So far this season everyone’s been blown away by the Liverpool first XI; both on the pitch and in discussion about it. It’s understandable, too. The tricky start we were presented with would have been enough to make most teams think they’d struggle to get points on the board for the first couple of months. Jürgen Klopp’s Reds didn’t bat an eyelid; a poor loss against Burnley aside, we’ve been the best team in the country this season and deservedly sit on the top of the league.
Klopp’s Liverpool is the best EPL squad we’ve seen in a decade.
— Mpikanisi Mathebula (@The_Mphiga) 14 November 2016
Yet the chat about the first team has resulted in the fringe players of the squad being ignored, or if not ignored then perhaps slightly forgotten about. The fact that Klopp has been able to put together a first-team that is battling all challengers right now means that some genuinely top class players are sat on the bench, but that doesn’t mean that they have no future at the club. Something worth bearing in mind when you consider all of the nonsense chat about Daniel Sturridge and transfer rumours. Here, then, I’ll have a quick look at the players we seem to be forgetting about.
The Ones Who Deserve To Be In The First Team
The Liverpool squad can essentially be broken down into four categories: The players who are currently in the first team, the players who deserve to be in the first team and have been in the past, the fringe players who can do a job and the youth players who will come in and out as Klopp gives them some experience.
The really great thing for the Reds right now is that there are a number of players who will feel that they deserve to be in the starting XI. Before discussing them, though, it’s important to narrow down the eleven that Klopp probably considers to be his first choice. In my opinion they’re as follows:
An obvious omission from that list straight away is Gini Wijnaldum. The Dutchman, a £23 million arrival from Newcastle in the summer, has impressed so far in his Liverpool career. Some supporters asked the most boring question in football when they questioned ‘what he offers’, but when he was missing from the side through injury exactly what he offers to the side became abundantly clear. Now that Emre Can has returned, however, does Klopp favour his countryman over his new signing?
It’s entirely possible that the manager sees them as inter-changeable in a ‘horses for courses’ type manner, of course, yet what is unquestionable is that they’re unlikely to appear in the starting XI alongside each other unless there’s an injury to someone else. We will almost certainly see how they work together against Southampton at the weekend, with Adam Lallana unlikely to recover from the injury he picked up playing for England in time to appear against his old club.
Daniel Sturridge is another player who will feel that he deserves to be starting every week. The former Chelsea and Manchester City striker was unstoppable for the Reds during the 2013-2014 season, only having his contribution overshadowed because Luis Suarez was slowly becoming one of the best players in the world. During the following season Brendan Rodgers put too much dependence on the England striker and Liverpool suffered accordingly. Klopp, on the other hand, has very much asked Sturridge to take a back seat.
Sturridge in 2016/17:
PL: 0 goals in 367 mins
Cups & Eng: 6 goals in 309 mins
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) 11 November 2016
That we are playing such brilliant football without Sturridge is genuinely commendable. He is arguably the second best finisher in the league behind Sergio Aguero but he hasn’t even got off the mark for us in the league. For some that is a sign that we should sell him, yet I think that would be madness. The striker will be crucial for us as the season progresses. Roberto Firmino is unlikely to continue his fine form for the entire campaign, so being able to bring in a player of Sturridge’s quality to replace him or work alongside him will terrify opposition defences.
How about Simon Mignolet? Regular readers to this page will know I’m not a fan of his, but he was our first-choice goalkeeper for three years before the arrival of Loris Karius and he will surely feel that he might be able to re-claim the number one jersey at some point in the future. Some supporters also feel he should be starting instead of the German, randomly choosing to re-write the history of his performances and imagine that he’s actually a brilliant goalkeeper who’s been hard done to. It’s a nonsense, obviously, but it shows just how strong we are all over the pitch.
Similar words could be said about Alberto Moreno. The Spaniard was, rightly or wrongly, Liverpool’s first-choice left-back until Jürgen Klopp taught James Milner how to be the best left-back in the world. Again, though, Albie might well point to his performances when he’s come into the side to cover for an injured Milner and ask a question of the manager. He certainly seems to have learnt from his time out of the side.
Between Can/Wijnaldum, Sturridge, Mignolet and Moreno, then, we have four or five players who could legitimately stake a claim to a place in the first-team. Not only that, but they’re players who wouldn’t cause the wheels to fall off if they did come in to the side due to illness or injury. I fully expect Klopp to change the team around when needed to get the most out of Sturridge, too. Not a bad selection dilemma to have, all things considered.
