Liverpool ended the game against Arsenal with just one first team defender playing – and you could even argue that Martin Skrtel would not play in a fully fit Liverpool back line. Despite this, it took Arsenal an incredible 98 minutes to break Liverpool down, and they still did not secure the victory. Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing featured in midfield, with two teenage fullbacks. It was a Liverpool side that featured no hallmarks of Rafael Benitez’s side, and yet his legacy was shining through.
Another in a long line of injuries to Fabio Aurelio meant Kenny Dalglish was forced to thrust Jack Robinson onto the Emirates pitch, up against Theo Walcott. Arsenal, somewhat obviously, decided to have a go against the young Liverpool fullback pair (Robinson had the grand total of 3 minutes playing time with the 90 minute veteran John Flanagan on the other side), and ensured that Walcott was well supplied. It was a testament to the resilient and unfazed approach that Robinson took when Walcott, who has enjoyed a phenomenal season, was taken off with half an hour remaining. Timely interventions and astute positioning denied Arsenal any opportunities down the left. It was a similarly excellent performance from Flanagan, who after defending stoutly against City put in another terrific shift against Samir Nasri, as the Player of the Year nominee had a poor game. Both developed as a result of the Academy infrastructure that Benitez put in place.
Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey were deployed in midfield for Liverpool, Shelvey coming on after Andy Carroll’s injury in the 70th minute and Spearing starting the game. A naive tackle to concede a late penalty took the gloss off what had been a potential Man of the Match performance from Spearing, to follow on from prominent displays against Sunderland and Manchester City. He never stopped running and was dogged throughout. Spearing was amongst the first batch of youngsters that Rafa’s plans produced, along with Jack Hobbs (excelling for Leicester City) and Stephen Darby (still on the LFC books, out on loan). Shelvey was signed by Rafa in April 2010, after becoming a sensation at Charlton, as well as for the England youth teams. He has showed potential this season, with his long passing range and tenacious tackling standing out.
Further down the youth spectrum, Dani Pacheco has yet to feature heavily for Liverpool, and it is anyone’s guess why. Poached from Barcelona as a teenager, he was the top scorer for Spain in the U-20 World Cup as the Spaniards reached the final. Though he is capable of scoring regularly, his true position is that of the trequartista, where he excels in sliding passes through for the strikers and unlocking defences. Martin Kelly started a long run of games for Liverpool after Dalglish’s appointment, displacing England right back Glen Johnson and forcing him to play down the other flank. Brilliant performances against Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea culminated in him being named the Liverpoolfc.tv Player of the Month for February, and rumours of an England call-up began surfacing before an injury.
Suso and Raheem Sterling boss the Liverpool reserves. Suso has showcased his (perhaps innate) Spanish flair for dribbling and passing (Rafa thought he was the best player he had ever seen at his age), and Sterling has proved too good for opposition defences with speed, dribbling skills and lethal finishing. He scored 5 in a 9-0 win over Southend, and both of them along with Andre Wisdom are being touted as potential future first-teamers, having dominated the reserve league.
Conor Coady has been called the best player in his age group in England, playing in central midfield and captaining both England and Liverpool, displaying all the attributes that his predecessor Steven Gerrard did. Adam Morgan has scored in 13 successive games in the U-18 age group (including one for the reserves, and the streak is still going), and Toni Silva has assisted him with a direct, attacking style of play from the wing. Silva scored a double and Morgan netted as Liverpool U-18s beat Manchester United U-18s 6-0, even without their captain Coady playing. Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, ex-Barcelona coaches (having coached the likes of Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, Bojan, Pedro) were tempted by Benitez to come to Liverpool, and it is paying dividends.
Benitez is eccentric, to say the least. He is also not infallible, and his tactical skills did not compensate for his poor man management. He definitely alienated some of his players. But he was brave. Where so-called stalwarts like Gerrard and Carragher dared not to go, Rafa did. Rafa opposed the senseless owners, when the club captain and ‘hero’ kept his mouth shut. Evans and Houllier neglected the Academy in pursuit of trophies, but Rafa believed in them. The Liverpool youth did brilliantly while he was at the club, winning two FA Youth Cups, reaching the final of a third, winning the national reserve league. Kenny will now manage them as they continue breaking through into the first team and leading Liverpool into a new era of success. It is an injustice that Rafa is not guiding them, and never should his name be disparaged on the account of one bad season. A historic and unlikely Champions League as well as an FA Cup mean he will never be forgotten, but it is the developing youth who Rafa should get the credit for.