As somber as the start of summer has been for LFC fans, England’s victory at the Under-20 World Cup has managed to breathe a bit of optimism back into the discussion. Dominic Solanke looked to have the makings of a potential world-beater, and his Player of the Tournament performance has fans salivating at the idea of what he can do for the Reds. Sheyi Ojo looked dynamic, tricky, and resurgent, while Ovie Ejaria oozed class in his brief but effective cameos. Never mind that much of their brilliance was overshadowed by FSG’s shambolic transfer work — at the end of the day, LFC’s Young Lions showed glimpses of the being just the kind of talents Jürgen Klopp has made a career of molding.
It’s a tremendously promising sight for LFC fans as they prepare for the next stage of Klopp’s long-term plan, but there’s another beneficiary who should be taking notice: Gareth Southgate.
Klopp has a strong track record of developing burgeoning young players into considerable talents, with many of his proteges going on to prove themselves not only at club level, but on the international stage. The likes of Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gündogan, Marco Reus, and Mario Götze all worked their way into a remarkably deep German side, while Robert Lewandowski grew into Poland’s most prolific goalscorer. In Klopp’s short tenure at Liverpool, both Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson have seen significant upticks in form that have made them vital cogs in England’s midfield, first under Roy Hodgson and Sam Allardyce, and now under Southgate. Daniel Sturridge has made timely contributions when healthy and, despite his injury record, seems to remain in contention. Nathaniel Clyne has been a shoo-in in recent years as well, though he has struggled to unseat Kyle Walker as England’s first-choice right-back. Danny Ings also received a call-up under Hodgson, though his woeful luck with injuries has seen his development under Klopp fall frustratingly behind.
At present, Southgate’s sole focus is preparing his squad for the final rounds of World Cup qualification. With two international breaks and four games spread between now and early October, it’s hard to imagine there will be much squad rotation that isn’t enforced. Should Southgate secure qualification, however, there will be ample opportunity for England’s young talent to stake a claim for a place in the World Cup squad. This includes a number of Klopp’s charges, with Solanke, Ojo, and Ejaria joining the likes of Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and returning winger Ryan Kent in vying for a potential spot with the senior team.
The Present and Future for England
While there are a number of established names already in the England squad, Southgate’s previous experience with the Under-21s makes for a bit of a selection wildcard. His decision to call up the likes of Jake Livermore and Mikael Antonio, both age 27, was a clear nod to the merit of form over both pedigree and potential — neither one may have a long-term future within the squad, but Southgate showed he’s willing to fill gaps with the best available option when necessary. Conversely, he has also handed senior team debuts to James Ward-Prowse (22), Nathan Redmond (23), Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane (24) and given call-ups to Jordan Pickford (23) and Ben Gibson (24), indicative of a commitment to a broader goal and a willingness to give youth a chance. Coincidentally, names like Keane, Gibson, and 26-cap Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have been mooted as potential Liverpool transfer targets this summer, meaning Klopp could have further opportunity to put his stamp on the World Cup pool.
All this being said, the biggest obstacle for England’s young talent is the challenge of breaking into the English Premier League. As members of the wealthiest domestic league in the world, Premier League teams aren’t shy about buying established players over developing their own. While every club has a reserve squad, not every manager is willing to take the time (and risk) involved in blooding young players. For teams near the top of the table, the bench is often too deep for youngsters to even get a sniff. For teams fighting at the middle or even the bottom of the table, the consequences of each game are such that young players might only see match time if the result is already beyond doubt.
The Importance of Cup Competitions
As last season illustrated for Liverpool, teams must be competing on multiple fronts if young players want to see regular game time. The likes of Ejaria, Alexander-Arnold, Ben Woodburn and Marko Grujic were instrumental in the Reds’ run to the EFL Cup Semi-Finals in the fall, but the club’s early departure from the FA Cup in January significantly curbed their playing opportunities, bar a few cameo appearances and the odd start against Stoke. In turn, it arguably stunted their growth. It spoke volumes that Harry Wilson, in the midst of one of the most prolific seasons at LFC’s youth level in recent memory, could only muster one first-team appearance. For Klopp, the opportunity to secure a place in the Champions League group stage is one that’s not only critical to regaining some of Liverpool’s European prestige, but also to ensuring he can continue to develop this precocious group of young players against first-team opposition. While a number of the U-23 and U-18 players regularly train with the first team at Melwood and compete in their respective leagues, it’s no substitute for game time at the highest level.
The Right Crop of Coaches for England’s Youth
In Klopp and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, England has two of the world’s best cultivators of young talent ushering players into its domestic league. In his three years with Spurs, Pochettino has turned the club into a veritable conveyor belt of talent for the England national team, with the likes of Walker, Deli Alli, Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Danny Rose all first-choice options, with Kieran Trippier, Harry Winks, Kyle Walker-Peters and Josh Onomah also garnering plenty of attention. Of that group, Walker is the elder statesman at 27. The hope and expectation is that Klopp can do the same as he enters his second full season in charge of the Reds, especially after the disappointing lack of opportunities in 2016/2017.
Similarly, Everton’s Ronald Koeman will have the opportunity to nurture a host of English youth products, with the likes of U-20 teammates Kieran Dowell, Ademola Lookman, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Jonjoe Kenny and Callum Connolly joining established first-teamers Tom Davies and Mason Holgate at Goodison Park.
But while these three clubs have succeeded in creating a well-trodden path from the academy to the first team, they seem to be more the exception than the rule. Pep Guardiola recently delivered a harsh message to Manchester City’s academy players, emphasizing that they had little to no place in his plans for 2017/18 despite finishing second in Premier League 2 behind Everton this season. Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho, despite his insistence to the contrary, rarely gives youth players an opportunity in matches of any consequence and prefers to rely on a deep, experienced bench. Title-winning boss Antonio Conte has taken a similar stance, and despite Chelsea having a robust academy and nearly 40 players out on loan, it remains to be seen whether Conte will promote from within or utilize the transfer market to bolster the club’s title defense.
Bigger Picture, for Club and Country
While it might be overly ambitious to envision any of this year’s crop of Under-20s contributing for England in 2018, it’s no secret that ensuring their development is vital to the futures of both club and country. From Southgate’s perspective, the foundation has been laid for a very bright future; unfortunately, the cultivation of that future is largely out of his hands. For Klopp, Pochettino and the like, the immediate motivation is to grow world-class players from within their respective clubs, bypassing extortionate transfer fees and cementing their status as some of the best coaches of this generation. In doing so, however, they have the power to shape the future generation of English football and leave a legacy far bigger than any club.
Written by Alex Mansfield. [@el_mansfield]