise in prominence all the more encouraging.

The Daily Mail has an in-depth profile of Teixeira: Expect him to be more involved in the first team in the closing months this season and step up his claim next season.

 

Jack Robinson

Jack Robinson
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Jack Robinson has spent the current season on loan at Blackpool, where he has been a fixture in Barry Ferguson’s first team and impressed both with his tenacious defending and with his contributions in attack.

Robinson was once Liverpool’s youngest ever player when he made his senior debut for Liverpool in May 2010 during Rafael Benitez’s final game in charge of the Reds—an indication of how highly he is rated at Anfield.

His encouraging form in the Championship this season suggests that he will be part of Brendan Rodgers’ squad in their coming preseason tour of the US, where he will be eager to force his way into first-team reckoning.

With Jose Enrique still a ways away from a return from injury and Aly Cissokho failing to impress after signing on loan from Valencia, the left-back spot could be up for grabs this summer, and Jack Robinson could be one of the candidates Rodgers considers.

He will have to work on his discipline though: His record of five yellow cards and three red cards in just 24 league games this season makes him somewhat of a defensive liability still.

 

Danny Ward

Danny Ward
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

Brendan Rodgers may be in the market for a goalkeeper this summer, but he might well have his next backup custodian in the Liverpool academy.

Danny Ward has been a fixture for the Liverpool under-21s this season, and has impressed with his all-roundedness in goal.

The Welsh youngster was a part of Liverpool’s squad during their summer US tour in 2012, and made his first appearance in a Red shirt when he came off the bench in their preseason friendly against Preston North End last summer.

As Brad Jones fails to impress as a No. 2 behind Simon Mignolet, Ward could be given extended time this coming summer to impress Rodgers ahead of the new campaign.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Liverpool Transfers: Should Reds Go for Manchester City Defender Micah Richards?

Liverpool Transfers: Should Reds Go for Manchester City Defender Micah Richards?
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Liverpool might be flying high in their quest to secure Champions League football this season, but that hasn’t stopped the rumours from flying in. The latest player to be linked with a move to Anfield is Manchester City defender Micah Richards, according to Jamie Sanderson of the Metro.

While the Reds have been a free-scoring success up front and are now the Premier League’s top scorers, they are placed a disappointing 10th in the goals conceded column, exemplified by an inconsistent central defensive selection and some eye-catching mistakes.

Richards, a graduate from City’s youth academy, has long been linked with a move to Anfield but as he finds himself firmly down the pecking order both at right-back (to Pablo Zabaleta) and centre-back (to captain Vincent Kompany), this rumour has been revived again with the summer transfer window opening in a few months.

But would he be a good signing for Liverpool?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons to Micah Richards’ potential signing, assess his proposed role at Anfield and evaluate whether he’d be a good pickup for Brendan Rodgers.

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Pros

It seems as if Richards has been around forever, yet the Manchester City man is only still 25 years of age.

Blessed with searing pace, a physical frame and dominant ability in the air, Richards burst onto the scene in 2005 as a 17-year-old and quickly gained national prominence as England’s most promising young defender.

Such was the impression he made that he was called up to the national team by Steve McClaren after just 28 professional club matches with City. When he made his first start in light of Gary Neville’s injury at right-back, he broke Rio Ferdinand’s record and became England’s youngest ever defender.

But it’s not just his defensive strength that has won him plenty of plaudits. His marauding runs down the right flank have been a prominent attacking outlet for City over the years, and his physicality means that he is a difficult opponent to come up against. His record of five assists in City’s title-winning season in 2011/12 was the joint most of any defender in the Premier League.

Capable of playing both as a central defender and on the right, Richards also brings leadership to the back four: When he captained City in 2007, he was only 19—their youngest ever captain—and he deputized for Kompany during the Belgian’s absence, again during the 2011/12 season.

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Cons

A picture of physicality, strength and fitness in his early years at City, Richards has not had the best of luck with injuries recently, with a hamstring problem his latest affliction.

Despite being an important part of their title-winning 2011/12 season, he made just seven Premier League appearances last term, and he has only played in two league games in the current campaign.

In his absence, Pablo Zabaleta, signed during the Mark Hughes era, has become a mainstay in the City first team and established himself as one of the best right-backs in England, making it ever harder for Richards to force his way back into the team.

