When Liverpool face Manchester United at Anfield on Monday, nobody will be in any doubt which is the better team. The inevitable combined XIs will be a source of humour for one side and frustration for the other. How has it come to this? United have spent money only to go backwards. Even now, they have the bigger wage bill.
Liverpool look formidable. A team with no obvious weakness. Technically excellent. Physically robust. Mentally strong. Jurgen Klopp deserves huge credit for the vision, skill and man-management that has taken Liverpool to the top but it would be a mistake to think that this is just happy coincidence. A tale of gems unearthed. A team that simply struck gold.
Liverpool’s success is one of strategy too and the clearest evidence of that is in the age profile of the team, providing Klopp with a key advantage over his rivals that should not be overlooked. It is not just that Liverpool have better players, it’s that they have better players right now. A team of players who are each operating at close to the peak of their powers.
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The average age of this Liverpool team is 27 but that only tells part of the story. Such an average could be the result of a team packed with teenagers and thirty-somethings or a group of players in their prime.
In Liverpool’s case, it is unmistakably the latter.
Liverpool peaking at the right time
Ten players have played 1000 Premier League minutes or more for Liverpool this season and captain Jordan Henderson is the oldest among them at 29. Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Scouser in the team, is the baby at just 21 but the next youngest is Andrew Robertson at 25.
As a result, 73 per cent of all the minutes played by Liverpool players this season have been played by players aged between 25 and 29. That is a huge number, much more than any of their rivals. At Arsenal, for example, the figure is as low as just 25 per cent. When Graeme Souness talks of a team full of men, it might seem old fashioned but it still matters.
Liverpool’s squad building is no fluke. It is by design. A product of the recruitment strategy under Michael Edwards. The club has prioritised the need to sign players within the right age bracket. Liverpool have not spent their money on teenage punts or players on the wrong trajectory. By signing players who are about to peak, they are seeing their best years.
Consider the line-up that won the Champions League for Liverpool. With the exception of Alexander-Arnold, an academy graduate, and Henderson, the club’s longest-serving player who was bought by the previous regime aged just 20, each of the other nine players were signed between the ages of 23 and 26. The perfect age to make an instant impact but improve too.
The contrast with United during their descent is marked and much of it can be put down to mistakes. Recruitment has focused on big fees for young players and bigger wages for older ones. Henrikh Mkhitaryan cost £38m at the age of 27, while £40m was spent on Nemanja Matic at 28. Alexis Sanchez was made the Premier League’s highest-paid player at 29.
These errors prompted a shift in approach. In the summer, Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were both brought in as 21-year-old prospects. This was seen as a sea change but the squad also includes Anthony Martial, who became the world’s most expensive teenager in 2015 – breaking a record the club had set when signing Luke Shaw the previous year.
The challenge of finding players the right age
It should be no surprise when signing players so far away from their prime that consistency can be an issue. The problem with signing young prospects to play alongside those who are past the peak is that the former represents a gamble on potential and the latter is short-termism. The consequence is a team with too few operating at their maximum.
It is a problem being experienced by other big clubs currently in transition too. The Arsenal team for Mikel Arteta’s first game in charge against Bournemouth included a trio of youth-team graduates in Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as well as a quartet of players who are the wrong side of 30. Liverpool don’t have that many on their staff.
Chelsea involved five former academy players in their recent win over Arsenal in Arteta’s second game. Frank Lampard has been widely praised this season following a series of impressive results although that praise has come with a caveat. Wins have often been followed by frustrating defeats but this lack of consistency is inevitable with young players.
Only Liverpool have been able to deliver week in and week out and this is because they have been building towards this for years. Now they are reaping the rewards. The challenge, of course, is to stay on top rather than face a situation where the team is allowed to grow old together. That is the fate that befell Liverpool’s last title winners some 30 years ago.
Back then, Ian Rush, Steve McMahon, Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol and Ray Houghton were all 28. Peter Beardsley was 29, while Alan Hansen and Bruce Grobbelaar were considerably older. Liverpool were well aware of the need for a refresh but they got the rebuild wrong.
They signed several players who were just as old and others such as Don Hutchison and Jamie Redknapp who were still teenagers. Even when bolstered by the emergence of Steve McManaman from within the club’s academy, Liverpool were left with a squad that included hardly any players of the right age. With hindsight, the subsequent slump was inevitable.
The signs this time are more encouraging. January signing Takumi Minamino, a 24-year-old Japan international, is neither an unproven youngster nor someone whose career is on the down slope. Instead, he is a player with something to prove who is about to embark upon the best years of his career. With signings like this, the success can be sustained.
Ultimately, Liverpool’s rise owes much to the quality of the players and the coaching of Klopp. The right players are essential, of course. Knowing where to look is important. But the biggest thing that separates Liverpool from so many of their rivals is that they know what they are looking for too. It has got them to the top. It might just keep them there.
This article was originally published by Sky Sports and reproduced with permission.