In the past five seasons, Liverpool have had only three fullbacks reach the thirty match mark---Steve Finnan and John Arne Riise played in 33 league matches apiece in the 2006-2007 season, and Emiliano Insua made 31 appearances after being forced into regular duty in the 2009-2010 season. Álvaro Arbeloa came close a few times, as has Glen Johnson since arriving, but it's been a tough marker to reach for a Liverpool fullback.
There's not necessarily any conventional wisdom that demands a high number of appearances in these positions in order for a club to be successful, but we've seen enough inconsistency in performance and personnel over the past few years to create a bit of panic when it comes to filling the void that's been created.
Insua's the most obvious casualty of that panic---pushed into a starting role because of injuries to the more experienced Fabio Aurelio, Insua shone early and faded late during the 2009-2010 campaign, clearly showing the wear and tear of a player that wasn't ready for consistent first-team action at the age of 20. There was little room for acknowledging that fact, though, and the young Argentine was roundly criticized for the struggles he experienced in a role he shouldn't have had to fill in the first place.
He played sparingly after being loaned to Galatasaray last season and has failed to re-establish himself in the first team, featuring only with the reserves as the season gets underway. The signing of José Enrique will likely serve to push Insua further out of the picture, with Aurelio hovering in fitness purgatory and Jack Robinson waiting in the wings. On available evidence it's justified, but you also can't avoid the idea that Insua, as Jon Flanagan got a taste of this weekend, was a longer-term victim of the "NEXT!" mentality that's plagued Liverpool at the back in recent years.
The lack of patience is somewhat justified considering the problems with both form and fitness of those who we've seen the most over the past few seasons. Finnan and Riise featured regularly but had their share of vulnerabilities, Arbeloa was energetic but susceptible to the odd dip in form, and both Glen Johnson and Fabio Aurelio have had problems staying fit for a full season. Martin Kelly came on strong but succumbed to injury in the latter half of last season, along most of the squad's defense, leaving only Jon Flanagan and, for a brief spell, Jack Robinson.
Both overachieved, turning in performances largely beyond their years and creating a buzz about finally having fullbacks that, while probably not ready for regular action right now, could be the answer for years to come. A full offseason of training with the first team followed, with both getting regular action in Liverpool's friendlies and heading into the season in the discussion for senior squad action at some point. Plenty of promise.
Then, with Glen Johnson out injured, Flanagan was named in the eleven against Sunderland ahead of Martin Kelly, all youth and vigor and being the future and all that.
It would follow, then, that he has his worst display with the first team to date, exacerbated by the lack of cover from an inexperienced and out-of-position Jordan Henderson. And all of a sudden Jon Flanagan is the right-footed, thirty-pounds lighter version of Emiliano Inusa.
(bitter and vengeful sarcasm to follow) Questionable decision from Kenny Dalglish to start him ahead of Kelly before the match, and after the match it was unconscionable. Flanagan doesn't add anything going forward, is too naive in the challenge, doesn't really square a man up, was only good last season because Liverpool were that bad. Too inexperienced to be with the first team and a real liability. Should have been Kelly all along. (end of bitter and vengeful sarcasm)
And so the cycle continues, with the blame for Liverpool's inability to recruit and retain consistent quality at the fullback position falling squarely at the feet of teenagers asked to fill in. Aside from José Enrique's recruitment, only Glen Johnson and Paul Konchesky have been added in the past few seasons, even with the knowledge that Fabio Aurelio averages 19 minutes per season and Jamie Carragher was the best Liverpool could offer as a second-choice right-back until Kelly emerged. Even now, ignoring Flanagan and Robinson (who featured yesterday in the NextGen Series), there's only the promise of Kelly and the newly-acquired Spaniard fit for Saturday.
The performances can and should be critiqued---Flanagan himself acknowledged the need to improve earlier this week, and Robinson had his own share of struggles during the U19s' loss to Sporting yesterday. Their relative success down the stretch last season gave them a share of the spotlight, and any time they don't live up to that, it's going to be noted, just as it would with any other senior squad member.
But what shouldn't happen is a condemnation of their future or their ability based on one, or even a handful, of shaky performances before they hit their twenties, especially after we collectively celebrated their promise at the end of last season. Because they're asked to deliver by a club still recovering from a disastrous front-office reign doesn't mean they necessarily will, and that's fine---if there's no cover for them to develop, we're going to witness the growing pains firsthand.
So whether or not we see Flanagan, Robinson, or any of the youngsters in action this Saturday and the rest of the season, we need to take both their successes and failures with a grain of salt. At least as long as they stop messing everything up.
**And lastly, on a much more important note, take time out of your day to go and sign the petition seeking "full government disclosure and publication of all documents, discussions and reports relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disater." Makes all of this stuff irrelevant. Go now.**
**Thanks to CSD for pointing out that the Hillsborough Justice Campaign has asked that only UK Citizens and Residents sign, as it risks invalidation of the signatures otherwise.**