Borini and others can benefit from U21 league

Posted by David Usher

Fabio Borini celebrates after coming off the bench to make it 5-0 to LiverpoolGettyImagesLiverpool striker Fabio Borini hit the goals trail... for the reserves.

In November 1999 Gerard Houllier fielded more or less his entire first team against Sunderland in a reserve game. The first team had no game that week and, wanting to look at a few tactical things, the Frenchman decided it made more sense to do it in a competitive game rather than training. So the likes of Sander Westerveld, Sami Hyypia, Stephane Henchoz, Steven Gerrard, Danny Murphy, Jamie Carragher, Patrik Berger and Robbie Fowler were all wheeled out to play on a freezing cold night at Knowsley Road, St Helens. I know it was freezing because I was there; I used to go to all the reserve games back in those days.

A lot has changed since then. The reserves have been rebranded and now compete in the Under-21 Premier League. The biggest change, however, is that it's increasingly rare to even see one first team player in these games, let alone an entire side consisting of them.

The inevitable result is that the standard of football has plummeted at second team level in recent years, but it still has its benefits and Liverpool have not made the best use of it of late. The term Under-21 is something of a misnomer, as it isn't strictly a competition limited to that age range as a number of over age players can also be fielded. Yet often players who are not featuring in the first team have also been overlooked for second string games, meaning when they are called upon for the senior side they are coming in cold.

For example, Sebastian Coates and Oussama Assaidi barely featured in the first team last season, yet they were rarely given any run outs in the Under 21s either. The pair barely played any football at all last season. It makes little sense. I accept that second team football is a long way from the standards of the Premier League, but at least it's something.

It was therefore refreshing to see Fabio Borini and Martin Kelly given run outs in the Under-21s 4-2 win at Manchester United on Monday night, a game in which Borini found the net twice and Kelly captained the side. The latter's inclusion was something of a no-brainer, he desperately needs games to get back up to speed after his long injury lay off.

An added benefit is that he can get some playing time at the heart of the defence, a position many assume he will eventually take up. He did so at youth levels before switching to right-back several years ago. Also, the youngsters in the squad get to learn from playing with a more experienced, established first team player.

For example, the Reds have a very promising young central defender in 17-year-old Lloyd Jones, a Welsh youth international who was named on the bench for the first team game at Fulham last season. A few games partnering Martin Kelly - or indeed Coates - will surely only help with his development.

That's how it always used to be, with seniors who were out of favour or coming back from injury helping the kids. In recent years that has stopped, but not just at Liverpool.

The names on the opposition's team sheet in most Under-21 games are largely unfamiliar. It's essentially just a league where lads who are too old to play in Academy games now ply their trade. Most of the really talented kids are either fast tracked to the first team or loaned out to lower league sides, and as a result the standards at Under-21 has dropped massively in recent years.

Whilst the level of football certainly isn't what it was, the Under-21 league still serves a purpose. I mentioned Kelly and how he can benefit from it, but Borini is another, albeit for different reasons. Kelly is looking for fitness and match sharpness, Borini is looking for goals and the confidence they bring. I'm not suggesting that scoring twice against Manchester United's second string will suddenly turn him into Ian Rush, but including him, and enabling him to find the back of the net, is surely the right thing to do.

It may have only been an Under-21 game, but you can be sure that Borini will still have been buzzing afterwards after two great finishes. The young Italian has had something of a torrid time since joining the Reds from Roma, and as yet has not convinced the fans of his quality. However, I'd have to temper that criticism by saying there are some mitigating circumstances for his struggles, such as injuries, not getting an extended run in the side or even having a settled position.

Borini is highly thought of in his homeland and was even included in Italy's squad for the last European Championships. Mario Balotelli apart, it seems to me that Italy's strikers are traditionally around 30 or so, so Borini must have something about him to have forced his way in at such a young age. Liverpool fans just haven't seen it yet, and there's no guarantee that they will.

If Brendan Rodgers is keeping Borini around for this season, then just having the striker sat on the bench and playing the occasional cup game is not going to get him firing on all cylinders. The Under-21s is an ideal place to maintain match fitness and form.

However, the decision to field a number of senior players in Monday's game may have simply been a one off and Under-21 coach Alex Inglethorpe may have to revert back to selecting from his regular pool of youngsters.

Let's hope not as there are a number of other fringe players at Anfield that should be involved in these games, who can also lend their experience to the youngsters.

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