“When I am managing a club, I think each young player should smile, because the door is wide open for him,” Jurgen Klopp said in a press conference shortly after his arrival at Liverpool in October of last year—and true to his word, the German placed a heavy emphasis on youth in his first season on Merseyside in 2015/16.
Klopp gave debuts to eight players under the age of 23 last season, with Connor Randall, Ryan Kent, Kevin Stewart, Joe Maguire, Sheyi Ojo, Danny Ward, Tiago Ilori and Sergi Canos all handed their first appearances for the club.
Furthermore, fellow youngsters Cameron Brannagan, Pedro Chirivella, Brad Smith, Jon Flanagan and Joao Carlos Teixeira all added to their tally of outings, while more established figures such as Divock Origi, Jordon Ibe and Emre Can featured heavily following the German’s appointment.
Klopp’s squad for 2015/16 had an average age of just 24.9, with only Tottenham Hotspur boasting a younger squad on average (24.7), further underlining the youth at his disposal; and, perhaps, one of the key reasons behind owners John W. Henry and Tom Werner pursuing Klopp so fervently.
This was aided by injuries to a number of key first-team players, however, as well as Liverpool’s quest for glory in the Capital One Cup, the FA Cup and the Europa League along with the Premier League, and it remains to be seen whether Klopp is so accommodating to his young players in 2016/17—a campaign that could see the Reds take in just 40 clashes following their failure to qualify for European competition.
However, Klopp saying that “I don’t care so much about experience, it can be important but it is not the main thing” in October suggests he could continue his youth drive on Merseyside.
So which young players deserve to see first-team action at Liverpool in 2016/17?
Here, we highlight four under the age of 21 that are most likely to feature under Klopp next season, starting with something of an unknown quantity for the former Borussia Dortmund manager in Joe Gomez.
Signed for a meagre £3.5 million in 2015, versatile young defender Joe Gomez proved to be something of a revelation in the first months of his Liverpool career after making a major step from Championship strugglers Charlton Athletic.
Gomez was one of the shining lights in the Addicks’ miserable 2014/15 campaign, with Charlton writer Joe Hall describing him as “a smart, intelligent player, [who] doesn’t just rely on his physical attributes” in an interview with The Redmen TV (h/t This is Anfield) ahead of his move to Merseyside, but few expected the impact he would make on joining Brendan Rodgers’ squad for pre-season.
Taking his place in the Ulsterman’s touring group for a jaunt across the Far East and Australia, Gomez quickly established himself as a worthwhile option on an immediate basis, and this saw him start the first five league games of the 2015/16 campaign—usurping Alberto Moreno as Rodgers’ first-choice left-back.
Rocked by a frustrating ACL injury in October, however, Gomez was denied the chance of linking up with Klopp’s squad for the rest of the season—leaving the 49-year-old with little indication of his long-term role.
But a remarkable show of character, recovering alongside fellow absentee Danny Ings at the club’s Melwood training facility, has seemingly earned Gomez a place in Klopp’s squad for 2016/17.
With Kolo Toure released on the expiry of his contract this summer, and Martin Skrtel likely to depart Merseyside after falling down the pecking order, Gomez is poised to take up a centre-back role alongside Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren and new signing Joel Matip.
Tall, strong and athletic, Gomez is capable of operating in a front-footed, ball-playing role at the heart of the defence, and stepping up into the role of fourth-choice centre-back in 2016/17 should aid his development into a top-level option for Klopp in the future.
Twenty-year-old academy midfielder Brannagan has been linked with a move away from Merseyside this summer, with the Mirror’s Ed Malyon reporting interest from La Liga’s leading duo, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But as Malyon continues to add that “while it is no certainty that Liverpool would sell, they may be forced to offer Brannagan more first-team football,” there lies the impetus for Klopp ahead of 2016/17, as employing Brannagan in a more regular role next season could prove pivotal in persuading the youngster to opt against a move to the Santiago Bernabeu or the Camp Nou in the future.
Brannagan is a tactically advanced, fleet-footed midfielder capable of operating in a number of roles in the middle of the park—and while his former under-21s colleague Jordan Rossiter was allowed to leave the club on a free transfer this summer, Brannagan is certainly a more valuable option for the German.
In 2015/16, Brannagan made nine appearances for the first-team, with his influential showing at home to Exeter City in the FA Cup in January providing a glimpse of his ceiling as a top-flight talent; despite his relative inexperience, Brannagan is capable of presiding over the midfield battle with confidence and composure.