As such, it’s been a while since Richards has enjoyed an extended run-out in City colours—but when he’s had a first-team opportunity, he has yet to show that he can recapture his pre-injury form.

In Martin Kelly, Liverpool already have a strikingly similar case: Both Kelly and Richards burst onto the scene as talented and complete young defenders, capable of playing both in the centre and on the right but injuries have stalled their striking potential and derailed their careers.

Would Brendan Rodgers, having seen first-hand Kelly’s troubles in making a successful comeback from injury, want a repeat?

 

Michael Regan/Getty Images

Potential Role at Liverpool

When it comes to ability, there’s no doubt that Richards has the talent to succeed at the highest level.

At just 25 years of age, he still has his best years as a defender ahead of him and at Liverpool there is just the right position for him to reestablish himself in the Premier League.

Martin Skrtel has reclaimed his position in the right side of Liverpool’s central defence, but he remains an inconsistent defensive option. Despite having improved his goals return this season, he has also made some alarming mistakes and shown weaknesses in his positioning and tackling.

With Mamadou Sakho seemingly Brendan Rodgers’ first-choice left-sided centre-back option, ahead of vice-captain Daniel Agger, there is a place for a young but established defender on his right.

Both Richards and Sakho’s versatility mean that they can fill in on the flanks in case of injury to their team-mates during a match and also crucially that Rodgers can change his formation to a 3-5-2 with ease and confidence.

 

Conclusion

Brendan Rodgers has carved a strong reputation as an excellent nurturer of talent, with the likes of DanielSturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling benefiting greatly from his man management.

A young English talent needing a platform to prove himself at the highest level, at a club where domestic talent and an exciting attacking ethos are prevalent? There could be no better club than Liverpool for Micah Richards at this stage of his career.

And given that his current contract runs out in the summer of 2015—and that, according to Sami Mokbel of the Daily Mail, City may look to move him on given his unwillingness to sign a new deal—Richards could also be available for a lower fee.

The risk that Richards could yet go down Martin Kelly’s path means that any potential signing would be a gamble, but the chance to pick up one of England’s erstwhile hottest defensive talents on a bargain deal is surely too good to turn down.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Analyzing Liverpool’s Full-Backs: Options, Prospects and Areas to Strengthen

Analysing Liverpool's Full-Backs: Options, Prospects and Areas to Strengthen
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For the past couple of months, Liverpool have been beset with injury problems, and the Reds’ current troubles at full-back are well documented.

Jon Flanagan has reestablished himself as a strong contender in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, while on-loan Aly Cissokho has picked up his form of late. Just as well, given that they are just about the only senior options Liverpool have at full-back.

A piece of good news before their Premier League match against Swansea City on Sunday is that regular right-back Glen Johnson is fit again, as confirmed by Rodgers via the Mirror, but the Reds have already been linked with summer moves for full-backs to address their shortages.

The Metro have linked Chelsea’s Ashley Cole with a move to Anfield this summer, while the Daily Star have suggested that Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna is on Rodgers’ radar—both players are out of contract this summer.

Let’s look at the full-back options currently available to Brendan Rodgers, their prospects at the club and whether Liverpool should look to strengthen. Enjoy and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Glen Johnson

Glen Johnson
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It’s been a disappointing campaign for Glen Johnson so far, with the England international right-back performing nowhere near his peak levels for both club and country.

Only when Johnson was ruled out through injury in January did Brendan Rodgers reveal that he had been struggling with “a number of injuries” for a period of time, as per the Guardian.

On top form, Johnson is one of the best full-backs in the Premier League, providing width, pace and creativity from the flanks. His versatility means that at both right-back and left-back, he would place near the top in league rankings.

Premier League and Liverpool fans have long known what Johnson brings at his best. The only problem is that the 29-year-old’s contract runs out in 2015, and on a reported £110,000 a week, he faces an uncertain future at Anfield, according to the Liverpool Echo.

With Johnson set to return to the squad against Swansea this Sunday, he will not only give Rodgers another experienced option as Liverpool look to finish the season in the top four, but also look forward to convince his club that he’s worth a contract extension.

He has 12 Premier League games to show that he’s worth an extension and a continued place as the Reds’ starting right-back. Otherwise, Rodgers might have no option but to let him go in the summer before his asking price starts plummeting ahead of 2015.

