In a maelstrom season of turbulence for Liverpool, there have been a number of positive stories. The unlikely rise of Nat Phillips, the coming-of-age of Caoimhin Kelleher, the seamless step-up of Diogo Jota, the loan form of Harvey Elliott and the imperious consistency of Mohamed Salah all spring to mind. But perhaps more than any other, the breakthrough of Curtis Jones - from young hopeful to genuine first-team starter - has been the standout.
Jones embodies the attitude and aptitude of a Liverpool academy product, much in the same vein as Trent Alexander-Arnold ever-so-slightly before him. He is a player blessed with sheer talent, able to marry that with the spirit of the city; a player who knows his value, and won’t take no for an answer as he works his way to the top.
The Reds’ 1-0 win at Wolves before the international break marked the third consecutive game that the 20-year-old went unused - but such has been his importance to Jurgen Klopp’s side, that is the longest such spell Jones has endured throughout the season so far. Only eight players have made more appearances, while only nine have clocked more minutes on the pitch in all competitions; of players aged 20 or under in the Premier League, only five have played more.
His opportunity was born of necessity, but Jones’ performances have seen him leapfrog the likes of Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri in Klopp’s plans. It is a situation that has, effectively, saved Liverpool millions in the transfer market, and the Reds may need more in the near future, as the financial squeeze of the COVID-19 pandemic influences the recruitment plans of clubs across Europe.
1. Tyler Morton - Central midfielder, 18
In his final season with the under-23s, Jones backed up his growing maturity with the numbers required to emphatically prove he had outgrown academy football.
For midfielders and attackers especially, numbers are the lifeblood of their potential, as while a club such as Liverpool has specialist coaches in place to monitor their development, a quick glance at a spreadsheet is often all there is time for when it comes to plucking players out for impromptu training sessions.
Morton is already producing the numbers to ensure he stands out within the Reds’ youth ranks, doing so in a season that has seen him step up from under-18s to under-23s with consummate ease.
A creative midfielder with an eye for the spectacular, the 18-year-old Wirral native is attuned to the combative demands of a player in Liverpool’s engine room, combining that with a stellar end product that has seen him score nine and assist five in 16 games across the age groups. Liverpool handed Morton his first professional contract in August and then an improved deal just five months later, with it clear he has a bright future at Kirkby.
2. James Balagizi - Attacking midfielder, 17
Liverpool signed Balagizi from Manchester City when he was 11, and from his tall, bulky frame, to his ability to dance through defences, to play the killer pass or threaten the goalkeeper, and even down to his tendency to wear long sleeves, rain or shine, there are clear comparisons to a former City icon: Yaya Toure.
Injuries have hampered his game time over the past two seasons, but when Balagizi plays, more often than not his presence is felt. He is the focal point of Marc Bridge-Wilkinson’s under-18s side, with attacks funnelled through his position between the lines of midfield and attack.
There are high hopes for the boy who moved from DR Congo at the age of six, and his profile highlights him as a future favourite among the first-team staff: he has the physicality, versatility, productivity and malleability suited to Klopp’s three-man midfield.
It would be remiss to suggest he could be an immediate successor to the likely departing Gini Wijnaldum, but there are shades of the Dutchman’s game in Balagizi’s, and as a long-term plan formulates, he could be earmarked for an eventual role.
3. Dominic Corness - Central midfielder, 17
Any mention of Corness within the halls of Kirkby and his nickname, ‘The Wand’, is brought up, and while that could become as tiresome as Klopp being referred to as ‘The Normal One’, it is vindicated by his flourishes on the pitch.
A deep-lying playmaker still to grow into his body as a 17-year-old, Corness plays passes most would struggle to visualise, and does so with such frequency that it is rare an under-18s game goes by without him receiving special praise.
The obvious highlight of Corness’ campaign are the two goals scored directly from corners in September’s 5-0 thrashing of Stoke, but perhaps more impressive was the first-time threaded through ball - with his weaker right foot - for Oakley Cannonier in December’s 4-1 win over Burnley.
No player has provided more goals within Liverpool’s academy so far this season, and while he has catching up to do physically, Corness is already miles ahead technically.
4. Mateusz Musialowski - Forward, 17
Mateusz Musialowski with an unbelievable goal for #LFCU18s at the weekend 👏👏 pic.twitter.com/EGCShBgQ9lMarch 16, 2021
When Musialowski made the move from SMS Lodz to Liverpool last summer, the focus was on his reputed record of scoring 130 goals in 80 appearances for the Polish club, while the president of the Polish FA enhanced his reputation further by tweeting: “Remember this name.”
It took the teenager time to adapt to life in Bridge-Wilkinson’s side, with the under-18s coach slowly introducing Musialowski to his starting lineup via a number of roles, but now established and making the centre-forward position his own, he is invariably a key feature.
His style is effervescent, and he is almost untouchable when he gets going, drawing unwelcome but unsurprising comparisons to Lionel Messi as he dances through defences at pace before opening up his body to shoot.
And while there are flaws in his decision-making at this stage, they are being ironed out as he grows accustomed to the grind of top-level youth football in England, making Matesuz Musialowski - undoubtedly - a name to remember.
5. Layton Stewart - Striker, 18
An anterior cruciate ligament injury has cruelly stung Stewart just as he was building momentum with the under-23s, but despite his season-ending layoff, the 18-year-old striker’s feats this season cannot be overlooked.
In 18 appearances, of which 16 were starts, he scored 17 goals and laid on three assists. Fifteen goals and three assists came in 10 games for the under-18s, with a further two in eight outings for the under-23s, as he quickly proved his mettle having moved up an age group.
For any prolific striker coming through at Kirkby, parallels will be drawn to those who came before them - the likes of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen - but they are outweighed by the cautionary tales of Jerome Sinclair and Bobby Duncan, among many others, which sets the road for Stewart out as a particularly bumpy one.
But it has been an emphatic start for the Scouser, who is far from just a goalscorer, and provided his recovery goes as hoped, he will look to pick up where he left off next season.
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