“We brought them in already, only you don’t realise it,” beamed Jurgen Klopp when asked about the possibility of Liverpool making new signings this summer.
It’s a question he will be asked regularly in the coming weeks and you get the impression the answer will be similar each time; one which refers to a number of Liverpool players who missed much of last season through injury but are now back in the fold.
It’s normal for a player coming back from a long-term absence to be described as ‘like a new signing’. But this might not wash with many fans who recognise the need for strength in depth as they look to build on a campaign that was successful but still saw them fall short of Manchester City in the Premier League.
They do have Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Joe Gomez coming back to full fitness in time for the new season, but there is another new face yet to make a senior appearance who might genuinely fit the ‘like a new signing’ tag.
In January 2017 Klopp spoke of a “special kid” in the Liverpool academy but refused to name names so as not to put pressure on the youngster. The ‘special kid’ is thought to have been Rhian Brewster, the forward who moved from Chelsea to Liverpool aged 15. Today Klopp is not so coy when discussing the talented attacker, who is now 19 years old and ready for the first team.
When asked if Brewster’s pre-season performances needed to be played down, he replied: “Why should I play it down? I saw a really good game and Rhian is a fantastic player. That is the only thing I want to talk about.”
If Brewster is going to feature in the first team this season he will have to deal with the pressure of turning out for the European champions, and the Premier League’s last hope when it comes to challenging Manchester City’s dominance.
This is Klopp preparing his young player for that pressure by bigging up his pre-season displays, even if they were only against Tranmere Rovers and Bradford City.
| Another day, another Rhian Brewster goal pic.twitter.com/npdHlxLnPI
— The Kopite (@TheKopiteOFF) July 14, 2019
But as long as he puts in a shift, Brewster may not be under too much pressure to hit the back of the net as often as other strikers in the league. This is because the centre-forward role at Liverpool is very specific and very, well, Roberto Firmino.
There are few if any players in world football who could replicate the Brazilian’s role for Liverpool, so it makes complete sense that Klopp has chosen to mould a promising young player waiting for a first-team chance rather than trawl the transfer market for a player who might be a bit like Firmno, but not quite.
And Brewster has had some time to work on this. Tactics in Liverpool’s youth and reserve sides mirror those in the first team, so for around three years he has been training to become the next Firmino.
In April 2017 Klopp said: “Rhian has made outstanding steps in the last few months. Because of the talent group training once a week in Melwood with Pep Lijnders, I can see them.
“I’ve known him for probably more than a year. A wonderful skilled boy, real striker, good finisher, fantastic work ethic, and all that stuff,” enthused the Liverpool manager.
The ‘talent group’ is exactly that – a selection of talented academy players invited to integrate with the first team. There was no doubt that Brewster was good enough for this group, and the club now have no doubts that he can make the next step.
The work ethic is also key, and by “all that stuff”, Klopp basically means the Firmino stuff.
Firmino accepts that he has to work for the team and allow players like Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to push forward in Liverpool’s 4-3-3, which becomes more of a 4-4-2 diamond in attack with Firmino combining the roles of attacking midfielder and striker. It’s no coincidence that Salah and Mane tied for most goals in the Premier League last season; Firmino ploughs furrows and they reap the rewards.
Brewster will have to do the same, dropping deep to link play, working hard in defence, knowing when and where to press, and being versatile enough to operate in multiple positions if needed.
Rhian Brewster is a mercurial talent and such a clinical finisher. Always in the right place for the right moment, very good at pressing and his link up play is class. Very well suited in our system, we have an very special player in our hands. 🔴
— Samuel (@SamueILFC) July 14, 2019
The trade-off is that regular goals are not expected, although they are of course nice and opportunities will arise to score them once the heavy lifting has been done. It could be the ideal situation for a young player to walk into: the pressure is off as long as you work hard and understand the tactics.
Born in London, Brewster moved north as he didn’t see a path to the first team at Chelsea. At Liverpool the opportunity is there, but you have to be good and you have to fit Klopp’s plan. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Gomez are the most recent success stories, and they have paved a way for academy players such as Brewster and young new signings such as centre-back Sepp van den Berg.
Liverpool fans still recognise the need for a new attacking signing for the first team – aomeone who can play wide and centrally, someone with pace, and someone who can step in should the unthinkable happen and one of Salah or Mane pick up an injury.
Given the amount of football the pair have played during the past few years (Mane’s summer break is yet to begin as he’s still with Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations) they will definitely need a rest at some point in the new campaign. That pacy, inventive, back-up wide forward doesn’t exist in Liverpool’s current squad – unless they suddenly decide Harry Wilson is good enough – so it’s here they’ll need an actual new signing rather than ‘like a new signing’.
But when it comes to their Firmino alternative they might just have a homegrown, home-made solution, and Klopp has already spoken of his plans for the teenager.
“Rhian Brewster is a top striker,” said the German. “He has an important role this year, but how important? It depends on him, and we’ll see. He has to play different positions because the centre is OK, wing is possible, and then we will see how we can line up. There will be opportunities for him, I’m really sure.”
Many before Brewster have been given chances and failed, but thanks to the work of Klopp and Lijnders – and the links between first team and academy – young players are now better prepared to bridge the gap to the elite.
Brewster already has Champions League and (U-17) World Cup medals, but the biggest honour yet would be for him to don the red shirt and make his first senior appearance for Liverpool.
James Nalton – follow him on Twitter