Kenny reminds Reds players of all ages they have to earn their shirt
SOMEONE close to Raheem Sterling seems to be pushing for him to get a move out of Anfield and back to London – but that person might just be messing up the player’s hopes of developing into the kind of player he was showing the potential to be. There is a world of difference between the reserve league and the first team and clubs have got to be careful about how they manage the transition for each youngster.
Fourth might well be out of reach for Liverpool but Kenny Dalglish says he still wants his side to battle for every point. Kenny wouldn’t, publicly at least, give up on fourth until it was mathematically out of reach and always avoids giving the kind of answers the reporters want when asked if a game is a “must win” or if a defeat means “season over”. But it is out of reach now, in real terms, and that has led to calls for the boss to blood some youngsters.
Liverpool’s injury problems seem to be starting to mount now – Charlie Adam could be out for the season, alongside Lucas Leiva, with Craig Bellamy, Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger definite absentees for today’s visit of Wigan and Martin Kelly a doubt. Injury problems can often force a manager’s hand when it comes to trying out the youngsters – it’s either that or play a more experienced man out of position. But injury problems can also make it more difficult for a manager to consider risking a youngster, particularly if that youngster plays where someone more experienced is already available.
If Liverpool were about to go into a period of experimentation and everybody was fit the priorities might be to give some playing time to those players already close to being first team players. Sebastian Coates is one example of a player definitely considered part of Liverpool’s future who is still some way from forcing his way into the side on a regular basis. The more games he plays between now and the end of the season the easier it will be to assess his abilities where it matters – in that Liverpool shirt – and that also gives him much-needed experience. He was brought on for Kelly on Wednesday after the full-back was injured, a choice that will have been more than a little disappoint for Jon Flanagan, the right-back amongst the subs that night.
Perhaps Flanagan should get a start today – assuming Kelly is still injured – leaving Kenny to then decide who gets Agger’s place in the centre of defence. If Liverpool are experimenting then Coates should get that place, but that would represent quite a risk in that two of the back four would be relatively inexperienced in the Premier League at a time when a third one, Jose Enrique, isn’t in the best form of his Liverpool career. Wigan’s form in front of goal of late means that the risk is lessened – but sod’s law likes that kind of thinking.
The more experimentation that goes on at the back the more difficult it is to experiment where necessity isn’t calling for it elsewhere. In some ways Suarez and Carroll up front is an experimental front line given the few occasions they’ve lined up together and unless one of them is definitely leaving in the summer it’s long overdue for them to get some time to form a decent partnership that could be put to good use next season.
In the centre of midfield Liverpool’s options are starting to look limited but perhaps now is the time to give Jordan Henderson a run in the kind of role he’s more suited to, a more central role rather than out wide on the right. Stewart Downing has taken his time to settle in at Anfield but has shown a lot more of what Liverpool expect from him in recent games – for his sake it would be better for him to get a run in the side now his confidence is back – but Kenny will be more concerned with what is better for Liverpool’s sake.
That’s where Sterling’s family, friend or advisors – whoever it was – have miscalculated their decision to go to the press with gripes about him not getting a chance in the first team. Kenny watches most of the games at the Academy and of course has good links with the coaches working there. If Sterling is ready for the first team Kenny will know he is. If Sterling is ready to be considered for the first team Kenny will know he is. Armed with that knowledge he’ll put Sterling on the bench at what he thinks is the right time and on the pitch when he thinks it’s the right time.
The stuff that went into the press didn’t include any quotes but papers rarely go into that kind of detail without a conversation having taken place. What went in the Mirror this week was basically a confirmation of what went in another paper just before the NextGen semi-final against Ajax. How much poetic licence the journalist added to whatever he’d been told is open to debate, but the language was emotive to say the least.
“Liverpool are facing a fight to keep wonderkid Raheem Sterling as Kenny Dalglish continues to ignore calls for the teenager to be handed a first-team role,” it began. And, interestingly, “Tottenham plan to pounce on the uncertainty… with a shock summer move.”
