A number of young players have left Liverpool on loan this season but do they have a long-term future at the club?
Not since the late ’90s, when the likes of Robbie Fowler, Steve McMannaman, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard came through the ranks at Liverpool, has the club’s academy been in a better position. This position is evident from the progression of Trent Alexander-Arnold, who made the step up to the first-team two seasons ago and hasn’t looked back since. The 19-year-old was a star during Liverpool’s successful campaign last season, making 33 appearances, and was rewarded for his form with a spot in England’s World Cup squad.
Alexander-Arnold’s meteoric rise is testament to the hard work which has gone on behind the scenes to improve the academy in recent years and will have given hope to a number of promising youngsters to succeed. Included among those is Rhian Brewster, who recently signed his first professional contract with the club, and Curtis Jones, who has been a revelation during the preseason. Both youngsters are highly rated by manager Jurgen Klopp and expected to have a big future at Liverpool.
Another who is touted to be a star of tomorrow is Ben Woodburn. The 18-year-old is already a full Welsh international and is seen by many to be Liverpool’s brightest prospect. However, despite making his debut back in 2016, his progression into the first team hasn’t been quite as seamless as Alexander-Arnold’s and just last week he completed a season-long loan deal to Championship side Sheffield United.
Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer isn’t the only player who has left on a temporary deal. No fewer than eight players have been loaned out this season and the number will have grown by the time the transfer window closes. Woodburn’s international teammate Harry Wilson joined Derby while the likes of Ryan Kent and Ovie Ejaria followed Steven Gerrard to Rangers.
There was a general consensus among the Liverpool fanbase that Woodburn’s loan was a good move. He managed just 11 minutes with the first team last season and many fans believe he will benefit from more regular first team action. This same sentiment is shared for a number of the young players loaned out, whose Liverpool careers have stalled of late despite their undoubted talent.
The loaning out of players en masse is hardly a new phenomenon for Liverpool. Over the course of the last 10 seasons, starting with the 2009-10 campaign, no fewer than 75 different players have been loaned out across 147 loan deals (not including the deals of this season). This amounts to an average just shy of two loan spells per player and seven loans per season.
Of those 75 players, 42 joined the club’s academy on or before their 18th birthday and are considered youth players for purposes of this article. While a number of senior players have also been shipped out on temporary deals over the last decade, loans are generally used as a way to afford young players the opportunity of regular first-team soccer with the view to integrate them into the senior squad at a later stage.
The question that follows is whether the experience received on loan translates to future successes with Liverpool. There are extraneous factors to consider in this regard, such as the quality of the individual player, the level of competition in the Premier League, work-permit issues and even pure chance. Black and white statistics would indicate that more often than not, players simply don’t succeed at Liverpool after being sent out on loan.
Following their various loan spells, the aforementioned youth players returned to Liverpool to make a combined total of exactly 150 post-loan appearance before making permanent departures; an average of 3.6 post-loan appearances per player. This number decreases drastically if you remove Jordon Ibe and Jay Spearing from the equation. The duo account for more than two-thirds of the appearances by youth players and without them the average drops to an alarming 1.2 post-loan appearances per youth player.
The low number of youth players who successfully make the leap from academy to first team via a loan isn’t unique to Liverpool, however. Managers have a limited time to achieve success which means more attention and trust is given to ready-made players rather than youth prospects. The 2017-18 report compiled by the CIES Football Observatory confirms that clubs place a higher reliance on developed players than those from their academies
Of Liverpool’s top six rivals, Tottenham boast the best success rate from loan spells over the past 10 years, with Danny Rose and Harry Kane the obvious examples of players who leveraged loan spells into roles with the first team. Players like Andros Townsend and Ryan Mason also made it to the senior team after spells on loan, before eventually leaving permanently. The success rate is still few and far between.
Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind? And if so, is there perhaps an argument to be made that players are better suited staying put? By remaining, youth players risk forfeiting potentially valuable game time but have a greater chance of impressing their first team coaches by training under them on a weekly basis. The successes of Alexander-Arnold and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford indicate this may be the case, but it can’t be forgotten the pair are unique players with the potential to be generational greats.
The reality is that the data favors neither a developmental approach nor a loan approach. In both instances, the odds are stacked heavily against youth players making it at the highest level. Liverpool are one of the biggest clubs in world soccer and the demands for success are enormous. Woodburn, Wilson & co. could well have a future at the club but they’ll need to do something special on loan to buck the trend.