As sports fans, we are enraptured by youth. The NFL draft is one of the highest rated events of the calender year – leading ESPN to spread its coverage over three days to maximize its profits. Baseball America is able to sustain its entire publication by providing coverage exclusively on the sports' next wave of stars. And this past May, around three million households tuned into the NBA Draft Lottery to literally watch cards being pulled out of envelopes. Soccer is no different. For some Liverpool fans, names like Ibe and Suso are just as recognizable as Gerrard.
To most, it must seem very strange to spend that much time obsessing over athletes who have yet to make major contributions on the sport's biggest stage – most of whom never will. But on another level, it makes all too much sense. We follow sports because we want to be captivated by something that is entirely unscripted and open-ended. And in sports, there is nothing more uncertain than the future of a young athlete.
Whereas we know, more or less, what players like Gerrard and Sturridge will provide Liverpool with next season, the clubs' youngsters defy assessment and prediction. Because for every Raheem Sterling, there is a Sonny Pike. And it is for that reason alone that we find ourselves captivated by players we know little to nothing about.
One such player that has caught our imagination recently is Jordon Ibe, an 18-year old midfielder who has flashed first team talent during Liverpool's preseason campaign thus far. Aside from some garbage time minutes early last season and a three month loan stint with the Championship's Birmingham City last spring, Ibe has yet been given the opportunity to prove his worth with Liverpool's first team. But with his early performances this summer already turning heads, many are clamoring for his inclusion in the senior squad for the upcoming season.
Let's take a look at what he could provide the club – starting with his stats from his short spell with Birmingham City provided by Squawka. Obviously, the players included in the linked comparison all played in very different circumstances and settings, but the table helps us draw a few conclusions.
First, for as much as Ibe's talent is often qualified with cliché terms like "raw" and "unfinished," he more than holds his own when compared with his more "polished" peers like Manchester United's Adnan Janujaj. And, yes, an argument can be made that the other three faced much more talented opposition in top flight competitions, but Ibe played with a weaker supporting cast in a very physical environment.
Second, the comparison helps highlight Ibe's development as a footballer and underline what he needs to continue to work on. Compared to his peers, Ibe seems to link up well with his teammates – matching Adnan Janujaj's per 90 figures for key passes and chances created. And despite his lack of goalscoring form, the statistics suggest he might be a bit unlucky in that regard – leading his peers in shots inside the area while putting a respectable percentage of those shots on target.
But the most intriguing aspect of his statistical profile is his dribbling ability. On one hand, posting 2.9 successful dribbles per 90 is a very impressive figure for a young player like Ibe. And one need not watch Ibe for long to realize that his pace is easily one of his best assets – lending him the ability to put even the most experienced defenders on their back foot.
But on the other hand, his dribble percentage rests in the high thirties – not awful in itself, but a bit worrying for a player with as much pace as Ibe. Because while we could easily chalk the low figure up to him forcing the issue on a Birmingham City side struggling to create goalscoring opportunities, it also happens to coincide with a common criticism of Ibe – a lack of solid decision making ability.
Ibe is not the first young, eighteen-year old footballer to be tagged with the "poor decision making" label – and he certainly won't be the last. It's another one of the great sports clichés – one that is painfully reductive in its failure to describe an athlete's ability with any degree of detail or specificity. It foolishly presupposes that all decisions – correct or incorrect – are of the same genus and species. So with that being said, I want to take a closer look at one of Jordon Ibe's preseason matches with Liverpool this summer – his two-assist performance against League One's Preston North End.
One impressive aspect of Ibe's game that is almost immediately apparent when watching him is just how comfortable he looks on the ball – a quality undoubtedly due to his incredible pace and the respect it commands from defenders. But it's equally impressive how the quality never seems to change regardless of his position on the pitch. Whether dropping deep to collect possession, dribbling out wide, or cutting in to find space through the middle, he always seems at ease on the ball. As something that is not easily taught, that will serve him well throughout his career.
But it is one thing to feel at ease in an array of positions on the pitch – to be able to cut into the middle and make a run at the center backs just as easily as he would slip his mark out wide and pound a cross into the six yard box. It is quite another to realize how easily these moves can oscillate between clever and wasteful and to choose among them wisely. For instance, let's take a look at a fairly mundane play by Ibe shortly after his introduction at the twenty-minute mark.
Coming on for débutante Emre Can, Ibe was forced to play a bit deeper than usual. Here, he collected the ball around midfield before cutting inside and beginning his dribble towards the box. It was one of his first touches in the match, but you can already see what has Liverpool drooling all over its Cheerios.
Not only does he look comfortable dropping deep to gain possession and link-up with his teammates – a trait not always found in young attack-minded talent – but his pace is already forcing Preston's defenders out of their comfort zone. Almost from the onset of Ibe's run, the defenders are forced to retreat to the edge of their box – quite the reaction given Ibe's deep starting position. And once Ibe reaches them, they're stuck on their back foot – allowing Ibe to dribble past the first two tackle attempts easily.
