Following Liverpool's academy is one of my favorite pastimes. Part of it is that I just can't get enough of people in Liverpool kits kicking a ball, but perhaps the main reason I find it so appealing is that, with the by-and-large disappointing senior squad performances, management gaffes, and transfer faux pas of the past few seasons—as much as things finally appear to be improving—the academy has been an almost unbridled source of positivity over that same period.
As the 2013/14 campaign draws near, consider this the introduction of a new feature that will hopefully provide a central place to stay informed of and discuss the goings-on at the academy. Once the season gets underway there will be a weekly update, with a summary of the results, news, and notes of our U21 and U18 squads. The Preston North End friendly is only days away, and with some less familiar faces certain to be involved, here is a review of the U21 squad's 2012/13 season. Later in the week we'll profile some players deserving of our attention.
The 2012/13 season saw a significant restructuring by the Premier League of the competition formerly known as the Premier Reserve League. The Barclays U21 Premier League, as it came to be known, created an organized, competitive format for top tier academies in England. During the competition's first phase the Liverpool U21s were the only undefeated squad in England, dominating their group with 9 victories and 3 draws. This excellent run of form carried the squad to a first-place finish in their group and a spot in the Elite Group for Phase 2, with Marc Pelosi, Krisztian Adorjan, Dani Pacheco, and Adam Morgan asserting themselves as the standout performers.
The second half of the season proved somewhat more difficult, as the Elite Group was comprised of a number of the country's most successful academies, including Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Southampton. Liverpool also lost some key first-half contributors to loans (Michael Ngoo to Hearts, Jack Robinson to Wolverhampton, and Dani Pacheco to Huesca) and injuries (Brad Smith and Marc Pelosi), though even with these forced squad changes they managed to finish 3rd in the Elite Group. That proved good enough to advance to the semi-finals of the knockout phase, where a young and depleted squad faced United at Old Trafford. Two early penalties condemned Liverpool to a 3-0 defeat to the eventual champions, ending an exciting league season on a disappointing note. Many younger players got their opportunity with the U21s in the second half of the season, and Jordon Ibe, Ryan McLaughlin, Joao Carlos Teixeira, and Conor Coady were among those who stood out.
In the NextGen Series, Liverpool struggled out of the gate, losing each of its first three group stage matches on the road against Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, and Rosenborg. In desperate need of points, the squad delivered, emphatically winning its next three against the same opponents and securing qualification to the knockout phase. Most memorable was the 4-1 victory over Inter Milan in the final group stage match, a must-win for the squad. For the second straight season, Liverpool was comprehensively beaten by Sporting Lisbon, this time a 4-0 defeat to end their NextGen campaign in the round of 16.
Another significant development in the U21 set up was manager Rodolfo Borrell's promotion to Head of Academy Coaching in November. He was replaced by former Tottenham academy coach Alex Inglethorpe. The change reflected Brendan Rodgers' stated desire to create a cohesive philosophy at the club from the senior squad all the way to the U9s, and placed the duo of Borrell and Academy Director Frank McParland firmly in charge of implementing it. Inglethorpe's appointment prefaced a noticeable tactical shift to a 4-3-3 formation reminiscent of the senior squad, as opposed to Borrell's at-times Rafa-esque 4-2-3-1. Borrell is hugely well-regarded and Liverpool are lucky to have him and, while I'll miss his unique ability to be somber even after a 5-1 victory, I was pleased to see him given greater responsibility.
It has been said that the U21s had a solid season yet failed to perform against top opposition, and we fans should temper our enthusiasm as a result. Heavy defeats against United, Tottenham, and Lisbon would seem to validate that thinking. But if we consider the overall context of the U21s within the Liverpool FC organization, a different picture may begin to emerge. Brendan Rodgers dipped into the academy early and often last season, and had the senior side been better prepared and equipped for the season, the likes of Raheem Sterling, Suso, Jonjo Shelvey, and Andre Wisdom would likely have been playing for the U21s for most if not all of last season. The Liverpool U21s were missing many of their top talents, and were often much younger than the opposition as a result.
An entirely different series of posts could be dedicated to debating how to evaluate an academy's success, and while strong results are certainly a positive indicator and great for fostering a winning culture at a club, the end-goal is to supply a pipeline of talent for the first team. In that light, it would appear the Liverpool U21s ticked both boxes and had an exciting and successful year. With the senior squad adding depth to its ranks, we should expect the U21s to have a consistent selection of returning youngsters available for the upcoming season.