Written by Ben Kelly – @bkelly776
“Who is…Leighton Clarkson?”
…Was the question collectively asked by most people looking at Liverpool’s bench for the game vs Leicester last night.
I’m sure the Foxes and Brendan Rodgers would’ve fancied themselves. Not only were they coming to Anfield following their best start to a league campaign ever (including the title winning 15/16 season), the main story heading into the game was Liverpool’s injury issues. Virgil, Trent, Mo, Joe & Jordan. All out.
What transpired however, was the result of a masterclass in philosophy and gradual integration from Jurgen Klopp. Not only over the last few months, but actually over the last couple of seasons. Liverpool were comfortable 3-0 winners last night. Leicester didn’t lay a glove on us.
You see, the XI that Liverpool fielded last night was certainly good enough to beat Leicester. It was weakened by the injuries, of course, but at the end of the day, not a single player in that team was playing in a position they were unfamiliar with in that first team. It was a combination of players we haven’t seen before, but it was nothing new to anyone.
And why is this? As I said before, it is the result of a marvellous effort from Klopp and his coaching staff to instil the same philosophy at all levels of Liverpool Football Club, that has been taking place probably ever since he arrived. It’s gone under the radar slightly, but this type of injury crisis has been something that has been planned and prepared for over the years.
Leighton Clarkson is the latest in a long line of young players to get into a Premier League match day squad over the last few months. In this case, was it probably down to the injuries? I’d say so. But, the point is that if Liverpool had needed to put Clarkson on the pitch last night, he would’ve known exactly what was expected of him, and exactly how to slot right into the team. How so? Well, because he’s been coached the same system from several levels below the first team at the club. The U18s, the U23s, they’re all coached the same way, with the same ideas. The ideas are moulded and tweaked to suit the individual teams, but the foundations are the same. The result? The kids know exactly what Klopp/Ljinders are talking about when they make the step up.
It’s not just the coaching at the lower levels too, it’s also the opportunities that have already been afforded to a lot of these players. The inclusion of Clarkson is another direct benefit of Klopp sending the kids to play those Villa/Shrewsbury games last season. Leighton has already represented Liverpool at a first team level. In front of full stadiums of paying fans. It doesn’t matter who was in charge of the team that day, representing Liverpool is what matters.
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There are obviously better examples than Clarkson. I’d say the main one is Curtis Jones. We first saw Jones in the Wolves FA Cup game in January 2019. We went out of the competition that night, but we saw flashes of what he was made of. Since then, it’s fair to say that he’s grabbed his opportunities and now we barely bat an eye when the kid is included in a starting line-up in these circumstances. He’s 19 years old.
Another one is Neco Williams. Coming on as sub last night when Naby got injured. Not an issue. Yes, we’d all prefer Trent to be fit, but we’re now seeing the benefit of the minutes Klopp has already handed to Neco. It’s not a problem when he comes onto the pitch. I would guess that over the next few weeks, we’ll all start feeling the same way about Nat Phillips. After his performance against West Ham, I have no qualms about seeing him featured again.
It’s been reported several times that Klopp is working on a bigger picture at Liverpool. He wants to leave something behind when he eventually leaves, a dynasty that will prop the club up for success for years to come after he’s gone. What he has going on here is a big step towards doing just that. Once you have everyone at the club singing from the same hymn sheet, from the very top right the way downwards, you’re setting yourselves up for huge success at all levels.
It’s also a very difficult thing to achieve. I don’t think any of this is by accident and I think it’s a very underrated aspect of Klopp’s tenure at the club. He wouldn’t have been able to do this by himself. I’m sure Zeljko Buvac, Pep Ljinders and who knows how many other members of the coaching staff throughout the club and academy have had a hand in this. And, this will only be strengthened by the opening of the new training centre in Kirkby. I’ve discussed before about what a powerful tool motivation will become for those younger kids training at the academy. When they can see their heroes training on another pitch not so far away from them. It breeds a unified mentality that will be consistent right the way through the age groups.
So, when Jurgen Klopp eventually leaves, and we’re still winning league titles in 2028/29, with lads who are in our academy now, know that it was because of the foundation laid by Klopp, and the regime he left behind. It won’t be widely talked about by people outside of Liverpool, but the future is looking very bright.
Written by Ben Kelly – @bkelly776