Liverpool: The kids are alright, but is that enough?
As symbolism goes the image was a pretty stark one.
On a chilly Sunday afternoon when there were many more serious issues than football to ponder at Anfield it seems wrong to pay so much attention to the mere matters that were going on at pitch level, but just seconds into the second half there was a moment that spoke volumes for just where Liverpool are heading under Brendan Rodgers.
The 18-year-old Jesús Joaquín Fernández Sáez de la Torre – or ‘Suso’ to his mates and now the millions worldwide who watched his Premier League debut on Sunday – picked the ball up on the left corner of the penalty area and was suddenly face-to-face with the man he’d entered the pitch with seconds earlier.
Whilst Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson had turned to Paul Scholes, 37, at half-time as his side sought to gain control of midfield now that Liverpool were down to 10 men, Rodgers had opted for Suso to replace the injured Fabio Borini.
Undeterred by the sense of occasion, the fact that this was his first act as a Premier League footballer nor that his side had seen a man sent off, Suso faced up to Scholes on the corner of the box, showed him the ball and then quick as a flash burst past a man more than twice his age. At that moment the great Scholes could probably feel his old bones creaking.
That Suso’s cross was only half-cleared and eventually – via the good work of Glen Johnson – resulted in Steven Gerrard firing Liverpool into a deserved lead only crystallised the moment more. These young Liverpool players, regardless of who they are facing and how many players they are facing them with, are fearless.
At 18 Suso wasn’t even the youngest Reds player on the pitch at the time, with that honour going to the 17-year-old Raheem Sterling. Jonjo Shelvey, 20, had somewhat harshly been sent off by then, whilst the injury suffered by the 22-year-old Martin Kelly would leave Liverpool with just nine men by full-time. Borini, 21, and Joe Allen, 22, were playing in their third Anfield league game since big summer moves to Merseyside, a switch made by 22-year-old second half substitute Jordan Henderson last year. The 19-year-old Andre Wisdom scored in the Europa League last week and could now be set for more appearances given that Kelly is out for the foreseeable future with an ACL injury. Many more young players at set to feature in the Capital One Cup at West Brom on Wednesday night.
The omnipresence of Gerrard and a late cameo from Jamie Carragher reminded everyone that this isn’t a total revolution just yet, but it is hard to think of a club operating at the levels Liverpool are that is currently putting so much faith in youth. As admirable as it is, the worry has to be that it is too much too soon.
The club’s failings in the transfer market have a lot to do with it of course, but Rodgers is on record extolling the virtues of his young charges.
As he and Ferguson have said in the past, young players will rarely let you down when called upon, but at a time when the club are coming to terms with a new style of play as well as new personnel with which to play it, the potential for errors has crept in. At this level such mistakes can and will be capitalised on, as United showed in coming back to win on Sunday.
The next three Premier League fixtures – away at Norwich and then at home to Stoke and Reading – have already been identified as crucial to Liverpool following their tough start, and the youngsters in the team are likely to have to grow up quickly if success is to be achieved in all of them.
There is no doubt that a great excitement builds when the likes of Suso and Sterling get the ball, but it is up to Gerrard and Luis Suarez to show seniority and help guide them. Allen, the excellent Johnson and the still acclimatising Nuri Sahin will prove important in this regard too.
Is it too much too young for some of these Liverpool players? That remains to be seen, but one thing that they are certainly not lacking in is confidence. If Suso can do that to Scholes, then anything is possible.
The kids aren’t United, they’re Liverpool, and this could just be the start of something special if it is given time.