 

Jose Enrique

Jose Enrique
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

First-choice left-back Jose Enrique has been a big loss for Liverpool this season. In his eight league games this season, he’s contributed two assists.

A pity for Brendan Rodgers, given that Enrique seemed to have found some consistency after an up-and-down campaign last season—and especially given Aly Cissokho’s own inconsistent form this season.

Since his injury in November, Enrique has been missing from first-team action and, according to the Liverpool Echo, has been sent to the United States for specialist advice on his knee problems.

Without a doubt, Enrique is Liverpool’s strongest left-back—though an in-form Glen Johnson would have something to say about that—but his decision-making and relative lack of finesse have also been obvious, which make his long-term first-team prospects under Rodgers far from certain.

If Enrique doesn’t step up his recovery—both physically and mentally—soon, he could well find himself out of the team come this summer, especially if Liverpool do secure Champions League football next season and they receive a decent offer for him.

 

Jon Flanagan

Jon Flanagan
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Since making his debut and initially impressing with a string of encouraging performances under Kenny Dalglish back in 2011, Jon Flanagan had dropped off the radar and didn’t look to have much of a future at Anfield.

So it’s full credit to him that he’s worked his way back into the Liverpool first team, more than two years since his last real opportunity.

In Enrique’s absence and with Cissokho showing poor form previously, Flanagan defied his critics and proved to be a more than able stand-in at left-back with a series of enterprising displays. He even opened his account with a sweet strike against Tottenham Hotspur in December’s 5-0 demolition at White Hart Lane.

Flanagan’s form has been such that Brendan Rodgers has even claimed, via Sky Sports, that the young full-back deserves a chance with the England national team.

But while Flanagan has work rate, dedication and positional discipline in his locker, he lacks the speed and technique that are so important to a flying full-back in Rodgers’ system, and his crossing still leaves much to be desired.

So unless Flanagan works on his attacking game, as much as he has done to resurrect his Liverpool career, he won’t be a permanent fixture in the side just yet.

 

Aly Cissokho

Aly Cissokho
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

When Jon Flanagan sat out of the first team after the Christmas period due to injury, Liverpool fans would’ve been forgiven for fearing the worst, especially down the Reds’ left flank.

But Aly Cissokho rose to the occasion with some solid performances at left-back, proving to be an important member of the defence, particularly at a time where their central defensive options were both limited and unconvincing.

Having said publicly that he’d like to make his season-long loan deal from Valencia permanent—according to ESPNFC—Cissokho has come a long way from his early season horror shows, but still lacks the attacking nous and defensive consistency to become a long-term member of the squad.

While Cissokho’s Anfield future is still up in the air, Rodgers will be looking at bringing in more quality to his left-back spot.

 

Martin Kelly

Martin Kelly
Michael Regan/Getty Images

When Martin Kelly made his first start for Liverpool in the Champions League against Olympique Lyonnais back in 2009, he had the world at his feet. The then-19-year-old showed the strength, pace and defensive ability that suggested he’d become Liverpool’s next great right-back.

Then injuries started taking their toll. A slew of serious injuries have restricted Kelly’s first-team appearances for Liverpool, as he’s only played 62 games for his hometown club, and only 33 of them have come in the Premier League.

And as he continues to fight his way back to full fitness after each passing injury, he has seemed to take ever longer to recover and recapture his top form, which, considering his potential and natural ability, is a real shame from Liverpool’s point of view.

As Jon Flanagan has stepped up his claim for a first-team place under Brendan Rodgers—and in the process even fighting his way into national-team contention—Kelly has been left on the sidelines and only thrown on as an additional defensive option from the substitute’s bench on occasion.

He will face a crucial few months in his career, and if things don’t pick up for him by the summer, he looks likely to be on his way out of the club—even if on loan initially—which would present yet another case of a promising career curtailed by injuries.

 

Andre Wisdom

Andre Wisdom
Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

Last season’s lack of squad depth meant that Brendan Rodgers integrated three impressive youngsters into his first team in the first few months of the campaign.

Out of Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom, only the former has been playing for Liverpool a year on, as Suso and Andre Wisdom have had to bide their time with first-team chances out on loan.

Wisdom, who has joined Championship side Derby County on loan for the season, had played most of his first-team games for Liverpool as a right-back, but had emerged from the academy ranks as a centre-back.