With Klopp likely to allow Welsh midfielder Joe Allen to leave the club this summer, with the 26-year-old’s former club Swansea City revealing their interest to the South Wales Evening Post’s Gareth Vincent at the beginning of June, Brannagan can provide the ideal replacement.
Like Allen, Brannagan is diminutive compared to his midfield counterparts at Liverpool, but like Allen, he has the talent and tactical scope to negate this.
Unlike Allen, however, Brannagan has age on his side, and in order to continue his progression into a potential first-team mainstay under Klopp, he should be utilised in a more regular role in 2016/17.
Klopp made something of a bold statement in sanctioning the signing of young Serbian midfielder Marko Grujic as his first permanent addition since arriving as Liverpool manager, with the 20-year-old joining from Red Star Belgrade in a deal worth £5.1 million.
With the transfer agreed at the beginning of January, Grujic returned to Red Star to spend the remainder of the season with the Serbian SuperLiga outfit, going on to secure the title in an emphatic final campaign under Miodrag Bozovic.
Providing an analysis of Grujic’s 2015/16 season, and his transition into life at Liverpool this summer for This is Anfield, Serbian journalist Milos Markovic suggested he would take time to adjust to the demands of the Premier League:
He will need to adapt to the physical aspect of the Premier League first and gain more strength to be able to deal with strong opposition; he will need to learn a lot about the pace of the game which is one thing that could hit him hard upon his arrival as well.
He will need to change his entire mindset, but I trust him to be wise enough to make most of his time with Reds and to go on to become an important player for Liverpool.
Given the gulf in quality between the SuperLiga and the English top flight, it is likely that Grujic will require a period of adaptation on his move to Merseyside this summer.
But speaking to Serbian publication Blic (h/t the Liverpool Echo) in February, he insisted he “didn’t want to be loaned out” and was set to operate as a “box-to-box midfielder” under Klopp, utilising his height, strength and mobility to emulate his future team-mate Can.
In 2015/16, Grujic scored six goals and laid on a further seven assists in 30 games, with five goals and six assists coming in 19 appearances in the role he will play at Liverpool—hampered following his return from England in January as Bozovic made a bemusing tactical switch by moving his young star into the No. 10 role, with Grujic making just one outing deeper in the midfield after the winter break.
Alongside Brannagan, Grujic can hope for first-team action in 2016/17, and seemingly given assurances by Klopp on agreeing a deal in January, he seems poised to feature regularly.
While former Wycombe Wanderers winger Ibe was roundly tipped to fill the void left by Raheem Sterling in 2015/16, the 20-year-old’s struggle for consistency following his compatriot’s departure for Manchester City saw another young talent emerge in Ojo.
Ojo began the campaign on loan with Wolverhampton Wanderers, but speaking to This is Anfield in December, Wolves blog Compton Stars highlighted his disappointment at the player’s lack of impact:
The majority of fans have been disappointed, quite clearly Sheyi has lots of ability but in our opinion he doesn’t have the desire or application to be playing at this particular level at this time of his career.
Frustratingly he has all the tools in his locker but for some reason seems reluctant to use them.
This lethargy compounded Compton Stars’ view that Ojo was “quite a distance from the Liverpool first team,” clouding his return from Molineux Stadium in January, as Klopp recalled a number of his young players in order to flesh out his injury-hit squad.
But from his first appearances for the Reds in 2016—kicking off with an assist on his debut in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw away to Exeter in the FA Cup, before an excellent strike in the resulting replay at Anfield—Ojo underlined his potential; continuing to do so for the under-21s with a hat-trick in March’s 3-2 win away to Middlesbrough.
Growing into his role as impact substitute and providing further glimpses of his quality in starts against Stoke City, Bournemouth, Swansea City, Watford and West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League, Ojo seemingly secured a long-term role under Klopp—and he can expect to feature more regularly in 2016/17.
Ojo scored one goal and laid on a further four assists in 11 appearances under Klopp, averaging a direct goal contribution every 90 minutes, with his pace, flair and delivery from the flanks proving a useful alternative to Liverpool’s regular wide options, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana.
Though still a length behind Sterling, Ojo has proved himself ahead of Ibe in terms of his development, and he should usurp his elder team-mate into a role in Klopp’s attack next season.