But despite the early promise of his run, it quickly fizzles out with Ibe easily dispossessed following an attempt to cut into the box. And although there wasn't a great scoring opportunity wasted, it is the type of outcome that is so easily avoided. With a simple pass into space to his teammate out wide, Ibe could have kept possession for his team and perhaps provided them with an opportunity later in the sequence. Even a back pass to his midfielder would have done the trick.
But as the match progressed, Ibe seemed to grow a stronger feel for his teammates – linking up much more effectively and providing this assist to fellow youngster Suso to tie the match at 1-1.
In some regards, Suso's superb finish flatters Ibe's assist. After taking an errant, heavy touch, Ibe seems content to simply get the ball to Suso's feet before the pursuing Preston center back pounces on his mistake. Ideally, he very well might have liked to play Suso into some space – setting Suso up with the opportunity to find Kristoffer Peterson who was streaking into the box on the opposite side.
But, that being said, the space that Suso found at the edge of the box simply wouldn't have existed without Ibe's dribble through the center of the pitch. Notice how Ibe's pace allows him to ease past holding midfielder Neil Kilkenny - forcing Preston's backline to completely abandon their shape. With rightback Andy Little already caught too far up the pitch, center back Scott Laird is forced to leave Suso all alone on the right wing in a desperate attempt to cut off Ibe's run through the middle. While his technique may have let him down, Ibe's pace and the direct nature of his run more than made up for it.
In the modern game, with great emphasis placed on maintaining possession and playing quick one-twos at the edge of the box, playing out wide in attack has become a bit marginalized. But providing width and stretching out the defense remains a vital tool in any attempt to breaking down a well-organized defense. Let's consider how Ibe fares in this regard in the graphic below.
Here, Ibe and the Liverpool attack have caught Preston on the break with a three-on-two advantage. With Suso entirely unmarked on the right side of the pitch, Ibe needs to stay wide and continue his run towards the touch line before feeding it to him for a generous opportunity on goal. Instead, Ibe takes a few touches before cutting inside. Take a look at the result.
Whereas the Liverpool attack only needed to beat two defenders initially, Ibe's move to cut inside has allowed Preston's back line to catch up with their opponents and reorganize. With Ibe, Conor Coady, and Kristoffer Peterson all well-marked and Suso being closed down, Ibe is force to lash an errant shot from distance over the bar – a well-struck effort that made the poor decision look more impressive than it was.
But while the decision to cut inside was a disappointing one, Ibe redeemed himself soon thereafter for his best piece of play all afternoon. Below, Ibe once again finds himself on the left wing – this time against a organized, well-positioned back line as demonstrated by the small box of space that Peterson had to operate in.
Unlike the previous play, Ibe doesn't attempt to force play back into the middle, but rather keeps the play out wide – using his pace to beat his mark to the touch line and cut inside. With Ibe and Coady drawing two men a piece, Peterson finds himself in a considerable amount of space – as illustrated below.
This is what the combination of pace and width in attack can do to the most well-organized of sides. Ibe and his apparent target, Coady, absorb all of the defensive pressure while Peterson makes an easy run at the edge of the box into acres of space. Found with a simple pass from Ibe, Peterson doesn't take the shot all that well, but it finds the net nonetheless. With that much space to work in, your shots on goal needn't be the prettiest specimens in the world.
With Ibe's performance during the preseason thus far catching the eyes of many, some are beginning to speculate that he may very well be capable of making a first-team impact this season – comparing him to last season's breakout star, Raheem Sterling. On one level, the likeness between the two young Liverpool players are undeniable – as both possess the type of pace that can help break down a defense. And although he certainly hasn't been error-free thus far this preseason, I hesitate to subscribe to the narrative that he's far too "raw" and "unfinished."
After all, Sterling's development is still very much in progress as well. And Ibe certainly has the ability to add a certain dynamism to Liverpool's attack. All factors considered, his assist to Suso against Preston North End just about sums up what he offers LFC at this early point in his career. While the choices he makes may not be the best, he has the pace and athleticism to make up for it and contribute all the same.
But what the inevitable comparisons to Sterling ultimately loses sight of is that the career of Jordon Ibe is all his own. What Sterling has done and will do should have no effect on how Liverpool dispense with Ibe. For as much as they are similar, Sterling broke into the senior squad in an entirely different environment than the one Ibe finds himself in now. Facing competition for playing time from Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, Suso, and potentially Loïc Rémy, Ibe lacks the opportunity for surefire minutes with the first team – which is what needs more than anything at this stage in his career.
In the end, perhaps Ibe should look not to Sterling's career, but rather to that of Suso – whose successful loan spell with La Liga's Almeria continued his development. Ibe's journey to crack the Liverpool's senior squad and make an impact on the global stage is – like that of all young players – open-ended, unfinished. For what tomorrow will be, no one knows. But not knowing – at the very least – is half the fun.