For Steve McClaren’s side this season, Wisdom has played mostly on the right side of defence and has impressed as Derby have risen to third place in the Championship so far.

Brendan Rodgers and his management team will have been keeping an eye on Wisdom’s progress at Derby and looking forward to giving him a run-out with the first team over preseason this summer.

He remains an interesting prospect for the Reds’ right flank but still has plenty of work to do before he can become a fixture in a Champions League-chasing team.

 

Jack Robinson

Jack Robinson
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Much like Wisdom, Jack Robinson has been impressing on loan in the Championship. He’s made 25 league appearances for Blackpool, notching an assist in the process.

His overall performance levels have been decent enough to link to rumors of a midseason return to Liverpool, which ultimately didn’t materialize.

Strong in the tackle, quick off the traps and intelligent in his positioning, Robinson was once the youngest player to ever have played a first-team game for the Reds, and as such is clearly highly regarded at Anfield.

With five yellow cards and three reds this season, however, Robinson’s disciplinary record has been patchy at best and is something he needs to work on ahead of a summer return to Liverpool.

While Robinson doesn’t seem like forcing himself into Brendan Rodgers’ first team immediately next season, he might become Liverpool’s backup left-back if he enjoys a productive preseason.

 

Ryan McLaughlin

Ryan McLaughlin
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Another Liverpool loanee tipped for a bright future at Anfield is Ryan McLaughlin, who joined Championship side Barnsley in January and made his professional debut against Robinson’s Blackpool.

Rated as a Glen Johnson-type attacking right-back, McLaughlin has long been slated for a bright future with the Reds, and if his two league appearances for Barnsley thus far are any indication, he may find himself a valuable squad member for Brendan Rodgers next season.

 

Conclusion

Conclusion
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

While Liverpool have strength in numbers—when fully fit, of course—what they lack is medium- to long-term quality.

Glen Johnson’s hefty wages mean that his future at Anfield is uncertain, while Jose Enrique doesn’t seem to have the fine technique that Rodgers demands from his players. Jon Flanagan’s work rate is admirable, but he seems to lack the genuine quality to remain a long-term first-team option.

Martin Kelly’s injuries have set him back a few years, and despite the ravings at Ryan McLaughlin’s future, he has yet to kick a ball in anger for Liverpool’s first team.

Whether or not Liverpool make the top four come the end of the 2013/14 Premier League season, full-back, currently one of their weakest areas of the field, is surely a priority area for Brendan Rodgers this summer.

Right-back or left-back, there will be more than a few names bandied about in the Anfield boardroom. Ian Ayre will have to deliver this time.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Joe Allen: 5 Areas of Improvement Next Season

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho, Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson, Luis Alberto, Stewart Downing, Joe Allen.

Discounting the versatile Luis Suarez, who might be on his way out of Liverpool anyway, the anonymous Oussama Assaidi and reserves Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe and Jonjo Shelvey, that’s six players considered first-team options in Liverpool’s attacking midfield.

And that’s also excluding Daniel Sturridge, who has experience drifting in from wide, and Steven Gerrard, who has been moved back to a more withdrawn playmaking role.

After an excellent start to life following his £15 million move from Swansea City last summer, Joe Allen’s form dipped spectacularly as he transitioned from a mainstay to a passenger to an observer. (We placed him in the attacking midfield bracket above as he cameoed in such a role in the second half of the season, though he will obviously also be considered in a deeper position.)

With such formidable competition in the first team next season, how can the Wales international keep his place in Brendan Rodgers’ team?

Here are five areas of improvement for Joe Allen in the coming season.

 

Fitness

The first order of business is physical fitness.

Joe Allen notably struggled with a shoulder injury since October, according to the Liverpool Echo, which impacted his performances for the club as he gradually diminished in influence and physical presence.

Early in the season, when Liverpool struggled to adapt to Brendan Rodgers’ new system, Allen was the standout performer in the heart of the midfield, and even when Lucas was out due to injury, he filled in as a defensive midfielder with impressive ease.

When news emerged of his injury troubles, his drop in form became understandable, but the bigger question was why Rodgers continued to play him despite the shoulder problems.

Allen ultimately missed the end of the season, so he will have had a full summer of rehabilitation before returning to action in the first team.