And the customary “sources close to the forward” reckoned he was “struggling to settle in Merseyside and is now said to be considering his future.”
Spurs may well be interested in the player (their name cropped up in the reports this week too) but there’s a lot of naivety on show from the unnamed source: “The source also added that Liverpool have broken promises made to Sterling over his level of first-team involvement this season. However, he is still to make his full debut despite being told he would be given chances.” It’s highly unlikely that Spurs would be any different to Liverpool when it comes to that kind of promise – any chances will depend on the state of the first team but, importantly, the form of the player in the reserves or youth team.
Dalglish was asked about the speculation yesterday and sent out a message to this source close to the player: “Whether someone is 17 or 27, it doesn’t make any difference, whether you want to be involved doesn’t mean to say you should be involved. You have to deserve to be involved.”
Blabbing to the press – directly or indirectly – probably knocks a couple of points off your score when it comes to saying how much you deserve your chance and if Sterling was close to some involvement he might just find these reports have moved him further away from that. While Kenny will be glad that a player is desperate to play for the first team he’ll not be happy at the idea he thinks he knows better than the coaching staff.
“The deserving bit is the most important thing,” said Kenny, “and we will decide if anyone deserves to be involved, not anybody else. You earn the right to a run out by what you do on the pitch, not by what’s said in newspapers.”
As far as Kenny is concerned Sterling isn’t the only talent the Academy has and he dropped a hint that call-ups could be forthcoming if injuries continue to occur the way they have so far: “Raheem has progressed the same as a lot of young players have progressed and that’s testimony to the people at the Academy as well as the individuals. Our circumstances might dictate they have to be involved.”
Last season Jack Robinson and Jon Flanagan figured as injuries took their toll towards the end of the season: “We had Robbo and Flanno come through last year and then there’s Jonjo [Shelvey] and Kells [Martin Kelly] as well. Their development has happened because they were looked after.”
Shelvey was out on loan until Lucas got injured and although he has rarely figured since he’s been on the sidelines ready to step in should injuries continue. Today may see him get a chance.
The injuries mean Liverpool have been reluctant to send players out on loan that they may need to call on for the first team: “If we were in a better position we would maybe have allowed a few of the boys to go out on loan somewhere, but we’re not in a position like that because we don’t have the players available to cover for them to go out on loan.”
Kenny knows that there’s more to first-team experience than getting on the pitch and recognises the value of sending youngsters elsewhere to be part of a senior set-up: “That would have been part of their development and part of the progress for us to have them back as good professional footballers. They had to stay here because of the position we are in with injuries. We hope it doesn’t stunt their development.”
The underlying condition for a player getting on that pitch in Liverpool’s first team is that it’s for the good of the club, in the long-term or short-term: “If it’s right for someone to play and they deserve to play then they will have a game but only if it’s right for us. There comes a time when you have to take the nappies off them and see if they have got it.”
Wigan are battling for survival and are likely to be missing striker Hugo Rodallega with a knee injury. Midfielder David Jones and keeper Mike Pollitt are definitely out. With Wigan determined to avoid the drop and Liverpool’s league season all but over this could be another embarrassing day for the Reds, at least where pride’s concerned.
A draw today would be the fourth in a row between the two sides, Liverpool’s last victory coming in Rafa Benítez’s last season at Anfield. Wigan have never won at Anfield in the Premier League, losing four and drawing two of their six visits. That means nothing once the whistle goes for kick-off, although it will be weighing heavily on the minds of the Reds that they’ve lost four of their last five league games, winning only two of their last ten. Wigan have only won one of their last 14 league matches but they have won more games away than at home.
It’s scoring goals that has been Liverpool’s problem this season, their defensive record at home is second only to Manchester City (10 conceded by Liverpool, seven by Manchester City). That’s thanks in a great part to Pepe Reina who will make his 250th league appearance for the Reds today. If Steven Gerrard finds the net it would be his 150th goal in all competitions for Liverpool.
Whatever team Kenny picks, he’ll pick it for the good of the club. For the good of the players he chooses they might want to put in the performance of their lives.