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Daniel Ayala, the Spanish lad who looks like he’s swallowed a football (think less Adam’s apple, more Adam’s grapefruit), has been the big surprise of the season so far. Just the mere fact that he’s played at all has been a bit of a shock.
First off, he’s 18. He’s not 19, as some places have reported, or even 20, as suggested on Match of the Day. He’s just 18. And for a centre-back, that’s terribly young.
Like a lot of Reds, I was worried by his performance in the FA Youth Cup Final, when, over two legs, he was bypassed by several Arsenal runners, and resorted to hauling them down; in fairness, he could have been sent off twice over in the first game alone.
However, I’d liked the look of him in the reserves, so knew he had talent. In the earlier rounds of the Youth Cup he was impressive too, defending doggedly and bringing the ball out of defence with confidence.
Alongside the huge, lumbering Joe Kennedy against Arsenal, and with 16-year-olds in central midfield, he was horribly exposed. The Gunners boasted several players with first team football experience, and were on average far older than their Liverpool counterparts. It was almost literally men against boys. Liverpool did well to make the final, and should be even stronger this year.
I read some utter crap about how awful this kid was, based on two performances. Yes, his performances concerned me, but that was all. It happens.
Centre-back is the hardest position for a youngster play (along with goalkeeper). It’s why so many get moved to full-back, where mistakes are further removed from that crucial area right in front of goal.
While centre-forward is the hardest position to play in general, because you play with your back to goal and are often outnumbered, with scoring goals the toughest thing to do, you can get away with it as a youngster with pace.
I remember Michael Owen early on. He was a clunky footballer at first: lots of mistakes, and quite a few missed chances. But he stuck some chances away, and – rightly – all was forgiven, as that was his job. He kept running into defenders in an artless manner, but if he got past them, he was gone, and a chance was for the taking.
If a centre-back made as many errors as he did, they’d be crucified. It just takes one bad touch to lead to conceding a goal. Do it a couple of games running, and you might not play there again for six years. Just ask Jamie Carragher.
It’s why centre-backs are almost always bought in at top clubs, later on in their careers. Very few develop at the big four, because the risk is too great.
How many first-rate ones have come through the ranks at Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United in the last 15 years? Just John Terry, with Carragher also in that bracket – but crucially, only later on in his career, when he’d grown in stature and improved his positional sense.
The famed youth systems of Wenger and Ferguson have yet to produce one centre-back they’ve relied on as a first choice, although Johnny Evans looks promising (although even he was written off by their fans in his early games, and is now 22). Wenger splashed cash for a teenage Matthew Upson, but he only came of age years later, having moved on.
Also, it’s important to remember that Sami Hyypia was turned down by Oldham aged 24 – that’s how long it can take for centre-backs to mature.
I had thought that Martin Kelly, a year older and with extra pace, would be ahead of Ayala, but having seen Ayala’s performances against Spurs and Stoke, I could then see the wisdom. Kelly is possibly first-choice reserve for right-back now, and his style suits starting out there.
Ayala is more like a rash, all over his opponent. It can get him into trouble, but he reminds me of a young Martin Keown (who also swallowed a grapefruit) as that bastard of a man-marker.
But 18 is far too young to be a regular centre-back. As well as he has done, there is a long way to go. Liverpool need experience, and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, signed from AEK Athens, now provides that. He is big, strong, and takes no prisoners.
He’ll probably never be anywhere near as good as Sami Hyypia was at his best, but he doesn’t have to be. He will not be an automatic first choice unless he really does something special or the others really lose their way; what he does offer is that real physical presence, experience and cover.
Revenge, like souvlaki, is a dish best served cold.
I will hunt you down and gut you like a fish.
He was very well respected during his time at Eintracht Frankfurt, and in picking up 50 caps for Greece has no little pedigree; while not a household name, he’s clearly got ability. For the money, and to strengthen the squad, it looks like a good bit of business.
His aerial ability will be vital in certain games, and that makes me think that he might start against Villa, with Carew and Heskey. Skrtel is physical, but not totally dominant in the air. Agger is tall, and good in the air, but also not especially dominant; he seems better at attacking crosses than defending them.
Meanwhile, another recent signing, Glen Johnson, has already done something Robbie Keane, a similarly-priced buy last summer, failed to do in his six months: have an outstanding game, and look totally at home.
Keane didn’t work out at Liverpool, despite being a good player; he didn’t get to play in his preferred position behind the main striker as much as hoped, due to Torres’ injuries, but he wasn’t played out of position; I read one excuse that he was used on the left-wing, but that was for 20 minutes at Villa Park – hardly a big deal considering the time Rooney spent out there. Keane played a lot of football, but it didn’t click.
While there’s plenty of time for it to go wrong for Johnson, he already looks an absolute steal. Whereas Keane failed to handle the pressure, Johnson, as he has with England (where the pressure is also very intense), has shown he has what it takes.
His defending has been surprisingly solid, although Rafa will help him further improve. Attacking full-backs always get over-criticised for their defending, but half of the time they can’t be blamed if they’ve gone on a sensible overlap and the pass to him is wayward, leaving him obviously out of position.
He’s quick and strong, and 6ft, so it’s not like he doesn’t have the necessary skills.
But going forward he has already made a big difference. His runs have been superb, his crossing dangerous, and his long-pass to Voronin near the end of the Stoke game was, dare I say it, Alonso-esque.
I particularly like the way he cuts inside his man as often as he goes on the outside when overlapping. This is vital for beating defenders, who can’t get wise to a preference. He has excellent balance when drifting inside, which means that he can quickly get the ball onto his right foot without breaking stride, but his saved shot showed that he’s prepared to use his left, too.
Kuyt is the perfect player to have ahead of him: energy to wander inside and also get back and help double up on tricky wingers. Benayoun, meanwhile, has a chance of making the left-wing spot his own, where he can be more natural when cutting infield.
Finally, well done to Lucas Leiva for his Brazilian call up. That Dunga fella knows a bit about central midfield, I hear.
‘Red Race: A New Bastion’ is out now, available only from www.paultomkins.com. Click here for details on the book and how to order.
Copyright - Paul Tomkins