The summer of 2017 has been a landmark season for youth football in England, with the Young Lions enjoying success in a host of tournaments. First, Steve Cooper’s U17s reached the final of the European U17 Championship in Croatia in May, unfortunately falling to defeat to Spain in a dramatic penalty shootout. Next, Paul Simpson led the U20s to World Cup glory in South Korea at the start of June, vanquishing Venezuela in the final in Suwon. Aidy Boothroyd’s U21s made it to the semi-finals of the European U21 Championship, suffering another shootout defeat to Germany after a 2-2 draw in Poland. Finally, the England U19s beat Portugal to emerge victorious at the European U19 Championship in Georgia, with Keith Downing’s side closing off a hugely positive spell. While the senior national team have struggled in recent years, the same can’t be said of England’s future charges—and now this productive summer must be capitalised on.
Four of those players to turn out for the U17s, U19s, U20s and U21s return to link back up with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool squad this summer: Rhian Brewster, Ovie Ejaria, Sheyi Ojo, Dominic Solanke. It could have been more, but Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez opted out of U19 and U21 duty respectively, as they target a successful pre-season at club level. Last season, only Tottenham Hotspur had a lower average age (25.3 years) of players fielded in the Premier League than the Reds (26 years), with Klopp handing debuts to Ejaria, Alexander-Arnold, Harry Wilson, Ben Woodburn and Marko Grujic across three competitions in 2016/17. The German is a manager who favours youth development, and with England at a crucial juncture as they plot to take advantage of their summer boom, Klopp’s place in the Anfield dugout can help mould their future.
For all of England’s success on the youth international stage, there remain fundamental problems when these youngsters head back to their clubs. Boothroyd’s U21s squad at the Euros, for example, played a combined 17,914 minutes of top-level domestic football last season, compared to Portugal’s 28,402, Germany’s 32,994, Italy’s 33,367 and, most dramatically, Spain’s 38,891. It should be no surprise that Albert Caledes’ Rojitas reached the final in Poland, with their lineup against Germany on June 30 including Hector Bellerin, Saul Niguez, Dani Ceballos, Marco Asensio, Sandro Ramirez and Gerard Deulofeu, among others. Nor should it be that the eventual winners fielded the likes of Niklas Stark, Max Meyer and Serge Gnabry. Boothroyd’s 23-man group was certainly impressive, but they no doubt lacked the requisite experience gained from turning out regularly at club level.
Klopp’s stance with regards to this is a difficult one: Liverpool are a side challenging at the top of the Premier League and, after finishing fourth in last season’s English top flight, are now set to embark on another European campaign—which, he will hope, lands them in the Champions League. However, as former Reds U23s manager Michael Beale told BBC Radio Merseyside in an illuminating interview earlier in July, the 50-year-old set down the marker from the start of his career at Liverpool in 2015. “What Jurgen did when he first came in was take five or six players and take them to Melwood,” Beale said. “He let them stay there for a number of weeks, to be around the senior players and learn off them. It’s like an old reserve-team situation: they were there every day, learning from them. He shows a real interest in them, and I think that’s key.”
Two days after his arrival on Merseyside, Klopp was watching the Liverpool U18s take on Stoke City at the club’s Kirkby academy. Among those to feature were Ejaria, Woodburn and Brewster; the former scoring the winner in a 1-0 victory and the latter making his debut for the young Reds, stepping up from U16 level. “When I am managing a club I think each young player should smile, because the door is wide open for him,” he said on his appointment as Reds manager. “He has the chance to do anything.” So far, the German has put this into practice, with admirable consistency.
Naturally, given the demands of life as Liverpool manager, Klopp has performed a difficult balancing act with his young players. Only five players aged 20 and under made more than five appearances for the Reds in all competitions last season: Grujic (eight), Ejaria (eight), Woodburn (nine) and Alexander-Arnold (12).This is likely to improve in 2017/18, with the Reds fighting on four fronts, and if pre-season is to be the yardstick, Alexander-Arnold will be Klopp’s shining light: the 18-year-old signed a new five-year deal with the club in July, and is poised to challenge Nathaniel Clyne for a starting berth. Beyond that, Solanke’s arrival from Chelsea serves to further underline Klopp’s commitment to developing young domestic talent, while Liverpool were unsuccessful in approaches for two of Downing’s standout U19s: Fulham left-back Ryan Sessegnon and Nottingham Forest striker Ben Brereton, who both signed new deals with the Championship sides this summer. As Beale continued to highlight, Klopp is at the forefront of a new movement.
“He wants to go on a journey with players and he wants players that are ambitious. That’s clear in his signings and clear in how he’s given opportunities to young players—I think he likes having young players around because they do bring that energy and they’re willing to run into a brick wall until it falls over,” the former Chelsea youth coach added. “He’s quite an important manager for young players: with [Mauricio] Pochettino in the Premier League, those two are leading the way, they’re the real standard bearers for young players coming through. He would have been an outstanding youth coach, because he’s a developer of people and, hopefully, that leads to successful times for the Liverpool academy.”
By extension, this should aid the progress of the England setup, and while it will take careful cooperation from the likes of Cooper, Downing, Simpson, Boothroyd and beyond them Gareth Southgate and the FA’s director of elite development Dan Ashworth, drawing upon the developmental nous of the likes of Klopp and Pochettino can help to capitalise on the emergence of a generation of truly special young players.