Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers rewarded for starting Jordan Ibe vs. Everton
The exciting impact of teenager Jordon Ibe in Saturday's otherwise drab Merseyside derby is testament to the bravery of Brendan Rodgers' management. Handing a 19-year-old only his second Premier League start is one thing; playing him in a position he's never played before in the cauldron of a local derby at Goodison Park is something else entirely, but it's typical of Rodgers.
Ibe was full of confidence and showed no sign of nerves as he took the game to the Everton defence right from the start. He beat them on the inside and he beat them on the outside. He defended when he had to, he drew fouls, he created chances and only the post denied him what would have been one of the all-time great derby goals. In truth, Liverpool didn't get him the ball anywhere near often enough, especially in the second half. If they had they may well have won the game as Everton appeared to have no answer to him.
Rodgers deserves great credit for having the courage to put his faith in the youngster when he had more experienced and "safer" alternatives available. The obvious choice would have been to retain Lazar Markovic, the young Serb who has played a significant part in Liverpool's recent upturn in form. He has been a little below par in his last few appearances and had hobbled off in midweek against Bolton, so Rodgers perhaps felt he needed to freshen things up a little on the right flank.
One option would have been to recall Glen Johnson, a vastly experienced international who has played as a wing back on countless occasions. Alternatively, he could have shifted Jordan Henderson out to the right and used either Steven Gerrard or Joe Allen in the centre with Lucas. All were more obvious choices than pitching in an untested kid fresh from a loan spell in the Championship and most managers would have probably erred on the side of caution. That's just not Rodgers' style though, he has never had any qualms about putting faith in young players and Ibe certainly justified that faith with a man of the match performance.
His display will not have shocked anyone who has seen him progress through Liverpool's youth ranks over the last few years, but the role he was deployed in will no doubt have surprised many. Ibe is an out-and-out attacker who usually operates on the wing or occasionally behind the striker. He could probably play up front at a push too, but wing back? Away from home? In a derby game? Most would see that as risky, but to Rodgers it was just a case of picking the best man for the job.
The 3-4-2-1 formation currently employed by Liverpool is perhaps the most adventurous and attacking system in the Premier League at this moment. What makes it different to most three-at-the-back set ups is the deployment of the "wing-backs". A lot of managers tend to use full backs in these roles and few would be so bold as to use out and out wingers, let alone a young player who had never played there before. Rodgers has done this recently with Lazar Markovic and now he's gone with Ibe, because for the system to work the way he wants it to he needs attacking players in the wide positions. He's occasionally used more defensive-minded players there, but when Jose Enrique, Javi Manquillo or even Jordan Henderson have been selected, the formation understandably hasn't looked as potent.
The most effective player in the role has probably been Markovic, and the way he adapted to the position probably went a long way towards persuading Rodgers that Ibe could also do a job there. Even so, it takes nerves of steel to put theory into practice in a Merseyside derby. Rodgers has previously though; remember last season's Goodison derby when he included Jon Flanagan at left back? Many eyebrows were raised at that decision too but, as with Ibe, Flanagan was named man of the match. The Liverpool boss is never afraid to take risks and that's refreshing in the modern game where caution often runs rampant.
The arrival of Ibe on the first team stage combined with the return to fitness of Daniel Sturridge gives Rodgers something of a problem now though. A good problem, but a problem nonetheless. Sturridge will obviously start just as soon as he's fit enough and Raheem Sterling will certainly find a place somewhere. Philippe Coutinho's current form makes him an automatic selection and you also have Adam Lallana and Steven Gerrard competing for places. Yet Ibe has looked terrific any time he has been on the field since returning from his loan spell at Derby County, so it's going to be difficult to leave him out if he keeps up this level of performance.
In contrast, Alberto Moreno has not been making much of an impact on the left and looks to be the most vulnerable to losing his place. He provides balance and his defending has been solid enough but given the performances of Ibe and Markovic it might not be too long before Liverpool line up with both in the side, or perhaps Sterling may even fill one of the wide spots in what would be an ultra-attacking line up.
In contrast to earlier in the season, Liverpool now have speed to burn in the opponent's half of the field. Sterling, Ibe, Markovic, Moreno and Sturridge can all hang with the quickest sprinters in the Premier League and while Coutinho may not be a speed merchant, put a ball at his feet and he seems to gain an extra yard or two.
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That speed and skill combination will strike fear into opposition managers, even the usually less negative ones such as Roberto Martinez, who -- despite not having to face Sturridge from the start -- set up his Everton side with the sole intention of stifling Liverpool and hoping to avoid defeat this weekend. It worked, in no small part due to Sterling and Coutinho looking somewhat jaded after their midweek exertions in keeping the Reds in the FA Cup. Liverpool were largely flat at Goodison but the one exception to that was the young man flying up and down that right touchline.
Ibe is following in the footsteps of his pal Sterling, but the exciting thing for Liverpool fans is that there may be more on the way behind those two. Sheyi Ojo, 17, has been on the bench this season and last week made a loan move to Wigan Athletic. He made his debut for the Latics at the weekend as a substitute and was named man of the match despite only being on the field for half an hour. Sterling, Ibe and Ojo are the fruits of a shift in policy by Liverpool's Academy, who in recent years have moved away from a mostly local focus to snap up 14- and 15-year-old talent from around the country and develop them in their Under-18 side.
Ojo joined from MK Dons, Sterling from QPR and Ibe was snapped up from Wycombe Wanderers. Andre Wisdom (Bradford City) and Jerome Sinclair (West Brom) are two more examples of a policy that has already paid rich dividends simply because of the impact made by Sterling alone. Even if none of the others were to make it at Anfield, Sterling's transfer value already vastly exceeds the total amount paid for all of those named above. It's early days of course, but it already looks like Ibe is capable of making a similar impact. If he does, then an otherwise forgettable Goodison derby will be remembered by Liverpool fans as the day that Jordon Ibe well and truly arrived as a Liverpool first team player.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.