Undoubtedly influenced by Arsene Wenger’s ways of spotting tomorrow’s talent, former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez managed to accumulate a large quantity of youth players at Anfield during the course of his six-year tenure. However, with Neil Mellor and Stephen Warnock the only home-grown players to have prominently featured for the club’s first-team during the last decade, questions have been asked about the methods used by the club to develop young players. Traditionally reserve team football has been the primary tool used at Anfield, with this supplemented by loaning out young players to lesser clubs. However, the decision of Tottenham Hotspur, and more recently local rivals Arsenal, to withdraw their second-string teams from the Premier Reserve League has cast doubts over the benefits of reserve team football. Could Liverpool prosper from following suit?
The current set-up at Liverpool consists of three squads; the first-team squad, the reserves and the Academy (Under-18s). Ideally, home-grown players are intended to naturally make the transition upwards from the Academy, to the reserves, and eventually, if good enough, to the first-team squad. However, this journey seldom occurs, with many products of the club’s Academy now scattered across the lower leagues and non-leagues of England.
Both Tottenham and Arsenal have cited the pitfalls of the model that is currently in place at Anfield as reasons for scrapping their reserve-teams. With Premier Reserve League teams playing just 19 games a season, and fixture programming issues creating sparse and sporadic schedules, the league has been lambasted for its lack of competitiveness and for its failure to adequately prepare players for senior Premier League football.
The 2009/10 season saw Spurs’ first season without reserve team football. Speaking in the aftermath of the scheme being scrapped, Spurs manager Harry Redknapp justified the move by stating, “The youngsters need to go out on loan and get playing like they did last year. It was a great experience for those lads who went out so we will be looking to do the same again this season.” Indeed last season saw Spurs sanction 34 separate outgoing loan deals, a figure that would be unfeasible for a club still in possession of a reserve team. For a young player, the benefits of going out on loan are plentiful. The opportunity to play regularly against bigger, tougher and stronger senior opponents dwarfs the benefits of playing against their younger, inexperienced counterparts at reserve team level.
Fellow Premier League sides Fulham, Birmingham City and Stoke City have recently followed Spurs’ precedent, with such moves indicating that reserve team football is becoming increasingly outdated. With 26 players currently listed as reserve team players at Anfield, Liverpool could benefit greatly from scrapping the reserve team system.
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