A Season of Transformation and Challenge
Despite many of the Liverpool fanbase grimacing whenever it is long-term suggested that squad replenishment be undertaken from within, it is hard to argue against the recent rise of young players under the LFC umbrella. Throughout the era of Liverpool’s great German manager, Jürgen Klopp, Trent Alexander stands alone as the one player who has risen more than any other. Though he was on the fringes of the first-team squad when Brendan Rodgers was in charge (and failing), it was the former Borussia Dortmund manager who thrust that promising youngster into the first team, thereby displacing the more senior Nathanial Clyne at right back. That promising youngster is now regarded as one of the world’s finest talents, however, if a leap of faith had not been taken on that slight, yet gifted teenager, football may have lost one of its modern-day greats.
Regarding the academy and younger recruits that have emerged since Curtis Jones is also a graduate star who is now fully immersed in the first-team elite. Harvey Elliott and Stefan Bajčetić were recruited as teenagers (from other clubs) and have already made strong impacts on the senior side. Caoimhin Kelleher is a long-standing servant who has undertaken his duties diligently, all whilst backing up the world’s greatest goalkeeper. In terms of what comes next for the 25-year-old stopper, the EFL Cup-winning hero of 2022 will likely leave in the summer, with a good reputation that should allow him a desirable next destination.
What Has Changed the Mindset So Much This Season?
Ultimately, the tired and lacklustre performances of those that have now left, seemed to take its toll on the manager. The excitable and charismatic demeanour seemed to disappear last season, as disillusionment combined with ignorance, made a loyal friend and boss unsure of himself and his world-class coaching abilities.
Squad Regeneration and the Emergence of New Stars
The Saudi Pro League then allowed a means of creating change, as the likes of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were sold for substantial fees, something that also altered the leadership dynamic for the better. The fragile and untrustworthy bodies of Naby Keïta, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, and Roberto Firmino, were allowed to leave without the hint of a contract extension, as a clearing of the decks enabled room for others to reshape the wounded group.
The Unexpected Rise of Jarell Quansah and Others
The regeneration and failure of others, allowed the true emergence of Curtis Jones and Stefan Bajčetić last season, something that must have excited the management team into drafting in more youngsters from the academy. After the summer of change at an end, Jarell Quansah surpassed the expectations of everyone involved with the club, by providing a truly sensational first season in the senior ranks. Though I was aware of the name from years previous, I placed very little credence on the potential of the young man. Though the Warrington-born asset indeed looked the physical part (in preseason pictures), everyone assumed another loan would be incoming for the 6ft 3inch defender.
We were wrong.
Fortunately for us all, nobody bothered to tell the former Bristol Rovers loanee that he was already being overlooked, as he went about his business and took every opportunity given to him. After the season-ending ACL injury sustained by Joël Matip, his 20-year-old teammate merely saw the chance to take one more step up the defensive ladder, which now sees him as the 3rd or 4th choice centre back in an elite footballing club. It is fair to say that Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konaté are the undisputed first-choice pairing, yet with Joe Gomez and Jarell Quansah backing them up, I am more than comfortable with the current group, at least until the summer. This moment of a mild injury crisis has shorn the squad of all senior left backs, yet with Nat Phillips returning to bolster the ranks, the Swiss Army knife talents of Joe Gomez are covering the depleted bases right now.
Despite the progressive injury list adding Kostas Tsimikas to Andy Robertson and Joël Matip, an internal decision was made to entrust more youth into the Merseyside mix. I would imagine this choice was made a bit easier, given the success as outlined above. Owen Beck had been enjoying a terrific half-season loan spell with Dundee in the Scottish Premier League, which was ended to allow his winter integration into the Liverpool squad. The injury-affected moment has called for a slightly more senior fullback, therefore Beck’s return and likely starting role in some upcoming games has allowed Luke Chambers to head out on loan to Wigan Athletic. It would have been more aesthetically pleasing for the fanbase, to have seen the recruitment team spend £40-£50m on Gonçalo Inácio, yet the logic in giving another chance to get another promising graduate is there for all to see.
How Has the Emergence of Conor Bradley Arisen?
It is the right-sided full back role that has suddenly been impacted, due to the unnerving knee injury that will keep Trent Alexander Arnold out until February. At any point in the last two weeks, the Reds recruitment team could have unearthed and signed a defensive piece to cover the defensive issues at hand. Both Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak were once signed by the club due to a previous crisis, with the latter coming in on a short-term loan. Neither of those players fully remedied the defensive woes of the 2020/21 campaign, which eventually saw two in-house players slotted into the team. Despite the limitations of both Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, the combination of their desire and knowledge of the club meant they were able to weather the storm of that season, one which ended with an unlikely 3rd placed finish and Champions League qualification. I sense that experience and the emergence of the players who are now prominent in the current squad have encouraged the Red’s 56-year-old head coach to draft from the under-age squad once more.
Conor Bradley is a Northern Irish-born fullback, who was identified and signed from the semi-professional outfit, Dungannon Swifts F.C, in 2016. After excelling in the Liverpool ranks, a very successful loan spell was undertaken at Bolton Wanderers, in the 2022/23 season. The end of that loan did not lead to another, which indicated a want to keep the tenacious defender close by. That decision has now been proved correct, especially after two very good displays against Arsenal and then Fulham. The Anfield Index has produced some brilliant statistics from his game on Wednesday evening (see the link), as that EFL Cup semifinal acted as a launchpad for the 20-year-old. Where many may have fluffed their lines and struggled against such an experienced and able campaigner, as Willian, Conor Bradley merely carried out all his work with distinction and maybe created a pathway for the future.
Though it is too early to confidently predict the ceiling of this young fullback, an energetic and ultra-talented defender may be just what is needed for the long term. The hybrid initiative is an ongoing endeavour, that will eventually see the vice-captain take up permanent residence in the midfield. I would desire to see a 4-2-3-1 system deployed from next season, which would place Joe Gomez as the starting right back and Trent into a double pivot. A new central defender would also then be needed. In that tantalising situation, a young and ambitious backup role could be placed in the hands of Bradley, with Owen Beck offering similar depth on the other side. Suddenly, a new and fresh identity could be blended with the elite-level senior players and together they could push each other to new heights.
The closing weeks of January are an important part of how the next summer of change reignites. There is still much to be done, yet some steps would be made easier if previous issues simply solved themselves. Conor Bradley is not a Trent Alexander Arnold alternative or even the same version of what the England star brings. What he can become, is the long-term replacement in a position that is vacated and thus up for grabs. Many young hands have been searching for their way into Liverpool v2.0, which I think may have found one more candidate for success.
📊 Credit to Conor Bradley he did really well tonight.
Cannot fault him at all – put in an excellent… pic.twitter.com/RLyljdqyuX
— AnfieldIndex (@AnfieldIndex) January 10, 2024
Jarell Quansah is still only 20!
11th start for Liverpool #LFC
Arguably his toughest test and he stood up to again superbly 👏👏
An outstanding LFC Academy graduate #academy
💪4 clean sheets and 9 wins in those 11 starts #Quansah pic.twitter.com/6td8r3eYcz
— Neil Mellor (@NeilMellor33) January 8, 2024