As a region, Merseyside is currently awash with positivity when it comes to soccer-related matters.
Supporters of a red and blue persuasion have been equally boisterous about the prospects of their sides as we kick-off 2014, with Liverpool and Everton sitting fourth and fifth in the table respectively. At the time of writing, they are both within touching distance of the summit of the Premier League table and seem set to battle it out for a Champions League spot for the duration of the campaign.
Short term, that’ll be the primary aim for both Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez. But they have both spoken at length this season on the long-term strategies they are trying to establish. Encouragingly for the duo, they are already sampling some immediate success via their implementation. And they aren’t the only ones who look set to reap the benefits.
England manager Roy Hodgson was at Goodison Park for Everton’s 2-0 win over Norwich City last weekend. Whilst the primary reason for his visit — Ross Barkley — was out injured with a broken toe, he would have been vastly encouraged by the English influence within what was an attractive, technical and dominant performance from Martinez’s team.
Influences like Phil Jagielka, who has been reveling in his role as captain; taking his game up a notch and developing as a leader in the first half of the season. He was accompanied by Leighton Baines — who continues to cement his role as England’s premier left-back with excellent showings — as well as Gareth Barry, who surely has an outside chance of making the squad if he maintains his level of performance. Youngster John Stones also got a run-out and, like Barkley, he is beginning to look a superb young prospect.
The same applies across Stanley Park, as Rodgers has laid down a blueprint from which English players can blossom. Glen Johnson looks to be Hodgson’s preferred right-back, whilst the returning Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge will naturally give this Liverpool side a suitable boost in the remaining games. There’s also the heightened maturity and on-pitch improvement showcased by both Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling, who are beginning to nail down a place in the team after initially being on the fringes of the first XI at the inception of this campaign.
The performances, effectiveness and very inclusion of these players suggest both Rodgers and Martinez appreciate the importance of having a nexus of English players within a successful Premier League side. The duo have struck a blend between the experienced England internationals and those younger players who will have their sights set on appearances at many a major international tournament to come. It’s a balancing act Hodgson himself must aspire to achieve if his side are to have a successful World Cup outing.
But the way these players are operating within the confines of a strict, technical-based system is perhaps the most encouraging aspect from the England team’s perspective. If you were to highlight two teams in the league who play in a stylistic manner akin to the requirements of international football, the two Merseyside clubs would be close to the top of that list.
Jagielka, for example, has improved his distribution and composure massively under the tutelage of Martinez. He looks increasingly confident bringing the ball out from the back, helping his team keep pressure on and maintain possession in tight situations. Barkley, too, has been cut from the shackles that often burdened him under David Moyes and given the opportunity to express himself, make mistakes and learn; just like any young, creative midfield player must do. Improvements that can only benefit the national side.
And again, across the park similar positive steps are being made. Sterling is fast adding an intelligence and shrewdness to his game to accompany his raw, physical attributes. Additional credit must go to Rodgers, who has reintegrated the winger back into the team at a perfect time following a short hiatus.
As for Henderson, he has taken on the mantle of “midfield general” with Gerrard absent in recent weeks and is quickly flourishing as a proper box-to-box player, complete with confidence on the ball and a burgeoning eye for a killer pass. Hodgson must be rubbing his hands together.
Neither Rodgers nor Martinez are afraid to give young players a chance in the first team, either. When Jagielka and Sylvain Distin were struck down with injury recently, Martinez could have turned to the experienced John Heitinga to temporarily plug a gap at centre-half. A safe option, you might say?
But instead he gave the opportunity to Stones, who was thrown in at the deep-end away at Stoke City at just 19-years-old. The same goes for Rodgers, who drafted in Jon Flanagan at left-back for his first game of the season in the Merseyside derby when injury depleted his defensive options. The two young players have performed admirably in their spells in the first-team.
Both sides are keen to establish a structure weighing heavily on the development of academy talents. Couple this with the willingness of the respective bosses to give players like Sterling, Barkley, Stones and Flanagan a chance to impose themselves at the highest level, then this is a major positive for the Three Lions.
Martinez has already sent ten players out on loan this season and has hailed the importance of the work done by the club’s academy (via Toffeeweb):
“To be able to send payers into the professional game (on loan)… the work we’re doing in the Academy is terrific
“When you’ve got a young player being able to perform the in the manner Ross Barkley has, it’s down to the senior boys. In many dressing rooms you can create have an environment where the young boys are going to be blamed for making mistakes. Here it is the opposite; everyone is encouraged to make mistakes but just take responsibility and just react well
“And that’s down to the likes of Phil Jagielka, Tim Howard, Sylvain Distin, Gareth Barry, Leighton Baines… those players allow you to produce good youngsters. I want to keep that culture.”
Fielding a team with a core of Merseyside players, something which England could well do at the very next World Cup, guarantees a set of footballers who are technically sound, familiar with each other and excellent on the ball. The will apply and perhaps holds even more significance in a few years time, when the likes of Stones, Flanagan and even younger talents like Liverpool’s Jordan Rossiter and Everton’s George Green are in the reckoning; players who have been schooled and tailored in methodologies easily transferable to the international game.
Of course, much depends on the England manager and the stylistic impression he implements on the national team. But with two progressive boss keen on youth development and enforcing an attractive style of play at the helm of the major Merseyside outfits, expect to see all three parties reaping the benefits sooner rather than later.
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