What’s more valuable to a football team: an experienced professional, or a precocious youngster with the potential to make it all the way to the top? Tuesday’s FA Cup fourth-round replay between Liverpool and Shrewsbury Town at Anfield may go some way to answering that question.
It’s an age-old debate. Some will argue that talent and superior quality will always have the edge, regardless of the age of the player, but others will point to the crucial importance of being able to say you have seen it and done it.
When former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen famously claimed, in August 1995, that “you can’t win anything with kids” after Manchester United had promoted a batch of promising youngsters to replace experienced stars such as Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, he was ultimately ridiculed when David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville helped guide Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to a Premier League and FA Cup Double that season. But those so-called kids, United’s famed Class of ’92, were helped along the way in no small measure by senior pros such as Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona. United had a blend of experienced professionals and precocious youngsters.
Hansen was right in many ways, because the kids were only part of a machine that was oiled by the older heads. But when Liverpool face League One outfit Shrewsbury on Tuesday, it will be a clash between kids and time-served professionals — albeit those who have seen their career take them to the lower reaches of the game. Jurgen Klopp’s will stick to the Premier League mid-season break for his first-team squad and instead play a team consisting wholly of Liverpool’s under-23 players.
Liverpool have done it already this season, of course, fielding a team with an average age of 19 years and 182 days when beaten 5-0 by Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup quarterfinals. The first team were out in Qatar for the Club World Cup, with Academy coach Neil Critchley taking a young team to Villa park.
Critchley will once again manage the game in the absence of Klopp, but can they get the better of League One opponents?
“It is a tough game for Liverpool because young players are always up against it in a physical sense when they play against men,” David Thompson, who played 56 first-team games for Liverpool after progressing through the club’s Academy alongside Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, told ESPN.
“You can’t overstate the physical challenge, but Shrewsbury will also have capable players. The ability gap between the two sides isn’t that great, but you often find in these games that the decision-making of the lower league players isn’t the same standard as top-level kids who have been educated from a very young age at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
“The lower league players will hold onto the ball for too long or shoot at the wrong time, whereas the Liverpool lads will be much better in those situations. But if Shrewsbury play the right game, adopt the right tactics, go 4-4-2, play with a high press and don’t stand off Liverpool, they can win the tie because it is literally men against boys — that matters in professional football.”
There are other factors at play, however, beyond the difference in quality and physique. Both teams will be under different kinds of pressure at Anfield and there are no guarantees that Shrewsbury’s experience will play in their favour.
“Shrewsbury’s players will have to handle the pressure of having a chance against youngsters and being able to take it, but the young lads will be nervous too,” Thompson said. “They will be confident at the beginning, but once the game starts, they will be edgy if Shrewsbury play with the right attitude, as they did in the first game.
“They will also know that even though Klopp won’t be there, he will be watching the game somewhere and they will all be desperate to make an impression. But that can also get into their heads, that determination to show they are good enough for the first team.
“I remember playing in a reserve game against Leeds when I was coming through and I knew that Gerard Houllier, the manager at the time, was watching from the stands. I felt I should have been in the first team and I wanted to prove it to him, but I was playing against some experienced pros and they don’t take kindly to young kids embarrassing them, which is something Liverpool will have to be aware of on Tuesday.
“One of the older Leeds players, David Hopkin, hit me with a really bad tackle and I chased after him, we started fighting and I was sent off and Houllier saw it all. Having been knocking on the door of the first team, I was suddenly miles away and regarded as having a bad attitude, all because I was trying too hard and allowed myself to get suckered in by an older pro.
“The Liverpool lads need to be aware that the Shrewsbury players are good pros and they will be more competitive than some of the teams they come up against at U23 level.”
There have been examples of big clubs being beaten or held by lower league sides after fielding a team of youngsters. For instance, a youthful Manchester United team, including a 17-year-old Gerard Pique, was held 0-0 at Old Trafford by non-league Exeter City in the FA Cup 15 years ago this month.
On their day, senior pros from the lower leagues can embarrass their more talented, but younger, opponents from the top level and Thompson believes that Shrewsbury can win at Anfield.
“If Shrewsbury play with the same honesty and desire as in the first game, I can see them winning, maybe after taking it to penalties,” he said. “As promising as Liverpool’s kids are, I can only see Harvey Elliott making it to the first team on a long-term basis. He has something different and looks a real talent, but it will be difficult for Curtis Jones because he doesn’t have an obvious role and Klopp is so well off for talent in the attacking third.
“I have been impressed by Pedro Chirivella. He has done well and has a good attitude, but he is 23 soon and it’s so difficult to make it at a club Liverpool, especially when they are the best team in the world.”
Chelsea await the winners at Stamford Bridge in the fifth round.