If he does get over his injuries, perhaps Liverpool fans can see Allen return to his previous good form?

 

Tackling

Standing at a diminutive 5’6″, Joe Allen’s size does not constitute as an advantage considering that he plays at the center of midfield in a physical and fast-paced league.

While the aforementioned shoulder injury had a part to play in his less wholehearted physical performances after October, the turning point for his confidence (and subsequently, his form) was arguably the 2-2 away draw at Everton on October 28, when Allen proved an unfortunate mismatch against the formidable Marouane Fellaini.

What Allen lacks in stature, unfortunately, it seems he also lacks in tackling. In the previously listed EPLIndex analysis piece, in a comparison with 13 other Premier League central midfielders, Allen’s tackle success rate was the lowest, at a mere 64.81 percent.

That he conversely ranked near the top for minutes per possession won (10) had a lot to do with his interceptions, for which he deserves credit. But he also placed bottom in the minutes-per-defensive-error chart (384), which will be a cause for concern.

If he is to establish himself in a high-energy, pressing midfielder who’s focused on winning the ball back, he will need to rely on far more than just his anticipation.

(Stats from @Kopology‘s excellent article in EPLIndex.)

 

Transitioning in the Counterattack

Early last season, when Brendan Rodgers’ new Liverpool side was largely focused on replicating his Swansea successes, much of the approach play was concentrated in short passes and dominating possession in the midfield.

Joe Allen, who thrived in his debut season in the Premier League in such a system, unsurprisingly stood out as the player most comfortable on the pitch. Even the likes of Steven Gerrard struggled at the beginning, when Liverpool were trying to find form on the pitch.

As the Reds’ identity began to change during the season, however, things started looking different.

There was much more variability to the attack. While keeping possession was still an important facet of an evolving Liverpool, more long balls were used, especially as Gerrard got into his rhythm of spraying passes all over the pitch from his deeper playmaking position, while counterattacks became much more efficient and devastating.

Add in the speedy January signings in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, and suddenly, Liverpool became a team that pounced on the break and could break past opponents if necessary.

A Joe Allen who is most adept at recycling the ball soon found himself out of the team (though his injuries had played a major part as well).

To get his place back, he will need to make up for lost time and catch up with a new, slicker Liverpool.

 

Final Ball

Stewart Downing made the headlines in his first season at Anfield for notching zero goals and assists, despite being known as a fine crosser of the ball.

So a Welsh Xavi that draws blanks in both areas (in league play) will be equally frustrating and surprising.

It’s not that Allen isn’t good at passing. He is: At an average 89.7 percent pass success rate, he was the most accomplished passer in the midfield and forward areas.

But a simple drill into passing statistics explains his lack of a telling contribution to the Liverpool attack: With 0.8 key passes and zero through-balls per game, Allen just didn’t impress. Compare that to Steven Gerrard, who averaged 2.6 and 0.3, and Philippe Coutinho (1.5, 0.8), and the difference becomes clearer.

A single-faceted midfield player may thrive in a single-minded game, but in an ambitious Liverpool side aiming to vary attacking approaches, Allen needs to vastly up his impact in terms of the final ball.

(Stats from WhoScored.com.)

 

Shooting and Goalscoring

Now, it’s all well and good for a central or defensive midfielder to play a simple game and not manage a single goal throughout a league campaign. (Joe Allen did score two goals elsewhere, against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup and against Zenit St. Petersburg in the Europe League.)

But as a player who has the positional and technical awareness to cameo as an attacking midfielder, and as a central/defensive midfielder lacking in the previous attributes, perhaps a little more contribution in terms of goals is in order.

Joe Allen simply does not possess the power in his shots to contribute goals from long range, nor the composure and finishing required to put away clear-cut chances. His usual position further behind the attack prevents him from getting in the thick of the action.

Who wouldn’t welcome a Joe Allen who added goals to his game?

But focus on improving the first four aspects and that will already be enough to secure Allen a place in the first team this season.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Why Philippe Coutinho is Liverpool’s Most Important Player This Season

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

 

Amidst all the posturing from Luis Suarez and the public relations moves by Steven Gerrard during Liverpool’s preseason tour of Asia, the convincing wins and the classy performances of their new star Philippe Coutinho have perhaps gone under the radar.

