Some are like water, some are like the heat
Some are a melody and some are the beat
Sooner or later they all will be gone
Why don't they stay young?
- Alphaville, Forever Young (1984)
Spoiler alert: this isn't about Leonardo DiCaprio's personal life.
Like an oasis in a desert of dropped points, a midweek fixture directed Liverpool Football Club's attention away from their stop-start league campaign and towards more realistic avenues for glory. The Magic of the FA Cup(tm) beckoned, although it wasn't apparent to many before the match whether the Cup promised more magic for Liverpool or for Exeter City. In the end, when the hurly-burly was done and the battle lost and won, Liverpool stood triumphant. As with all things Liverpool this season, however, there was a good deal of both fair and foul on the ledger by the time the players had given an account of themselves.
Continuing a theme from their prior stalemate with Exeter City, Jürgen Klopp picked a youthful side for this third-round replay, with a few older hands sprinkled in to provide veteran savvy. Oh, and José Enrique also made an appearance, presumably selected for no purpose other than to dispel the notion that Germans lack a sense of humour. As has been noted by many, Liverpool’s youngsters proved, for the most part, to be up to the occasion. Brad Smith once again caught the eye, and Sheyi Ojo scored the sort of goal that seemed to be the exclusive domain of Daniel Sturridge until, well, you know what happened to Daniel Sturridge. Frustratingly, some of the veterans struggled to make a stronger case for themselves, most notably Christian Benteke, who seemed out of place for much of the match despite making a few vital contributions.
Given that display, it was no surprise that the chorus of voices calling for youth to be served grew more vocal. That chorus might have grown just a little louder during the first half of Liverpool's weekend matchup with Norwich, in which the Canaries' newest oldster, Steven Naismith, skipped like a newborn faun past several redwood trees wearing red shirts to forcefully give the home side a temporary lead. With hopes of a top four finish all but evaporated, the youngsters had at least provided a hint of the verve and audacity that the grownups have struggled to produce on a consistent basis. Or so the thinking went before the seniors righted the ship in a wild second half.
At his press conference before the weekend fixture with Norwich, though, Klopp had counseled a more cautious approach: "You always see skills and moments, but a game is 90 minutes. We have to help them be prepared. We will not forget them for helping us. But go back and work, that’s it."
Liverpool’s recent history with youth provides ample evidence of the precious little margin of error in managing these players. Fenway Sports Group’s policy of aggressively pursuing young talent in order to hedge both football and business bets is not, in theory, unsound. But then neither is that little-known financial secret of "buy low, sell high." The devil, as always, is in the details. Specifically, the details of who plays, when, where, for how long, and against whom. Liverpool’s rate of return on this front has been far from abysmal, but the club also hasn’t exactly "beat the index."
Within the top flight, Arsenal, Southampton and Tottenham are rightfully recognized as being the leaders in this regard, at least in recent years. While Liverpool have, since Kenny Dalglish’s second coming, been bold about blooding young talent, the number of debutants who have gone on to stake a strong and persistent claim for first team football is low (hello, Raheem). And for every Raheem Sterling, there is always another young prospect or three wallowing in loan purgatory (hello, Suso). The reasons for this are myriad, and not always within a club’s control.
One possible factor is that there seems potentially a law of diminishing returns when a club tries to stockpile prospects. There are only so many meaningful minutes to go around, only so much coaching time available, and only so many viable loan destinations. It doesn't help, either, that Liverpool haven't had many comfortable wins of late.
"Most of the time we have had to fight for a result in the last 20 minutes so it’s not the best time for a young player to come in," noted the manager. And to add to the pressure, none of these players is going to remain a youth player forever – "sooner or later, they all will be gone," as the song goes – and what was once raw potential must either be shipped out, released, gloriously ascended or must find a place on the bench (where, to some extent, the game begins anew).
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and is arguably the way of all things. The manager’s preference for a more cautious and organic approach to youth development is evident in his statement that making young players happy "is not the club’s first job." Though it could be read as a broadside against the Aidy Wards of the world, the statement also suggests a belief that to play all the kids all the time would almost certainly jeopardize their present, and very likely jeopardize their long-term futures.
So the elders returned to take the stage against Norwich, and despite doubts at the half in the end they got the victory, claiming all three points in a contest full of sound and fury and more than a few goals but with few moments of true verve and audacity beyond Mbokani's goal and Norwich's continued belief that bright yellow and green look good on grown men not named Yorick. The young guns should, however, take heart.
While the uneven weekend performance of Liverpool's Injury-Ravaged Grownups XI makes it unlikely there will be many 3-0 leads ahead to stroll on to, the manager has shown a willingness to introduce youth at the right time, and the fixture schedule will make sure there will be several right times ahead. If they’re lucky, some of these players will go on to have careers that will last almost as long as they've been alive today, and a bit of patience now from the club will go a long way towards ensuring at least a few of those careers will be at Anfield.