It was the kind of centre-half performance Virgil van Dijk would have appreciated.
And at the end of it, a clean sheet.
It is coming up to 12 months since Sepp van den Berg walked down the Anfield tunnel with the noise of a delighted Kop ringing in his ears.
Liverpool had just beaten Shrewsbury, of League One, in the FA Cup. Nothing remarkable there, except this was no normal Liverpool team.
Jurgen Klopp and his senior squad were absent, taking advantage of the Premier League’s first mid-season break rather than fulfilling this fourth-round replay.
And so the side selected by Neil Critchley, Klopp’s stand-in, had an average age of just 19 and, in Curtis Jones, featured the youngest captain in the club’s history. Remarkably, in front of more than 52,000 supporters, they won 1-0, thanks to an own goal from Shrewsbury’s RoShaun Williams.
It may only have been a year ago, but is interesting to note what has happened to the XI who started that game.
Jones, for example, is now firmly established as part of Klopp’s senior squad. So too Neco Williams and Caoimhin Kelleher, who have 30 first-team appearances between them.
Leighton Clarkson and Jake Cain train regularly alongside the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson at Kirkby – Clarkson made his senior debut in the Champions League in December – while Liam Millar, Adam Lewis and, most notably, Harvey Elliott are making waves on loan in the Football League.
Others have left the club entirely. Pedro Chirivella, the oldest member of Critchley’s line-up against Shrewsbury, joined Nantes on a free transfer in June, while Ki-Jana Hoever moved to Wolves in September, a £9 million ($12m) sweetener as part of the deal which brought Diogo Jota to Merseyside.
And then there’s Van den Berg. Still there, still working hard, yet still waiting for that next step, be it at Anfield or elsewhere.
Shrewsbury was the 19-year-old’s last first-team appearance. Not an especially surprising fact, maybe, but when you consider the problems Liverpool have had in defence, and in particular at centre-back, then the situation becomes a little more curious.
This, after all, is a player with top-flight experience. A player with more than 20 Eredivisie appearances under his belt, and one who was coveted by both Ajax and Bayern Munich before choosing Liverpool.
Anfield sources compared Van den Berg to Joe Gomez when he joined – a young defender with big potential, who would soon be challenging for a first-team spot.
That hasn’t happened yet. Van den Berg appeared four times in Liverpool’s senior side last season, but his opportunities this term have been limited, to say the least.
He has been on the bench once, an unused substitute against Lincoln in the Carabao Cup back in September. Another teenager, Rhys Williams, was preferred that night, and is well and truly ahead in the pecking order as things stand.
He’s not the only one, either. Nat Phillips has played three times in the Premier League, while Billy Koumetio became the youngest European debutant in the club’s history away at Midtjylland in December, aged just 18 years and 25 days. Koumetio has already made a big impression on both Klopp and his assistant, Pep Lijnders.
Van den Berg, meanwhile, has spent the campaign with Barry Lewtas’ Under-23 side, looking to show exactly why Liverpool were so keen to bring him to Merseyside. A forgotten centre-half, at a club for whom centre-half has been the talking point for months.
It is fair to say his debut campaign was a difficult one, that Shrewsbury game aside,but there have been signs of real progress this time around.
“He’s been a real consistent performer for us,” Lewtas said after Van den Berg shone in the U23s’ draw with Everton last week. “He is full of confidence and playing at a really consistent level, so we are really pleased with where he is at.”
Van den Berg’s potential has always been clear – he played for Zwolle in the Eredivisie at 17, after all – but it has been a steep learning curve for him in England.
Young defenders will always have physical and positional flaws, but Liverpool have been keen to encourage him to play on the front foot more, to be comfortable playing high, and to look for high-value passes from the back.
Talent is one thing, but Klopp and his first-team staff want personality as well. That’s part of thereason Williams, Phillips and Koumetio have moved ahead this season.
The next step for Van den Berg will almost certainly be a loan move. Liverpool have held discussions this month with top-flight clubs from Switzerland and Belgium, and at least one from the Germany second division,while a number of Championship sides have checked on his progress too.
Blackburn were among those keen, but they opted to sign Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite instead, while Norwich had a scout watching his most recent outing.
The report from that game will have been overwhelmingly positive. Van den Berg, alongside Koumetio, looked a different player to the one we saw for most of last season. He was stronger, louder, better balanced, more alert and in control. He looked, in short, like the player Liverpool thought they were signing.
Whether he will ever make it to Klopp’s first team, though, is another matter. It certainly says something that he hasn’t had a single chance this season, given everything that’s happened.
But 19 is no age at all, especiallyfor a centre-back, and a good loan move could be the making of the youngster.
Source : goal.com