"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Our Reserves

New faces? What about the ones we've got?

Some people may argue that had it not been for Kiko Macheda, United might not have won the league. Alright it's a bit fanciful - he scored one good crucial goal against Villa at a timely moment and aside from that did very little, but such are the margins of victory at the top level. (For the record, yes I know he 'scored' against Sunderland, but it was a shot that hit him and went in, and hardly proof of great talent.)

Anyway, the point is, what with United able to pull rabbits like him and Danny Wellbeck, Arsenal's production line getting both younger and more talented, and Chelsea still able to afford any top player they want and therefore not needing a youth system, the question remains, who could we soon see donning a Liverpool strip advertising a product that they're too young to buy?

This season just gone was actually quite a good one for the reserves, with the likes of Insua, El Zhar and Ngog all featuring regularly for the first team, and Darby, Spearing and Kelly all making their first team bows. But to be honest, their career paths are already more or less defined. Insua is basically a first team squad member now. Ngog will be looking to challenge whoever comes in as the genuine second choice striker behind Torres, El Zhar is 23 now and probably on the way out, or backup at best and Plessis seems to have disappeared off the radar, despite netting his first senior goal against Spurs in the Carling Cup. While the three scousers are all vying for positions in the team that either are already or very soon will be over-populated (CM, CB and RB).

This list looks to go younger, to the second line of players who are yet to have their first taste, and offers a guide to the uneducated as to the big names to watch from Liverpool's sadly under-productive youth academy.

1. Dani Pacheco
Age: 17 Nationality: Spanish Position: playmaker/forward.

One of two 'next Maradona's' we have at the club, though as he's Spanish it's a bit of a stretch to say that. Pacheco has been something of a revelation in the Liverpool reserves and academy teams over the last couple of seasons. Some of you may remember him featuring in pre-season friendlies at the beginning of the season just gone, where he set up a couple of Voronin goals.

Critics would argue that at 17, if you haven't broken through into the first team squad in his position there might be something holding you back, but the counter to that is look what happened to the last two teenage prodigy forwards Liverpool introduced to the first team, Owen and Fowler. Both had fantastic early careers, but faded alarmingly and dramatically in their late 20s as long-standing injury issues took hold. They were pushed too far too quickly, and though we got their best years out of them, their peaks were behind them by the time they were 27. Rafa hopefully won't make that same mistake with Pacheco, who has shown enough promise in his season both as a scorer and creater to suggest that we might have a genuine diamond on our hands.

Of course, who better to train him up in that position than the legend that is Kenny Dalglish next season? One to watch indeed.

2. Gerardo Bruna
Age: 18 Nationality: Argentinian Position: Left winger.

The second 'next Maradona' we picked up from Spain. While Pacheco was pinched from Barcelona's academy, Bruna's defection left many an angry red face in the ranks of the Real Madrid hierarchy, as he was one they'd tipped for the top. A pacy, silky winger, he is another who has probably had to spend most of his training time bulking up, as his abilities and skills are already at quite a high standard.

Critics will again argue about the age, he's 18 already now and hasn't even made the first team bench, and the general feeling is that he needs to prove himself in a loan move to a lower league club. One things for sure though, if he does end up living up to the billing the distraught Real Madrid youth academy coaches claimed, he'll be a top quality number 11 in years to come.

3. Nathan Ecclestone
Age: 18 Nationality: English Position: Centre forward.

Like his namesake Bernie, this guy is all about speed. A striker with a keen eye for goal who made his name in the reserves with crucial strikes in the victorious FA Youth Cup runs. His promotion to the reserves has perhaps exposed a lack of strength, but that never stopped Owen at his age.

Another one who perhaps needs a loan move to a lower league club to develop a bit of grit and bulk about his game, the fact that he already has a squad number is quite some achievement by Rafa's reserves standards, and he could be one to make a surprise breakthrough next season.

4. Dean Bouzanis
Age: 18 Nationality: Greek/Australian Position: Goalkeeper

When Steven Gerrard was passing through the academy grounds one day a couple of years ago, he happened upon a tall young goalkeeper taking a trial with a view to signing for the club from Sydney FC. The story goes that Gerrard was so impressed with what he saw of the then 16 year old keeper that he gave him his mobile number and told him to call him if he needed anything during his stay.

