Liverpool hope to repeat Harvey Elliott trick with England youth star compared to Philipp Lahm
Before injury cruelly put paid to his hopes of playing a major role for Liverpool this season, Harvey Elliott had hit the ground running.
The 18-year-old attacking midfielder had long been touted as one of England’s brightest young things way back when the top-knot was being rocked in the Championship as a 15-year-old with Fulham.
This season saw signs of him really coming of age, though, a player who looked every inch a Premier League midfielder. A player who, it looked, would be playing a significant part this season for Jürgen Klopp’s Reds side, easing into life at the top and making a telling contribution.
His ankle injury sustained against Leeds United, one that looks set to rule him out for the majority of the season, was a hammer blow but one that also showed the growing maturity and resilience of Elliott. He has faced the negatives head on and sought to spin the positives. The way he has dealt with such a setback bodes well for his future at Anfield. James Milner was full of praise for the youngster’s attitude, and revealed that Elliott is close to coming off crutches.
That growing maturity has been accelerated thanks to his experiences last season, where he was taken out of the Anfield bubble and placed in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers. After 41 appearances in English football’s second tier, where it wasn’t plain sailing on the pitch for the duration, he got a fine grounding at an excellent level, one that stood him in good stead for what was to come this season.
Leighton Clarkson is another player for whom Liverpool have high hopes. Indeed, among Klopp and his coaching staff, he has earned the nickname Philipp Lahm: high praise indeed.
The 19-year-old has been impressive through the youth levels for the Reds, making two senior appearances: one in the FA Cup against Shrewsbury, another in the Champions League. However, that day-to-day at senior level in a highly competitive atmosphere, one that simply cannot be replicated at under-23 level, has been missing from his game so far.
But the midfielder has landed at his hometown club for this season, following the path already trodden to Ewood Park by Elliott last season. The success of Elliott’s spell last campaign and the fact that it provided such a solid foundation for him to build upon this season, working under the astute management of Tony Mowbray last year, made the decision to send another highly rated prospect to Lancashire a very easy one.
When clubs make decisions on where there players are heading out on loan it isn’t simply a case of anywhere will do. For some clubs it is about where they will be best-placed to raise their value and potentially have a temporary deal turned into a permanent one, for others it is about where they can best thrive and improve. The latter is true of Clarkson’s move to Blackburn, the Reds suitably impressed with the work done at Rovers and how it aided Elliott’s growth to think it the best place for Clarkson to learn his craft.
Clarkson didn’t arrive with the same level of expectation that Elliott did. Elliott had been tipped for stardom since before he was 16, the nature of a young flair player in English football seeing the pressure cranked up. He looks like delivering, though.
For Clarkson this move was about performing at a very high level against quality opposition and learning those lessons that you simply can’t at U23 level. While the fanfare has not been as great, Lahm comparisons aside, he too has been involved in the England youth setup — he earned his first cap for the under-20s in September, and played the full 90 in a 5-0 win against the Czech Republic earlier this week.
Blackburn have been Premier League champions, they are a massive club with massive support and how players cope with the pressure of that kind of environment is something that can make or break them. Having the expectation to deliver success for fans for whom three points against Luton Town mean as much as three points against Manchester City mean to Reds fans is why loan moves are so important.
Clarkson has featured five times this season, three from the start, and breaking into the Rovers midfield hasn’t been as straightforward as he may have hoped. But that is all part of the challenge and the experience, these are the hurdles that must be overcome if the transition from excellent Liverpool U23 player to bona fide Reds first-teamer is to happen.
The system has changed somewhat at Rovers this season. Last season’s focus on ball retention, which would have suited Clarkson’s game, has been replaced with a more pragmatic approach.
But Clarkson is an intelligent player and he is the kind of midfielder who Liverpool believe can make that transition to the Premier League due to his preferred, Lahm-esque style of play. But learning away from the bosom of the Premier League 2 and exploits in the Papa John’s Trophy is vital, and that is why the Reds have entrusted his development for the full season to Blackburn.
It is a club they know and trust and one where they have already seen the proof of what a temporary spell away can bring.
Clarkson’s exploits for the England under-20s were a timely reminder to Blackburn and Liverpool fans alike to have a little patience. It was a game where Clarkson, back among his cohort, thrived and stood out, orchestrating much of what was good about England’s midfield play. Such influence at senior level takes time — Elliott may have taken to it straight away, but not everyone’s path is identical.
That England performance showed that despite his relatively slow start to life with Blackburn, the move is already having an impact, with Clarkson looking like a senior player who had been parachuted in to the young Three Lions side.
His return from international duty should fill him with confidence that this is a move that is working, a move that while it may not always seem of obvious benefit when battling to break into a team the league below, is helping to form a different side of his game, one that he will be able to lean on when it comes to next season. Liverpool are looking for him to come knocking on the door like Curtis Jones has done.
Liverpool rate Clarkson, that’s why they have placed him where he is. It will be fascinating to see how he has grown as a player when he returns to Kirkby for training at the start of next season. He will no doubt be taking some inspiration from what Elliott has already achieved.