With justification, Ajax are considered one of the best talent producing clubs in world football.
Footballing luminaries such as Johan Cruijff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder, among many others, have cut their footballing teeth in the Amsterdam club’s academy system.
But in Liverpool’s 1-0 Champions League victory over Ajax last Tuesday, it was the Merseyside club’s homegrown players who stood up and tilted the game in the favour of the Anfield team.
Caoimhin Kelleher, Curtis Jones and Neco Williams — all of whom whose talent’s were forged in the Reds’ underage teams — all started and trio had the biggest influence of proceedings; more so than their more experienced and illustrious teammates.
Kelleher, 22, making his first start at that level was imperious throughout, both in his passing and with making some vital saves. The Cork native’s distribution — off both his left and right foot — was excellent throughout as he set a record for successfully completed passes for a Jurgen Klopp goalkeeper in Europe with 21.
And when called upon in a traditional nuts and bolts goalkeeping sense, Kelleher made some crucial saves, most notably parrying Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s late header over the bar. The save wasn’t quite as impressive as Alisson Becker’s against Napoli in 2018, but the consequences were similar; both sealed Liverpool’s passage from the group stage to the last sixteen as group winners.
Williams, meanwhile, coped admirably with the threat of David Neres throughout and also provided the assist for Jones to win the game near the hour mark. The Welsh international has found himself in a run of sticky form — the full-back rashly gave away a penalty against Brighton last weekend, for example — but he responded in a strong manner with a solid outing.
Klopp confirmed in his post-match press conference that he and his backroom team had a chat with Williams in the week before the game and that he felt the 19-year-old had “much more in his locker”. Based on his performance, it appears that his manager’s words struck a chord with the winger-turned defender.
Jones, not just from the academy players in the team but out of all the players on the pitch, was the star of the show. On the ball, the young Scouser was typically progressive and ambitious. Aside from his goal, the 19-year-old struck the post with a shot that had Andre Onana beaten all ends up and looked to influence the game with his passing and dribbling talents at every opportunity.
Defensively, too, Jones is beginning to look more in sync with what Klopp demands from his midfielders. He won the joint-most aerial duels on the night, five, and also — exhibiting a high degree of tactical intelligence for a player of his tender years — dropped back into defensive midfield to fill gaps when his team-mates pushed forward in attack.
In total, the number 17 recorded the most shots, four, the most shots on target, two, and had the joint-most take on’s completed, two. Additionally, in the defensive phase of the game, Jones made two clearances and completed one interception.
It was a wondrous performance from the former U18’s captain, but — given his more often than not brilliant form he has shown throughout this campaign — it was not at all surprising, which is an indicator of the standards the midfielder has set for himself and the esteem in which the Reds’ faithful hold him in.
To shore up the game late on, Rhys Williams — another academy novice — replaced Mohamed Salah. The centre half wasn’t particularly busy, given he joined the action in the 88th minute, but the experience should prove beneficial to him as he looks to continue his development as a footballer.
In the short term, the win over Ajax was a major plus for Liverpool; but, going forward, long term, with so many young players crucial to the victory, it could prove even more important.