It’s been an interesting few weeks in the life of Dominic Solanke. Rumours of a summer switch to Liverpool were reported as virtual fact at the end of May and the prodigious forward did his growing reputation no harm last night as he netted the only goal in England’s U20 World Cup quarter-final win over Mexico; a goal that required cute movement, a delicate first touch and a low finish – not to mention a cool head – to take the Junior Lions through to the next round.
Liverpool fans will no doubt be impressed, but we’ve been here before with young English players. Sensationally overhyped, sensationally overpaid, eventually amounting to incredibly little. So, what makes Solanke so different and why are Liverpool so keen to sign him? Let’s take a look.
The first thing that stands out about the 19-year-old is his physique, very much in line with the modern Premier League trend. He’s powerful and offers a bit of height at 6 foot 1, but it’s the combination of almost oxymoronic gangling limbs and jinking fluidity that makes him comparable to the likes of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba – players who have that perfect mix between power and agility.
It’s very much what a modern Premier League footballer should look like, able to not only impose himself on defenders but also prance away from them. In terms of roles, it also makes him a bit of an all-rounder.
A prolific scoring record at youth level is perhaps what Solanke’s best famed for, netting 35 times in 45 appearances for Chelsea in Premier League 2, the UEFA Youth League and the FA Youth Cup and 25 in 51 for the Junior Lions across the age groups. In the process, he’s fired club and country to a succession of honours, not least including the UEFA Youth League title and the U17 European Championship, and himself to individual accolades.
But goals aren’t always as easy to come by when stepping up to senior level and that may well be the case with Solanke. He’s not the most natural of finishers – although he’s nothing short of clinical from the penalty spot – and Chelsea are so dominant at that level we perhaps shouldn’t expect Solanke’s scoring record to be anything less than what it is. Tellingly, he could only muster up eight Eredivisie goals on loan at Vitesse Arnhem last season. Compare that to Tammy Abraham, for example, who netted 23 times in the Championship this campaign.
In truth, the idea of him being an out-and-out goalscorer is a little wide of the mark, but that’s not necessarily bad news for Liverpool fans because Solanke is a very complete kind of forward. He can play on either wing, as an out-and-out striker or a No.10 which, in theory, makes him an ideal candidate for Jurgen Klopp’s nomadic and versatile front-three.
He’s not simply filling voids either, in the way goal-shy strikers are pushed out wide to try and find some new use for them; rather than goalscoring, Solanke’s best assets are probably his unorthodox dribbling and vision, which both lend to deeper or wider roles.
He actually operated as a No.10 in England’s win over Mexico, threading through passes to the forward line and using his movement to sneak into space between the two centre-backs before slotting past the goalkeeper, and some of the chances he created at Vitesse last season required real inventiveness in terms of both technique and vision.
Solanke’s dribbling style in particular will divide opinion. At first glance, it looks clumsy and unconvincing. But former Chelsea striker Tore Andre Flo sums it up perfectly; even if the Englishman seems to momentarily lose the ball, he has a curious knack of using his pace, power and touch to recover it, usually on the other side of the defender he’s attempted to jink past.
“He’s got a very good physique and I think he’s got great touch on the ball. He’s quick but often what impresses me the most is when he looks like he’s lost the ball, he somehow manages to get out with the ball, no matter how tight the situation is or how difficult it looks.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge Solanke will face at Liverpool is acclimatising to Klopp’s high-pressing game. To say he’s a lazy player would be unjustified, but like most young forwards, he’s more concerned with finding space and what he does when receiving the ball than trying to impose himself on the opposition and protect the midfield. As we’ve seen from Daniel Sturridge, that style of play isn’t for every attacking player.
Nonetheless, the teenager will already be more than aware of that and as most managers will tell you, the greatest gifts of young players are their fearlessness, their natural energy and the speed in which they can adapt. Likewise, you have to commend Solanke’s bravery; he could have stayed at Chelsea, picking up silly money whilst showing brief glimpses of his potential in loan spells elsewhere. Instead, he’s joined a club with a policy of not forking out large salaries for young players, opting to work under a manager who famously demands every ounce of energy from his team but especially the front line.
It’s unquestionably a bold move – one that highlights Solanke’s determination to succeed.