Liverpool’s teamsheet seems to get more niche by the weekend at the moment, with the goalkeeping selections against Sheffield United going alarmingly far down the list of available names.
With Alisson ruled out of featuring, there was always going to be a new face between the sticks against the Blades.
On the basis of this season, that would be Caoimhin Kelleher, but the Irishman missed a chance to add to his nine senior appearances due to an injury.
As such, third-choice Adrian made a start and kept a clean sheet, including a couple of decent saves from the Spaniard – he has now played 24 times for the Reds.
But subs were needed. Fourth in line? That would presumably have been one of two in normal cases: new Brazilian addition Marcelo Pitaluga or Czech stopper Vitezslav Jaros, but the former picked up an injury against Chelsea in an Under-23s game recently and the latter is on loan at St. Pat’s.
As such, Jurgen Klopp had to likely get the detailed lowdown on the other young options from his U23s and goalkeeping coaches, with Liam Hughes and Jakub Ojrzynski taking their spots on an expanded subs bench for some unexpected senior matchday experience – particularly in the case of the former.
There cannot be much doubt that, when the Reds signed 19-year-old Hughes earlier this season, being on the bench for a Premier League game would not have been discussed.
The Northern Irish youth international was signed to fill a specific role – one which wouldn’t necessarily have seen him even on the bench at U23 level.
Youth ‘keeper coach Mark Morris recently explained how the Reds have a couple of goalkeepers on the books who are effectively employed as training goalkeepers: individuals of great mentality and solid ability, but who are not realistically seen as future first-team options.
They are there to keep sessions running smoothly and with enough numbers, while in return they get a far higher level of coaching and training than they might otherwise achieve elsewhere – and the role has proven to be a pathway to senior action elsewhere, lower down the leagues.
“Liam was basically back in Northern Ireland waiting to go on trial at places and see what he could get,” Morris explained.
“The personality we wanted to come in and train is a tricky one; they have to know the reason they’re coming in and not be knocking on our door after two or three months saying, ‘I’m not playing.’
“You’re going to improve because of the calibre of the players you’re training with. And the proof of the pudding is the lads that have come into that sort of position previously. There’s four or five kids that have come into that slot, progressed and have gone on and now got professional careers.”
Hughes came in from Celtic and, due to injuries, did actually play for the U23s recently against Arsenal.
A week on and he has been in a senior Liverpool squad for a game which really mattered – an incredible and improbable rise in fortunes.
The opportunity which has fallen his way has arisen from exceptional circumstances and will hopefully be of enormous use to him as he continues his fledgling career.
The game which saw Pitaluga injured earlier in February also saw Ojrzynski come on as sub. That was his second U23 game, following a start against Brighton back in October.
Having only just turned 18 years of age two weeks ago, he’s usually the U18 stopper this season, where he has played nine times in total.
One of two Polish goalkeepers at the club – Fabrian Mrozek the other – Ojrzynski is a youth international at U16 and U17 level, with further experience earned in the UEFA Youth League, which was sadly cancelled for this season.
Although he’s younger than Hughes, he’s rather more likely to be one of the youngsters who the club have high hopes for in the future.
Ojrzynski could et have another couple of years with the Reds’ youth system before heading out on loan, depending on how he progresses and the game time he earns at U23 level, with Marcelo Pitaluga an intriguing potential barrier there, if the Brazilian in turn doesn’t go on loan.
A former Legia Warsaw prospect, the interesting question – which thankfully didn’t have to be answered – is whether the ‘better’ youngster or the older one, the more mature and mentally strong option, would have been called off the bench for a debut.
Participation in the matchday squad alone and being around the senior with their preparation, the team talk and warm-up is a huge step-up for the pair regardless, but they should take plenty from it which could potentially improve them in both the short and long-term.
As for the Reds, we’ll hope to have both Alisson and Kelleher back sooner rather than later, meaning all-change in the goalkeeper department once more.