It will be three years next month since Rhian Brewster’s eight goals helped England win the under-17s World Cup, brought him the Golden Boot and announced the striker as Liverpool’s future. The idea he may not be part of the club’s present has prompted understandable resistance among supporters already concerned at a lack of incomings this summer, although their angst pales alongside the dilemma confronting Brewster. Fight or flight? He is not the first young talent to wrestle with the answer at an elite club, but the predicament at Liverpool in 2020 feels particularly acute.
The Premier League champions, it is worth noting, are not actively looking to sell the gifted 20-year-old but their resolve to keep him could be broken by a significant offer and/or the player asking to go. Aston Villa, Newcastle and Crystal Palace made inquiries before signing alternatives and reducing Brewster’s options but Premier League interest remains. Brighton, for one. A return on loan to Swansea, where the forward scored 11 goals in 22 appearances last season under Steve Cooper, his England coach in 2017, remains a possibility before the Premier League to EFL transfer deadline on 16 October.
A loan would at least spare Liverpool from allegations of cashing in on one of their brightest academy prospects at a time when Jürgen Klopp insists the self-sustaining business model of Fenway Sports Group is more important than ever. But even that move, at this particular and peculiar time, would come with regret for those waiting to see Brewster make his first Premier League appearance in a Liverpool shirt. This season, with its intense demands on leading clubs and heightened risk of injuries, feels like the right time to stick around and wait. Providing there is patience on all sides.
Barring any late training-ground injury or overnight illness we all know what Liverpool’s front line will be for the start of the title defense against Leeds on Saturday. Brewster does too and he will have drawn little encouragement from a pre-season program when Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané started all four of Liverpool’s friendlies. Even League One Blackpool faced the formidable front three at Anfield last Saturday when, with Brewster on England under-21 duty, Divock Origi offered the only attacking cover in the 7-2 win. All the more reason for Liverpool to resist offers for Brewster, although Klopp is yet to reveal his hand on what he considers the next best step for the youngster’s career.
As Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri can testify, it is complicated enough for an international to move from the margins to the forefront of the manager’s attacking plans at Anfield. Defenders outside the consistent back four face a similar mental test. Predicting his starting lineups would be a nice boost to morale but for the steady rotation in midfield. Fit, as they almost always are, and Mané, Salah and Firmino start. Winning the Premier League demands it, given the minuscule margin for error Liverpool and Manchester City have allowed and the imperious starts behind their haul of 99, 98 and 100 points over the past three seasons.
Liverpool have played 114 Premier League games since the front three that has taken them to two Champions League finals, the coveted league title and the Club World Cup forged a perfect balance from the start of the 2017-18 season. Firmino has missed five league games in that period and started 97. Salah has missed six and started 104. Mane has missed 14 and started 94, with a hamstring injury and suspension in 2017-18 accounting for the bulk of his absences. Their availability is as important to Liverpool’s success as their world-class ability and prodigious work ethic. How long they can continue to carry the load may determine the success of Liverpool’s title defense but – and Brewster would be forgiven for despairing by now – Klopp’s desire to sign Timo Werner signaled he, too, believes his front line will require rest and freshening up after three highly demanding seasons.
The impact of Covid-19 on Liverpool’s finances ultimately thwarted their pursuit of Werner and steered the Germany international to Chelsea, one of the clubs “owned by countries, owned by oligarchs” that Klopp argued this week had few concerns about the uncertainty facing the football world. Ruthless as it sounds, that uncertainty provides encouragement for Brewster.
A serious ankle injury sustained three months after topping the world with England in India deprived the striker of vital momentum. At international level Eddie Nketiah has edged ahead in the under-21 set-up – Brewster came on for the Arsenal striker in games against Kosovo and Austria over the past week when Nketiah scored four goals – and at senior level he may well have looked upon Mason Greenwood, two years his junior, with envy this past week.
Well, maybe not every aspect of Greenwood’s first senior call-up. One man’s burst bio-secure bubble is another’s opportunity, as they say, and there will be one in the approach to Euro 2020 should Gareth Southgate discipline the Manchester United striker by omitting him and Phil Foden from the next England squad. Brewster needs to be playing to capitalize and that will be in the thinking as he ponders the next, crucial move over the final weeks of the transfer window.
Klopp said in the immediate aftermath of Liverpool’s title triumph that the champions could improve this season through the development of internal talent such as Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones. The obstacles ahead look formidable, but Brewster has what it takes to be part of that company.
The Guardian Sport