As Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool prepare to take on Manchester City this afternoon, this game will be a chance to watch two of the country’s best sides go head to head in an early clash of top four contenders, and maybe more.
This is also a clash between two managers who feel very different on the face of it. In terms of their overarching goals as football coaches, and their approaches for achieving them, certainly. In terms of their personality, most definitely. But there’s a perception that Jurgen Klopp is a manager who, unlike Pep Guardiola in his current position, is one who likes to give youth a chance.
That may not be strictly accurate. After all, is there really a manager at a top club these days who does? Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola can’t be alone in feeling the pressure from above is too great to throw an untested player into the deep end – both for their own jobs and for the futures of the players, too.
But excitement around Liverpool concerning some of their youngest talent is about as high as it has been for years. As Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn find themselves at the forefront of the media’s desire to find new talent to create storylines around, there’s a real excitement about the idea of Liverpool once again producing a pair of young players who will bring the club into a new era, like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher did nearly two decades ago.
But if that sounds like unnecessary pressure, it shouldn’t. It’s really just a statement of fact. Young produce has slowed down all over Britain, and if they sound like overly stellar names for comparison it’s because there haven’t been any names in the meantime.
That’s because of the demands of the Premier League. Most new players come through from the smaller clubs. Southampton are one of the most prolific producers of good players, as Liverpool can well attest to, but top clubs can’t do it in the same way. Indeed, Chelsea’s academy is perhaps the best in the country, but even though they’ve produced some very good young players in the last decade, they never played for Chelsea.
The fact that there’s excitement around both Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool testifies to the fact that it seems both players may have a chance of breaking into the first team. And in a way, Woodburn has Alexander-Arnold to thank for that.
Last season, the young full-back played a few games and did quite well, but when he started the season brightly this time around, no-one thought he’d take his chance quite as spectacularly as he has done. A sensational free-kick away to Hoffenheim may well look like the breakthrough moment when we come to look back on the career of Alexander-Arnold, but his general play has been good, too. Committed performances coupled with some intelligent balls for the pacey wingers ahead of him. Good use of the ball is pretty much the standard for a top full-back these days, and the young Liverpudlian has delivered.
Maybe that’s why there was no widespread anguish at the fact that Nathaniel Clyne has been ruled out for ‘a significant period’ with a back injury. And whilst it’s true that Liverpool’s defence is under more pressure than it should be at this point, and they’re having to rely on a young player with limited experience, Reds fans are taking this as an opportunity for their new local hero rather than the loss of a key player.
But the form of Alexander-Arnold has only intensified the speculation that Ben Woodburn could be the next young Liverpool player to make the first team on a regular basis this season.
For one thing, the Welshman’s performance for Wales, coming up with a goal on a hugely pressurised stage in a World Cup Qualifier, has shot him into the spotlight. It was a fabulous strike which gave his country a great chance of progression to their second tournament in a row. It was also something which would surely have seen calls for Klopp to add him to the matchday squad more regularly anyway. But the inclusion of Alexander-Arnold has already shown Liverpool that adding youth into the team is no recipe for disaster, even in pressure games away to Hoffenheim, when the season can go badly wrong before it’s even started.
In 2012, when Brendan Rodgers took over as Liverpool manager, he seemed to suggest that he’d trust youth, and bringing through Raheem Sterling shows he meant it at the very least. But where Rodgers was right was about the attitude of the young upstart compared to the older pro.
It’s not about hunger, desire or grasping opportunity. It’s not cliched or negative. But it is about the fact that young players haven’t been knocked about by the world, they haven’t yet had their mistakes pounced upon by a hungry football media keen to point out flaws and forgetting that players can be fragile too.
And yet, there’s also a downside. In the end, why is running through a barbed-wire fence any better than looking for a hole? Why shouldn’t an older player use the skills and nous that he’s acquired over years of experience? The younger player is unpolished and raw, that’s why the tactic Rodgers alludes to is so simple and over the top.
So here’s the dilemma: after having played so well up until this point, it’s legitimate to ask to what extent these young players are running through the fence instead of picking the holes. And if they aren’t the finished item just yet, do they need to be or can they learn from their first team experiences?
The dream for any young player should be how Alex Ferguson used his young players, playing them only once or twice a month, dropping them in now and again, both in high and low pressure situations. At the moment, Clyne’s injury means Alexander-Arnold might have more playing to do than Woodburn does. And yet it’s the full-back’s form which means calls for Woodburn to get his chance have intensified.
If Woodburn has to thank Alexander-Arnold for the chance, he should also be thankful he doesn’t yet have to play as often as his more burdened teammate.