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Academy Season Preview: Under-18s

Neil Critchley's Under-18 squad open their Barclay's Under-18 Premier League season tomorrow with a trip to Stoke. Before things begin in earnest, we take a look at some players worth watching in the impending campaign.

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Jan Kruger

I have spent some time lately reflecting on why it is that I've taken up this interest in Liverpool's academy. It makes little to no sense, on the face of it, that your scribbler, a young professional in New York, who has stepped nary a foot in England during the past 15 years or so, would be so dedicated to this niche aspect of football fandom. Perhaps I've spent too much time in the East Village, where merely being a Liverpool supporter is not hipster enough. Hard to say.

Ultimately, I believe it's all part of the natural evolution of being a football fan. First we seek to gain a deeper understanding, on a tactical and technical level, and to make sense of what we see. We study formations, listen to interviews with the great tactician Brendan Rodgers, read books. Once we feel more confident and fluent in that area of the beautiful game, the question of 'where do these players even come from' arises, not in a physiological or biological sense, but rather in a developmental one. Why do some players make it and others don't? How can our beloved Liverpool strike the ideal umami balance between developing young players and achieving first team success? We feel equipped to answer these questions but only through careful and methodical observation over time.

Thus, dear readers, begins another season of our journey together.

Neil Critchley survived the recent academy shake-up which saw new managers appointed above and below him, and will enter his second season as Liverpool's Under-18 manager. Under-18 is an interesting level to follow, because each season it sees a new batch of youngsters rise up from the Under-16 level about whom not much is known. Social media has made it slightly more accessible, but still it remains a black box of sorts.

In that vein, while reports of the U18 preseason have been positive, the club has released too little in the way of actual information or video to know much. Thus, U18 previews and predictions include some inherent speculation, but what we do know is that the club has been successful in instilling Brendan's attacking philosophy through the youth ranks over these past two seasons. The U18s will compete in the Barclays' U18 Premier League, beginning tomorrow with their trip to Stoke (11:00am BST/6:00am EST, viewing options TBD), as well as in the FA Youth Cup and the UEFA Youth League (which is a U19 competition). The following players, among others, should be well worth watching:

Yan Dhanda

Yan Dhanda, he who carries the hope of an entire nation, signed for Liverpool last summer and drew some attention then after a notable youth career at West Bromwich Albion. He seems poised to draw a whole lot more in the upcoming campaign should he play a prominent role in Critchley's squad. The 15 year-old plays as an attacking midfielder, and has been scoring goals all summer, both with England's Under-17 squad, which he discussed in a recent interview, and in Liverpool's preseason, where he has scored at least 3 goals. Videos of Dhanda in action are here and here.

Dhanda was rewarded for a fine U16 season with a late season appearance under Critchley, and he seems quietly confident in his ability to handle the step up. It's not often that a U16 player enters a debut season with the U18s with as much name recognition as Dhanda has, and soon we should be able to put more context around the hype.

Trent Arnold

Trent Arnold is another who has been garnering recognition for his work with England lately, and in fact was chosen to captain the side in a match during the recent Nordic Tournament. I'll confess to never having seen Arnold play, but the right back was a constant Liverpool representative in England's U16 side throughout last season, alongside Dhanda and Adam Phillips, and reportedly looked going doing so.

Connor Randall

Randall, a slightly more familiar name who featured in last post-season's friendly against Shamrock Rovers, will likely split his time between the U18s and U21s, partially pending the immediate future of Ryan McLaughlin. Randall, another right back, is a physical force—strong, pacy, and intelligent—who is perhaps closest to an appearance under Brendan than anyone else we may see with the U18s, or at least was until two senior fullbacks were signed by the club in the past week. Either way, Randall is an exciting prospect, who is clearly highly rated by the club. 

Brooks Lennon

An American! Brooks Lennon is an extremely quick winger who has been trialing and playing for Liverpool on and off over the past year or so. After scoring goals consistently during his time with the club, first on tour with the U17s last season, and more recently in a European pre-season tour match against Schalke, rumors are he has finally joined the club permanently. A product of the Real Salt Lake academy, Lennon has been ranked fourth on IMG's latest USA youth top 150 list and was called up to the USMNT Under-18 squad for a recent youth tournament in Portugal.

And so it begins, another American about whom those of us with such proclivity can get excited. For his sake, let's hope Lennon can stay more injury free than LFC's last great American hope.

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