Brendan Rodgers attracted plenty of plaudits for the way he managed to integrate plenty of young players into the first-team squad during the first half of the campaign, with many becoming key figures, but over the last couple of months he has reverted back to experienced and older heads in games of importance – is this merely a period of rest for some or a sign of things to come?
During the club’s U-21 fixture against Manchester United’s U-21 side last night, Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey and Andre Wisdom all lined up in the starting eleven and as a foursome, they have 62 top flight appearances between them this season, with 46 of those coming from the start, but slowly and surely, since the the acquisitions during the January transfer window and resurgence of both Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, they have become more marginalised as the fixture list has become less hectic.
There was a sense that as much as Rodgers liked to talk, and at great length, about his firm commitment to integrating youth-team member into the first-team squad that this was a situation foisted upon him more than anything by the club hierarchy’s demand to bring the weight wage bill in check. This saw seasoned pro’s such as Craig Bellamy, Charlie Adam, Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt, Andy Carroll and Joe Cole all leave within six months, leaving Rodgers little option but to pad out his squad with younger players from within.
In particular, Shelvey has spoken to the press at his frustration at seeing his route to the starting eleven blocked in recent months, arguing that he had been made a scapegoat for the 3-1 Boxing Day defeat to Stoke away from home, while Sterling ever since he signed a new deal has become more of a squad player to be rotated in games that mean less as opposed to being protected to ensure he was fit and firing on all cylinders for the biggest games as he was earlier on in the season. Meanwhile, Suso has struggled to even make the bench of late and Andre Wisdom could fall down the pecking order even further once Martin Kelly return to full fitness.
Since that Stoke defeat, for example, in the eight league games that have followed, the foursome listed above have started just eight games between them in the top flight, when they had started 38 times in the previous 19 games between them. There’s a clear reduction in playing time being handed out and it comes at just a time when Rodgers is looking to see a consistent run in Europe and in the league.
Of course, that is not to say that the youngsters that have made an impact this term are not talented, nor that they will not go on to play more next season, but with the club set to strengthen even more in the summer, with Liverpool quietly starting to spend significant amounts of money in the transfer market yet again, they face an uphill challenge to secure first-team football to the extent they have done at times this year.
The signing of Daniel Sturridge seems to have increased the team’s options up top and out wide and limited the impact of Sterling, Suso and Shelvey in the second half of the season, with the England international assured of his central attacking role, Suarez has been pushed out wide and Downing has quickly become a firm favourite when it comes to team selection.
Over the course of a long season, various players will go through peaks and troughs of form and the main beneficiary of Joe Allen’s collapse in form around the festive period was Henderson, which then had a knock-on effect on how much playing time the versatile Shelvey received, whereas if we flash back to before Christmas and he looked to be forcing his way into Roy Hodgson’s England squad, and it now looks as if he could benefit from a loan spell away next term instead.
Liverpool’s squad at the start of the season wasn’t quite of the bare bones variety, but that was only because the young players that were brought in took to their jobs so well, but inconsistencies are inherent in those still learning their trade and they haven’t done enough in the last few months to warrant continued selection over the returning, wiser heads of the squad. They were merely warmer spots until someone better came along and it looks for all intent and purposes that while Rodgers will be glad that they delivered when he needed them to, he won’t rely on them in the future in the same way many had envisioned.