Last night's away victory for Liverpool's Under-21s against Manchester United, in the opening fixture of their new campaign, was a notable one. In previous seasons the strength of such United sides would have been an intimidating obstacle for Liverpool's youngsters to overcome. The previous Dark Lord of Manchester regularly blooded new players and so many of those facing Liverpool would have had first-team experience, and the confidence that brings, as one steps down a level.
However, as the sides lined out yesterday evening, notwithstanding the Mancunian team's usual array of stars, it was Liverpool who looked the stronger outfit. Despite the Anfield side's comparative youth, there was considerable top-level experience, as several players looked to impress Brendan Rodgers with a solid turn for Alex Inglethorpe's side. Martin Kelly captained a side which included Jordon Ibe and Fabio Borini, as well as the likes of Adam Morgan and Lloyd Jones, both of whom have had a taste of first-team squad involvement. It was encouraging to think that Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom, two eligible products of our academy system, did not even feature.
Inglethorpe's charges recorded an impressive 4-2 victory, despite falling behind early in the match to a Larnell Cole strike. The trio of first-team aspirants all did their causes some good with Kelly looking composed at the heart of the defence, Borini busy and threatening in a two-goal display and Ibe looking to be simply a class above those around him on the Salford pitch -- his goal was a remarkable effort, involving a powerful surge through the United rear-guard, a neat one-two with Borini and a delightful curled finish to the bottom corner.
The use of the Under 21 team to provide the likes of the aforementioned trio with valuable competitive minutes is to be applauded. It's a more dynamic and fluid system than the old idea of the Reserves. In the past, banishment to the stiffs was damaging to a player's mind-set and often used by managers as a form of punishment.
Psychologically, players like Borini, painfully short of real first-team impact, can take their place in that side, surrounded by other emergent ambitious talents, and not feel as though they are being banished to the backwaters. It seems as though Rodgers' idea is to work in conjunction with Inglethorpe to facilitate the rehabilitation and continued development of those not claiming a starting berth for the first eleven, as well as providing a learning environment for those stepping up from junior sides. It's a sapient move.
Jake's regular coverage Liverpool's academy sides over the year will keep us in the loop as to how much benefit is accrued from the close links between the Under 21 and first-team squads. The crossover of talent in this fluid system does make it difficult for Conor to assess the depth available to Rodgers at any given time, but few would argue that depth does indeed exist -- at least more depth than in recent seasons.
With Aly Cissokho finally added to address the troublesome left-back position, Rodgers now has options throughout the team. Cissokho, Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas, Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet are all quality footballers capable of operating in the kind of dynamic, possession-based style of play preferred by the manager. Rodgers is also systematically ridding the squad of the under-performing members of previous squads. The team, for good or bad, is becoming his team.
Liverpool fans have been understandably distracted of late by the third high-profile player flirtation of the summer. Following the disappointment of missing out on Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Diego Costa, after painfully protracted public pursuits, long suffering Reds' fans now look to be facing a hat-trick of heart-breaks as Brazilian Willian leans towards the North of London. Supporters must guard against despondency, however. Last Saturday's victory was a huge psychological boost and that positivity must be embraced, not frittered at the first sign of a star's disinterest.
Since taking over a year ago, Brendan Rodgers has been subjected to the most bitter and one-eyed abuse by some purporting to support the club. Simply writing an objective sentence like that one has been enough for some of Twitter's more aggressive mouth-breathers to label your humble scrivener a 'Rodgers apologist.' Such supremely erudite types often struggle to read more than a sentence or two, for if they did, they would note the ever-present caveats and qualifications in the pieces.
There have been missteps and errors, too much talk and too little action, but Rodgers seems to be growing into his role at an encouraging rate and to give him his due, he has always been open to new ideas and methodologies. One of the most progressive of those ideas is the work done with the hugely respected sports psychiatrist, Dr. Steve Peters. Having helped Britain's cyclists become the pre-eminent force in the sport, Peters has been impressed with the work being done by Rodgers and his team behind the scenes.
"I'm only in Melwood once a week," Peters told LFC Magazine. "I'm not full-time at the club so it's a good insight as an outsider looking in, I suppose. It's very clear to me that the backroom team here functions very well. As one piece of the puzzle, I can see the rest of the jigsaw. It's very strong all round. The foundations are there for success.
"Having worked with a number of Liverpool players in the past independently, they were keen for me to meet Brendan. From our first meeting it was clear that Brendan was unusual in a sporting sense. A lot of people at the top don't have a psychological perspective or even insight. But Brendan does. It was clear that Brendan was a man who listened. he is very big on team-work. It wasn't a case of me coming in and telling him what to do. Instead we discuss matters as a group and arrive at a consensus."
Only a fool would discount the insights of a man as experienced and successful as Dr. Peters. His efforts on behalf of the individuals in the Liverpool squad may already be bearing fruit and even if it is not immediately apparent, it is folly to discount the huge role played in success by mental health. Rodgers and Liverpool Football Club are to be applauded for looking to the minds as well as the bodies of their footballers. For now, Dr. Peters may find gainful employment amongst the hordes of fans crushed and despondent about the latest transfer farrago. Be nice to one another folks, there are still weeks to go.
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