Liverpool’s ‘Talent Group’ and a commitment to youth
Written by Simon Austin — August 25, 2023
ONCE a week at Liverpool's AXA Training Centre, the first-team dressing room becomes home to the club’s best 15 to 21-year-olds.
This is Liverpool’s ‘Talent Group’, which Assistant Pepijn Lijnders describes thus: “It is impossible for the manager to watch every youth game, so I thought okay, we bring the best of the Academy to him.
“We brought the best talents together in all the age groups to show him. We (the first team) train at four in the afternoon; at two o’clock is the Talent Group. They are already coming with us on pre-season and when the season starts they train here one time a week.”
Not only can Klopp then see these young players up close, but they can observe him too: how he talks, how he coaches and how he operates. And, perhaps most importantly of all, they also see how a first-team player carries and conducts himself.
“They can watch Mo Salah up close - the way he prepares himself in the physio room, the way he prepares himself before the session, how treats his boots, everything," Lijnders said. “All these small things, these unwritten things - for young players to learn from their models is so important.”
Providing a pathway for homegrown players remains absolutely key to Liverpool, despite a clamour for signings that seems to grow stronger every season.
Speaking on the eve of the season, the Dutchman told the TGG Podcast (which you can listen to below): “The Academy normally is a competitor for the scouting department. For example, when Jurgen has to decide to buy a right defender or go with the 17 or 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold. Who is he going to choose?
“When he doesn’t know the boy, when he only played in the 18s? You need balls, you need guts to put these young players in and that is what we want. We create a relationship and we create hope for all the others in the Academy.
"And that makes, I really believe, this inside pathway of the club. If that’s strong, if you produce your own players, they will never let you down, never. They will run through walls for you. I now see Conor Bradley, Luke Chambers, Calum (Scanlon), James McConnell, Ben Doak, Stefan Bajcetic last year.
"Stefan, play. He is good enough. Ben Doak? He is good enough, play.”
Lijnders said achieving a balance between young homegrown players and the experienced members of the first-team squad was key.
“When that balance is right, only growth is possible in your squad," the 40-year-old said. "You need young ones because they have fire in their bellies. They train each day as if their life depends on it, as if it’s their last session. That’s what you need - fire, fire, fire.
“We had the luck that our seniors - Milner, Hendo, Lallana, Gini, Mo, Sadio - they always really took care of the young ones and I think this is one of the reasons we were successful, this balance in the squad.”
Lijnders understands the workings of both the Academy and first team better than most, having originally joined Liverpool in 2014 as U16s Head Coach. That was quite some team.
“I had Trent Alexander-Arnold at six, Ben Woodburn at 10, Herbie Kane as the right midfielder, Yan Dhanda as the left winger, George Johnston, Conor Masterson and Coyley (Liam Coyle) as the back three," Lijnders remembered.
“It was a team with so much individual (talent) and I loved it. I was like, ‘Ok, three diamond three, we go all in, with a proper nine, a 10 and a six and Trent captain. I feel six and 10 are the positions that get stressed most in football. I always tried in the Academies to put my best players in these two positions.
“The player in front of the back three has a huge responsibility to clear counter attacks and each attack goes through him. The 10, in a similar way, for playing and pressing.”
Lijnders still works closely with Alexander-Arnold, of course, and admits he is “so so proud” of England international.
“It is cool we are still together in this club," the Dutchman admitted. "He gave a new dimension in right full back - the amount of assists he has and the way he interprets the position.
"Trent, I am so proud of him - his attitude, his passion, his unpredictability, his development as a leader."
"There are more players like him in the Academy, but not many have the same determination as him, and that makes him the best, in my opinion.
"The passion, the love for the club, for the game, for winning - he is just a superb guy and a lovely family as well. Through the 16s he just grew step by step by step. A wonderful guy and an incredible player.”
And Lijnders pointed out that Liverpool have been good at developing staff as well as players.
“If you can produce your own players, you can produce your own coaches,” he said. “Now we have Barry Lewtas for the U21s, he’s a top one, he will be with a lot of recognition for sure, he does an unbelievable job.
“Critch (Neil Critchley), Stevie (Gerrard), Scott Mason, Tim Jenkins. And then we have in our first team set up so many people - Dan Spearritt is one of our analysts, he is a top one. You need good analysts, they make the caching job a lot lot easier.
“That’s the good thing of Liverpool - this club is pure humble, this club has high values and we really try to treat people differently inside.”