In the media, the Liverpool headlines are on Suarez’s future at Anfield, or on further speculation of the next signings to arrive at the club. And abroad, it was all about Gerrard and manager Brendan Rodgers, and how the club conducted themselves during the whirlwind tour of Jakarta, Melbourne and Bangkok.

Whisper it quietly, but Liverpool have got themselves going in professional fashion this summer. The early signings in June might have petered out into an unsteady July, ending with a slightly controversial loan move for Pepe Reina to Napoli, but Liverpool have nonetheless strengthened their squad.

Four clean sheets in four preseason friendlies, all won with respectable margins, shows a new-found efficiency about the Reds, with the players focused on doing the job with minimal fuss and keeping an eye on their defensive responsibilities.

A quick comparison with Manchester United’s nine goals conceded in five preseason fixtures under David Moyes shows not only the stability that a year brings for a new manager, but also the importance of a settled squad enjoying their responsibilities and their football.

And spearheading the Reds into an exciting new era is their young Brazilian wearing No. 10, signed only in January from Internazionale, aged still 21.

Simply put, Coutinho has got it all: dribbling ability, pace, acceleration, work rate, composure, creativity, flair, an eye for a telling pass, innate understanding of his position, match-winning unpredictability.

Even the usual worries for a South American player arriving in the Premier League were allayed instantly: he started his Liverpool career with a bang, and finished the second half of the 2012-13 season with that same bang, notching three goals and five assists in just 12 starts. There were no signs of him struggling with the long-infamous physical side of the English game, and in the process he made himself known as a master of the through-ball.

Worries about “second-season syndrome”? So far unfounded, after a thrilling series of performances in Liverpool’s preseason, with three goals in just four matches. Since Luis Suarez’s competitive ban towards the end of last season,Coutinho has assumed the central attacking playmaker role—the No. 10 role—effortlessly.

Which means, even if Suarez stays at Liverpool, he will face a fight on his hands to retake his favored role behind Daniel Sturridge (or another option like IagoAspas, depending on Sturridge’s injury status) from Coutinho.

Rodgers has claimed, via the Mirror, that he structured his team around Suarez last season in a bid to keep his No. 7 at Anfield. On current evidence, Coutinhohas already shouldered much of that burden, and the way Liverpool’s attacks have been channeled through him this preseason suggests the Brazilian prodigy is now the focal point of the Reds’ attack.

So what’s next for the youngster who was let go by Inter for just £8 million? The easy answer is that the only way is up and the world is at his feet.

While Suarez still recorded an impressive season last year and was Liverpool’s undisputed player of the season, it was their January signings Sturridge andCoutinho that settled the squad’s nerves in front of goal, and pushed them towards a pacy, technical and dynamic attacking style.

Suarez’s public flirtations with Arsenal and Real Madrid this offseason have harmed relations with his fans and manager. While Gerrard has scored two goals this preseason and looks to be storming back to full fitness, he is alas 33 and will be orchestrating and influencing play from his new deep-lying position.

Which leaves Coutinho as the new talisman, the new provider of match-winning brilliance, the new fan favorite—already reflected through this season’s shirt sales, according to the Daily Mail. (Edit: Steven Gerrard has since resumed his usual No. 1 place on the list, but the point still stands.)

And Liverpool’s most important player coming into the 2013-14 season?

If he manages to sustain his form over 38 Premier League games and moves Liverpool back into the top four, don’t be surprised to see Coutinho in the running for both the Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year awards come next May.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Jordon Ibe: First-Team Player or Liverpool Loanee?

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 Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

With four new signings confirmed in June, Liverpool entered their July period with, by and large, a healthy squad, and until their defeat against Celtic in Dublin on Saturday, the Reds had won all six of their friendlies, scoring 17 goals and letting in only one.

Slightly unusually for a Liverpool preseason, not many fringe players got a run-out during the seven matches. The group that toured Asia with the club mainly consisted of the tried-and-trusted first-team contingent, including the four new signings. All of them had made sizeable appearances for the first team before, bar one.

Jordon Ibe, signed from Wycombe Wanderers in December 2011, was the jarring exception.

The 17-year-old winger, who had only made his senior debut in May with a productive start against Queens Park Rangers, where he notched the only assist of the game for Philippe Coutinho’s long-range strike, traveled with the first team.

Not only that—he figured prominently and finished the seven-game schedule as one of the most impressive performers over the preseason period.