The Fringe Players
One step down from the players who feel they deserve to be in the starting XI are players who, for one reason or another, are on the fringes right now. One of the players who might feel he should be in the above category rather than considered to be ‘fringe’ is Divock Origi. The Belgian was Klopp’s go-to striker last season, often being picked ahead of Daniel Sturridge at times. His goal against Borussia Dortmund sparked the fightback, lest we forget.
Big Div is still only 21 and has shown some of the inconsistently that you often find in young players when he’s appeared for us this season. Yet his potential is huge and under the tutelage of Jürgen Klopp I genuinely expect him to go on to become world class. He’s shown glimpses of ability that will be scary in the future. He’s got power, he’s got pace and he’s a brilliant finisher; all of which are vital assets in the Premier League.
Look at Lucas Leiva, too. The Brazilian has been heading out of the Anfield exit door for the past three or four transfer windows, yet here he remains. Not only that but he’s also changing his game to become a centre-back who can read the game and play out from the back. What’s not to love? He’s the ultimate renaissance man and he genuinely impresses when he’s asked to play at the back. He also seems to accept that he’s no longer going to be first-choice but is happy to be part of a squad, something that is vitally important moving forward.
When Lucas plays at the back then Ragnar Klavan doesn’t, something that the Estonian might want to chat to the manager about if it keeps happening. He’s not exactly blown the doors off the place when he’s come into the side, but he’s been solid and steady and he’s much better than most other team’s third or fourth choice centre-back. If Lovren picked up a long-term injury it wouldn’t be a disaster to have to turn to the 31-year-old. It’s certainly more likely to happen than a return to first-team duties for Mamadou Sakho who will surely leave the club in January.
The Youth Prospects
Talk about Liverpool’s youth system even just a year ago would have resulted in complaints that we just don’t know how to develop young players any more. Fast forward twelve months and Jürgen Klopp seems determined to give the kids as many opportunities as possible. Even better, he’s being rewarded for his faith with some excellent performances from lads who won’t seriously be considered for the starting XI for another few years.
Kev Stewart, for example, has looked like an intelligent, battling defensive midfielder who knows how to kill a game whenever he’s been asked to come in. Then again, he’s 23-year-old so a touch more experience than some of the other players on this list. His failed time at Spurs will be a lesson for him and he’ll be soaking up everything that the manager tells him.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is another prospect who will be developing rapidly under the manager. Right-back might not be the position he ends up playing when he’s older, but he’s a decent enough stand-in for Nathaniel Clyne at the moment and a certain Steven Gerrard began his career in the first-team in the same position. What a future this lad could have in front of him if he keeps developing at the same rate.
Joe Gomez being back is great news. Easy to forget what a prospect he looked at the start of last season. Potential star in the making. #LFC
— Henry Jackson (@HenryJackson87) 14 November 2016
The progress of the Reds under Klopp means it’s easy to forget just how good young Joe Gomez looked before he picked up his injury. Thrown in at left-back by Brendan Rodgers because the Northern Irishman didn’t fully trust Moreno, Gomez played well there and it looked like our problem position had been filled. The manager will take his time bringing the former Charlton prospect back into the side, but it will happen this year and hopefully he’ll have developed real character because of his injury setback.
Sheyi Ojo is a player who looked incredibly exciting when he made cameos last season. A goal against Roma and an assist against AC Milan in pre-season gave an inkling of what he’s got in his locker. It’s a real credit to him that he’s being spoken of as the solution to the problem of what to do without Sadio Mané when he heads of to the African Cup of Nations in January. He is full of potential and is arguably our most exciting youth prospect since the days of an emerging Raheem Sterling.
All of his is to say nothing of Marko Grujic, who scored five goals in 31 appearances from Red Star Belgrade last season as they went on to win the Serbian SuperLiga. It also ignores the remarkably mature performance of Ovie Ejaria against Spurs in the EFL Cup earlier in the campaign. He took it all in his stride and may well get a few Premier League appearances under his belt before the season is out.
It’s never easy to know how young players will develop, of course. It’s also easy to get excited about the strength-in-depth of a side when it’s winning consistently. Perhaps if we lose a couple of games in a row the positivity around the place will dry up and the squad will start to look like an albatross. It really doesn’t feel like that is going to happen, however. It’s important for us to keep strengthening in the transfer market when we get the chance, but for the first time in a long time it is far from a necessity. What a brilliant place to be in that really is.