With Liverpool completing four moves already in the transfer market with a view to more, it means that their squad is now being bolstered significantly and looking more capable of competing at the top level. However this boost in competition is not just coming from the new arrivals; the young players who Rodgers was initially reliant upon last season just to ‘fill the gaps’, are now trying to establish themselves as genuine contenders for a starting spot, which presents the manager with a welcome selection headache. Of last seasons young hopefuls, Jonjo Shelvey has now been moved onto Swansea, a club where he can thrive and develop within a similar philosophy, but without the added pressures of the top 4 tussle. Raheem Sterling will be staying to fight for his place in the team after a promising start and his first England cap, while Andre Wisdom may be sent out on loan to Fulham (this will be very dependent on how Martin Kelly’s pre-season progresses, as he makes his comeback from injury in a weeks time in a friendly against Preston North End).
Liverpool’s other bright spark – Suso, is now 19 and at a very important stage in his Liverpool career. He recently spoke of his delight looking back on the 2012/13 season, where he made 8 starts and 6 appearances from the bench, totaling 602 minutes of playing time (primarily in the first half of the season). He also stated his desire not to be sent out on loan, opposing the common move for most of Liverpool’s youngsters around the ages of 18-21, saying he would prefer to build on his promising start.
Next year I’ll probably stay at Liverpool. I know there are quite a few offers but I will not go. I’m happy at Liverpool.
However Suso now finds himself pushing into a very long queue at Melwood, his appearances came at a time when the squad was stretched thin, and now that the depth has increased, so will the intensity of competition for places. He does seem to have put himself in a good position for selection by demonstrating he is capable in three different positions for club and country, but could this versatility perhaps be a hindrance? It will certainly help him get onto the pitch, but on the other hand it could prove to be a disadvantage for Suso and his development if he is happy to settle for a different position each week (not unlike Jordan Henderson being moved around in his first season).
[On Raheem Sterling’s future] To be a regular player here, at this level, you have to score goals and create goals. You know, I don’t want nice players, I want efficient players, players who when you look at the numbers… (it’s there for all to see). So if you play 40 odd games a season and you score one goal and create two goals you’re never going to play.
With this quote from Brendan Rodgers in mind, Suso’s more important statistics make for difficult viewing (0 goals, 0 assists from 602 minutes, and 0 clear-cut chances created), however Rodgers has also talked about importance of the fact that Suso and Sterling have just been finding their feet, adjusting to performing on the big stage. Looking past the statistics Suso has looked a natural wherever he has played, showing intelligence with and without the ball, playing confidently and skillfully at speed and even drawing comparisons to David Silva. So the question now for Suso and Brendan Rodgers is not only should he play, but where should he play?
Rodgers could continue to use him on the right side (a position where he could take a bit more time to adjust), if he was used as the central attacking midfielder he would need to produce instant results, with Phillipe Coutinho and Luis Alberto also prepared to make that spot their own (if Suarez were to stay he would also contend to play behind Sturridge). The final option would be to drop Suso deeper to play the ‘second’ of the three in midfield, where he can pull the strings and try to dictate the game (in this scenario he would face stiff competition from Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard, and would probably only feature in the two domestic cups).
Key players from last season competing with Suso this season:
[table id=253 /]
MP – Minutes Per | CCO – chances created in open play | GW – ground duels won | TW – tackles won
We can see Suso fits the bill with the ball, a respectable passing accuracy of 85%, which is only likely to improve, surpasses Coutinho, and is on par with Sterling while just below Gerrard (Allen featuring in the deepest role will have helped his passing stats, and hindered his creative stats). Despite not creating any clear cut chances, Suso did create from open play, however not to the standards of his peers, while his dribbling accuracy was outstanding for the few he attempted. From a defensive perspective he showed he can compete, he won a ground duel every 20.76 minutes which was close to matching Allen and Coutinho, while his tackles won showed similar competence.
Suso’s main starting position for Liverpool has been the right side of the attacking three, a position where his roles have been simple, linking with the full backs building out from the back, keeping possession ticking over and receiving in space out wide looking to drive infield (opening space for Wisdom/Johnson to play into). Out of possession his positional awareness has appealed to Rodgers, he showed he was a hard worker and could offer good protection for his full back, or drop into central areas to cover Gerrard or Allen’s movements into wide areas, but as we saw from his attacking statistics, did his tactical discipline hinder his threat going forwards?
Something which stands out about Suso is his ability to affect the play ahead of him from a central position by looking two or three passes ahead, spotting opportunities for someone else to create an assist, rather than playing the assist himself. His composure with the ball when taking players on had an instant impact against Manchester United at Anfield, he had barely been on the field a minute when he overlapped Johnson, ran at Paul Scholes and skipped past him with ease, this was the spark that initiated the ball falling to Johnson and then eventually Gerrard finishing. Similarly against West Brom in the Capital One Cup, Suso came of the bench, received his first touch on the half-turn and ran at the defence, setting the ball off for Assaidi to cross into Sahin for the winning goal – indirectly Suso was yet again the catalyst, but that type of influence is not reflected in his statistics.
Julen Lopetegui is the coach in charge of Spain’s U19, 20 and 21 teams, and he has seen the rise of Suso as a young player and examined his development. Last year Suso put in a string of outstanding performances at the U19 European Championships (via the link you can see how he performed on the right side, drifting infield). However, there has been much talk recently about his performances in a deeper role for Spain U20’s at the World Cup in the last few weeks. Here he has shown a fantastic eye for a long pass which has drawn comparisons with Xabi Alonso, he can loft it over the top and pick out runners, zip the ball through the ‘lines’, or keep it short and simple.
This ability to control the tempo of the game from a deep position may make Rodgers take notice and experiment with Suso in this position during pre-season, as he is likely to still be undecided on his best position. He has shown that he is responsible with the ball (he can showboat, but at the right times), a look at his statistics back up that he is a good passer and fits the possession-based philosophy (especially from a deep position), and really only seems to be lacking a killer ball in the final third from an attacking perspective.
I am personally of the opinion that Suso can hope to play an important role in both the Capital One and FA Cup runs, and look to make a string of appearances from the bench in the league. After seeing a few performances in both the U21 European Championships and the U20 World Cup, there hasn’t been a much of a gulf in quality between Suso and the now very highly rated U21’s star Isco.
Suso captained the U20’s and performed consistently, he looked a key player and will come away from the tournament with a boosted reputation and his name in the hat to move up to the U21’s. What is important is that he doesn’t become disillusioned by the decrease in playing time he will probably experience this year, by choosing not to go out on loan he is taking a brave step, but one that will only benefit the team with him competing for a spot. He is certainly one of the most highly talked about youngsters (along with Sterling) that Liverpool has seen for a long time, and one who needs to be developed properly over the next few years to become a top player.
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