Being a goalkeeper at Melwood is hard, if you're not the immovable Pepe Reina. Being a young goalkeeper at Liverpool is even harder - Reina is only 25 and could easily play at the top level for another 10 years or so.

Nevertheless the man currently leading the charge to oust Charles Itanje and Diego Cavalieri as Pepe's understudy is Bouzanis, who has a Greek mother but was born and raised in Australia. He has had to overcome several challenges in his rise up the pecking order at Melwood, and currently sits behind Hungarian stopper Peter Gulacsi as the reserves main keeper.

The two of them are both in a fairly lose-lose position for the moment, as a loan move allows someone else to show their form, as they did to David Martin who spent last season on loan at Leicester with Jack Hobbs, while if they stay the closest they can hope to get to the first team in the usual run of events is a bench place in the cup games. However, they are both just two injuries away from having their big chance.

5. Christopher Buchtmann
Age: 17 Nationality: German Position: Left back/midfield/wing

It would be easy to dismiss this arian kid as a jack of all trades, given that he plays in a variety of positions and never one for particularly long. However as Carragher would say, just because you can play a lot of positions doesn't mean you can't be a master of one (or more) and Buchtmann's strength, pace and ability with the ball mark him out as a definite one to watch.

He dazzled spectators and reporters in the recent Uefa U-17 Championships in his native Germany, where after the tournament he was named as one of Uefa's 5 'players to watch in the future' alongside Arsenal's Jack Wilshire.

6. Lauri Dalle Valle
Age: 17 Nationality: Finnish Position: Striker

Hyypia may have gone, but there is still a Finnish presence at Anfield, and if his reports are anything to go by, he might well be worthy of mention alongside compatriots Hyypia and Jari Litmanen.

Sometimes there just comes along a striker to whom putting the ball the goal is just the easiest thing in the world to do. In recent years the likes of Mellor, Linfield and Nemeth have failed to convert this ability at a higher level, but to Dalle Valle failure to do so would be quite astounding.

Perhaps his largest critisism is that, like such great poachers as Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Jimmy Greaves (no pressure by comparison!) he's largely useless outside the penalty area, which is something of a big no-no these days. However his talent is such that sorting that out shouldn't be much of a problem.

Looks like Mikel Forssel as well, which probably bodes well!

7. Alex Kacaniklic
Age: 17 Nationality: Swedish Position: Left wing

As a general rule, players who spend more than one year in the senior youth squad tend to have little hope of making the progression up to the reserves, though there are exceptions.

As such, the odds are something against Kacaniklic, but when you have his natural ability, such challenges are the bread and butter of making it to the top.

Speed, skill and crossing, those are usually the only three basic requirements to make it as a winger, and he has them in abundance. He has the challenges of the aforementioned Buchtmann and Paul Ince's son Thomas as challengers for his left wing berth, and if he manages to overcome them and break through, then surely his will be a career to keep an eye on.

8. Adam Pepper
Age: 17 Nationality: English Position: Midfield/Attack

When a player is given the title 'next Steven Gerrard', people tend to smile wryly and dismiss it as wishful thinking. When that player is a young scouser trying to break through Liverpool's academy system, obviously Liverpool fans are going to sit up and take notice.

In truth, the Gerrard comparison is loosely-based. He's a midfielder who can play in other positions, he's English and Scouser, he's a Liverpool fan and he's coming through Liverpool's academy. The similarities do end however. He's a little short and this is rumoured to be a worry for the coaches, and like Pacheco and Bruna he does a lot of work on bulking up.

I couldn't really write an article like this without mentioning Pepper, as mis-guided comparisons to Gerrard aside, he is still believed to be the best hope we have of seeing a Scouser in the side long-term if and when he breaks through - he turned down advances from Chelsea and United to sign his professional contract, so don't just take my word for it!

That's more or less a pick 'n' mix selection of the best players in Liverpool's reserves/youth team. There are others I've either mentioned only in passing or left out entirely, like Gulasci, Ayala, Nemeth, Mendy, Saric, little Ince and Duyan, but these are the ones currently with the highest profiles and best chances of getting in next

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009