Former LFC legend Alan Hansen famously once said “you’ll never win anything with kids.” This prompted Manchester United to go on and win the title that season with a team that contained a youthful David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and the Neville brothers, amongst others. Liverpool now has a team that is arguably built on the very similar foundations of fearless young players. Hansen was proven wrong last time and winning silverware with this Liverpool team may just be possible if Brendan Rodgers can get the blend of youth and experience right.
Getting this right, changing the style of play and transforming a team is a ‘big ask’ for any manager. Liverpool is a team, and a club, in transition. This was exactly the case when Alex Ferguson brought in the young players so famously written off by Hansen. Liverpool is also a club that has been re-engineering its finances, moving from a team that was built on relatively expensive, experienced, and highly paid, European stars to one which is lays its foundations in the hunger and desire of youth. On the pitch this shift is starting to show signs of success for Brendan Rodgers, with reds fans excited by the prospect of wingers with pace and trickery, midfielders who can keep the ball and full backs who can get forward.
The impact of this emphasis on youth is also starting to be demonstrated in the statistics, if not in terms of consistent results just yet. For a number of years now, supporters of Liverpool have watched their side keep possession in games without really hurting the opposition. They have dominated games without looking incisive enough and this has played into the hands of visitors to Anfield who have sat back, played for a draw, and looked to nick a win on the break. It is perhaps no surprise that Liverpool suffered so much at Anfield last season. Without the desire to pass forward, make a darting run or dribble the ball round a man, passing sideways only get you so far – somebody has to take a risk and Liverpool look like a side ready to do that now. The team is playing with energy, enthusiasm and hunger.
The average age of the Liverpool side that took to the field against Norwich was under 25, the lowest for nine years. Of all the changes Rodgers has made since he took over at Anfield, bringing in young players, and encouraging them to take risks is one of the most effective. However, with youth comes naivety and inexperience. This is where Liverpool have suffered from this gamble, conceding goals when they should be closing up and seeing the game out, the most recent evidence being the two goals gifted to Norwich at the weekend.
This is where Liverpool’s senior players must come into the equation. Throughout the team, Reina, Agger, Skrtel, Johnson, Gerrard and Suarez can bring much needed patience to the side, helping the young players with their decision-making. It is not just about youthful vigor and talent, it is about knowing when to make a run, when to drop deep, when to put the cross in and when to track back. Success is about sensing danger as well as opportunity and this will come with experience and education. The experience is building and the education must come from the senior players.
Rodgers has done this before. At Swansea, he built consistent performers, nurtured from young talent and ability. The work on the training ground will be about giving these young players as much knowledge as possible but it is on the pitch where players learn their trade. The evidence so far is that the recipe is the right one, Luis Suarez is getting more chances, the young players are shining and the results are coming.
Players who last year were playing at Academy level are now wearing the first team shirt with pride, and doing themselves justice. They are young, hungry and, most importantly, good enough for Liverpool. How they develop will go some way to determining not just the outcome of this season but perhaps the next decade for Liverpool Football Club. Development in any career comes with learning, knowledge and experience. Against Udinese on Thursday we are likely to see another youthful Liverpool side, this time with Jamie Carragher, Brad Jones and perhaps Joe Cole providing offering the hand of experience. Expect more learning, more risk taking and more excitement.