Breaking through from the youth ranks to the senior level at a top football club is a rare thing. At Liverpool, a club priding itself in its youth academy, only nine players have made their way from promising youngster to making more than 20 appearances for the club in the past two decades, culminating in the meteoric rise of Trent Alexander-Arnold last year. Raheem Sterling notwithstanding, none have moved past the fringe squad player label.
Rarer still, is a player going out on loan and then coming back to break into the team. Despite the logic of the idea — first team experience elsewhere should benefit the player upon their return more than youth or reserve football would — it almost never works out that way.
2019 might be the year we see an exception to this rule, however, at least if reports out of the Liverpool Echo are to be believed. Having gone out on loan for the third time in his career this season, Harry Wilson — for all his gifts — looked set to follow in the footsteps of so many talented youngsters before him; his development stalling out over the course of a series of increasingly uninspiring loan spells.
The 5-year deal the Welsh international signed before moving to derby indicated that Jürgen Klopp had faith in Wilson’s potential, though, and the attacker appears to be in the process of proving his manager right. Under the tutelage of speculative long-range effort merchant Frank Lampard, the Wrexham-born winger has become must-watch entertainment in 2018, belting thunderbastards into the back of the net on a near-weekly basis.
With eight goals from outside the box, five from direct free kicks, Harry Wilson leads the entire continent in both categories this season. There is more to the 21-year old’s game, of course, but his ability to find the back of the net with venomous drives from range is the one that really makes him stand out from the crowd.
Is it sustainable? Probably not. Wilson has converted 13.3% of his shots from range in 2018/19, nearly tripling the national average, a rate that seems unreasonably high. It is actually a drop-off from last year, however, when he converted 18.2% of his long-range shots for Hull, and over the course of the past full season — nearly 3000 minutes worth of data — Wilson has scored one out of every seven attempts from outside the box. There is a very real chance the 21-year old is just really, really good at shooting from range.
Do Liverpool care about that? They certainly should. While Wilson would be expected to take fewer shots from range playing under Klopp — the team has decreased the frequency of their ranged shooting by 20% since 2016/17 — the ability to bypass a defensive wall or parked bus by simply shooting through it — either from a set piece or open play — is a useful skill for a side that is increasingly facing teams parked deep in their own half, and Xherdan Shaqiri aside, the current iteration of Liverpool is lacking in threat from range.
Furthermore, Wilson is a lethal finisher from up close as well, putting his strikes well out of the keeper’s reach more often than not. Not doing so with more frequency has largely been a result of Derby’s style of play, which does not pack bodies into the opposition box, and which relies on Wilson in particular working as a final ball and long shot threat rather than penetrating into the area.
Will Harry make it at Liverpool? Only time will tell, but according to James Pearce, the expectation is that Wilson — having answered his manager’s challenge and proven he can deliver in a high-intensity league on a regular basis — will be in serious contention for first team minutes next year. After 14 years at the club, it would be a just reward.