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Academy Season Preview: Under-21s

With the Under-21 season getting underway tomorrow, we take a look at what to expect from Michael Beale's squad.

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Alex Inglethorpe will now lead the entire academy, vacating the Under-21 coaching pole he has held for the past two seasons. Filling his void will be Michael Beale, who has held a variety of positions within Liverpool's academy. Beale will lead a talented group of young players, many of whom he will know from his days as the U16 manager.

It's worth understanding how the Under-21 squad fits into the overall club picture. It is an interesting level for different reasons than the Under-18s. The squad is officially for players under the age of 21 (with three overage exceptions allowed to enable rehabbing senior players to participate when necessary), but the club looks to fill it with as many promising 17-19 year old players as possible.

If we consider the progression of a top talent, he will debut for the Under-18s at age 16/17, prove himself to be among the best at that level, and in some cases will feature for the Under-21s before that first season is even over. The following season or two, between ages 17-19, that player will ideally demonstrate an elite level with the Under-21s, as well, and begin to knock on the first-team door. Raheem Sterling is a good example of this ideal path for a truly top talent.

Of course, not every player is a Raheem Sterling. Depth at the first-team level blocks the upper levels of the U21s, which creates a ripple effect down to the U18s, and it may take a transcendental talent to break through it. For others, loans starting around age 19 or 20 become the most viable path to first-team minutes, and eventually, players may stall, getting sold or released when it's clear they will not make it at Liverpool.

With Liverpool's Under-21s set to open their Barclay's Under-21 Premier League season tomorrow against Sunderland, we take a brief look at some of the younger players who will play a part with Michael Beale's squad. The match will be live on at 7:00pm BST/2:00pm EST.

Harry Wilson: Long-time readers will know how highly I rate Harry Wilson, and he is currently poised to be Liverpool's next big academy product. Already capped by Wales' senior side, the youngest ever player to do so, Wilson dazzled last season, displaying a shockingly complete attacking skillset on his way to 14 goals in all competitions. Perhaps even more importantly, his hair game is on point. He should spend the entire season with the U21s, and may force his way into Rodgers' consideration as early as next season.

Ryan Kent: Kent, another exciting winger who frequently played as Wilson's opposite number, is not far behind the Welsh wonderkid when it comes to attacking talent. Blessed with pace, technique, and a low center of gravity, Kent paired marvelously with Wilson as these two young players tormented defenses last year. Seeing how they handle the step up to the U21s will be one of the more intriguing storylines this year.

Cameron Brannagan: The 18 year-old boyhood Manchester United fan was a prominent figure in the U21 midfield last season. Playing primarily as a central and attacking midfielder, Brannagan scored 4 goals in Under-21 league play, and was rewarded for his fine form with a place on the bench during an FA Cup match in January. Having just turned 18 at the end of the season, Brannagan, whose ability to retain possession in difficult situations surely must excite Brendan Rodgers, is an obvious breakout candidate.

Seyi Ojo: Signed from MK Dons as a 14 year-old nearly three years ago, Ojo made significant progress last season, becoming a key part of Neil Critchley's Under-18 side. Ojo scored 5 goals (4 in the league and one in the FA Youth Cup) and showed glimpses of fulfilling his potential in the center of midfield, with an exciting combination of size, speed, and technical ability. Ojo was recently awarded the player of the tournament award for a preseason U19 tournament in the Netherlands, and having just turned 17, is on his way to becoming a big prospect for Liverpool.

Jordan Rossiter: Rossiter received ample press in the past year after Robbie Fowler compared him to a young Steven Gerrard, and his talent is obvious. Having spent the entire season playing Under-21 football at 16 years of age, and now firmly on Rodgers' radar, Rossiter is extremely well-positioned to be yet another breakthrough player this season, and should earn some minutes in the Capital One Cup.

These are but a few of the exciting young talents plying their trade down at the academy. With the bounty of 16-18 year old players charging quickly up the ranks, it is no surprise that loans for the older academy lads such as João Carlos Teixiera, Brad Smith, and Tiago Ilori were a high priority coming into the season. This will be an exciting team full of attacking impetus, and I hope you stay tuned as we enjoy it together.

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