Scoring his first ever senior goal in the first preseason match against Preston North End, Ibe never looked back as he displayed pace, power and raw ability with a series of exciting performances that showed just why he is so highly rated in the corridors of Melwood.

Indeed, his most exhilarating contribution was his burst of pace and subsequent pass that set up Oussama Assaidi and Raheem Sterling for a simple finish in Indonesia.

The question now is whether Jordon Ibe is good enough to become a member of the first team this season or if he should spend time out on loan to gain experience elsewhere.

Ibe the Loanee

Let’s first consider the case for Ibe the loanee.

The most immediate rationale for Ibe going out on loan—be it to a team in the Championship or in the Premier League—is his young age and lack of top-flight experience.

At just 17, Ibe has plenty of years in front of him, and a season honing his skills to deal with the physicality of top-level English football would do him plenty of good.

Just ask Jonjo Shelvey, who spent the first half of the 2011/12 season on loan at Blackpool: Shelvey scored six goals in just 10 appearances for the Seasiders, was recalled amid an injury crisis and went on to become an important squad player for the next year. (Ultimately, he didn’t fit Brendan Rodgers’ plans and was sold to Swansea City this summer, but that should not be a deterrent here.)

A season away from Anfield at a club that could grant him regular playing time could prove vital in his development. This kind of thinking would presumably be behind the recent loan departures of young left-back Jack Robinson and midfielder Suso to Blackpool and La Liga new boys Almeria, respectively.

In a squad that currently boasts a host of options in Ibe’s attacking midfield position—Raheem Sterling, Iago Aspas, Philippe Coutinho, Joe Allen, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Oussama Assaidi, Luis Alberto, Fabio Borini, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are all capable of playing there—the No. 44 may find his first-team chances limited in his first full season in the Liverpool senior team, to cup and substitute appearances.

To ensure his development isn’t stunted on the bench, Rodgers may well consider sending Ibe out on loan.

Ibe the First-Team Player

But with the raw speed, dribbling and ability to excite that Ibe has in abundance, Liverpool fans would be forgiven for wanting the young prospect to fly down the Anfield wings and terrorize opposition defenders.

And it is this combination of raw ability that sets Ibe apart: None of his direct rivals in the first team have such an impressive combination of physical attributes, and those who have the pace (like Coutinho) may not marry it with the dominant physique that Ibe also has.

Does this mean there might be a place for him in Rodgers’ first-team squad?

Given current rumors, it would be unrealistic to assume that both Downing and Suarez will still be at the club by September, and given that Rodgers prefers using Sturridge and Borini as out-and-out strikers and Gerrard in a more withdrawn playmaking role, Ibe could well fit in as a squad player whose unique attributes will grant him playing time.

After all, it was comfort on the ball, pace, dribbling and upper-body strength that saw Raheem Sterling become a key member of the Reds XI just a year ago, albeit in an injury-stretched squad—and Sterling earned rave reviews and an England call-up to boot.

Against lower-table teams who might have a tendency to play more defensively and to sit back and deny space to Rodgers’ possession-based footballing approach, Ibe could be another option that provides the cutting edge that Liverpool have sorely lacked in recent seasons, another outlet on the flanks, another potential source of goals, and perhaps even another match-winner.

Any concerns that Ibe would be overexposed at such a young age—Sterling himself burned out after a sustained period in the first team and found himself out of the team in the second half of last season—should be dispelled after Rodgers’ experience with Sterling.

At any rate, the additions of Aspas and Alberto, two seemingly immediate squad players, have upgraded the quality of the bench in that area of the pitch, which should ensure more necessary balance in first-team appearances across the board.

Conclusion

And it is under this premise that we will conclude for now that Jordon Ibe deserves a run in the first team, an arrangement that could end up working well for all parties.

Ibe could get further chances to shine and make a difference, while Brendan Rodgers will have another potential match-winner with a unique set of abilities at his disposal over the course of the season.

Things could change in the remaining weeks of the summer transfer window, of course: Liverpool could end up letting go of two attacking players and getting none, making Ibe a more essential keep, or they could also sign one of the multitude of players currently linked to Anfield.

At the time of writing, however, all signs point to Jordon Ibe enjoying a productive spell of first-team football, not at somewhere else on loan, but as a Liverpool player.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.