Dominic Solanke‘s decision to leave Chelsea for Liverpool this summer, agreeing an eventual switch in June while on international duty with England at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, made a pretty big splash at the time.
Even more so when the Young Lions became the first English team at any level to be crowned World Champions at the tournament, with Solanke the recipient of the Golden Ball award for the competition’s best player.
The 20-year-old’s choice to leave Stamford Bridge in pursuit of regular football at senior level shone a light of how Chelsea’s incredibly prolific academy offers many youngsters a career in football, just not with the Blues.
Moving to Liverpool was indicative of the player’s thirst for fulfilment, to make good on the promise he showed at the Under-20 World Cup. Solanke evidently felt his first-team prospects at Anfield, despite competition from Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge, would be stronger than they were at Chelsea.
To a degree, he was right: Solanke has already made more senior appearances for Liverpool (12), than he ever did for Chelsea (one). But his Premier League game time with the Reds thus far only amounts to 25 minutes, with just a two starst under his belt.
There’s a belief that the start against Everton only arrived because Daniel Sturridge was ruled out with an injury. In all likelihood, barring an injury crisis, he will be back on the bench, like he was against West Brom, a lot more often than he is in the starting XI this season.
Of course, no one expects Jürgen Klopp to throw Solanke straight into the fray. The young striker is still raw and developing; starting him every week at a club with high pressure and expectations as Liverpool could end up doing as much damage as not playing him at all.
But there is an ideal balance that must be struck, a sweet spot where opportunity and learning on the job meets proper rest and protection from intense scrutiny. At 20, Solanke is still very young and there is no need to rush his development. But, ideally, he would have clocked significantly more than 152 minutes of top-flight action as the fourth month of the season approaches.
This, then, begs the question: at this stage of his career, would Solanke benefit from a loan move away from Anfield?
Although they have landed at clubs who find themselves in the grip of a relegation battle, as individuals, their performances have been good. They are benefitting from regular playing time and the confidence that comes with knowing their place in the side is assured.
Theoretically, this allows the young men – Abraham, 20, and Loftus-Cheek, 21 – to play under less pressure. Had they been fighting for game time, they might feel more desperate to impress when they get on the field, forcing the issue and making errors by over-trying. The ability to relax a little, grow accustomed to their surroundings and grow within a defined role, appears to be paying dividends.
At Crystal Palace this season, Loftus-Cheek has started nine Premier League games and made one substitute appearance, for a total of 811 minutes – it would have been more, too, if not for an injury ruling his out for a short period earlier in the campaign. Abraham, at Swansea City, has made 11 starts and come off the bench twice, clocking 986 Premier League minutes.
The pair’s average of 1005 minutes of top-flight action so far this term is almost six times as much as Solanke’s total.
What’s more, despite playing in a team with grave struggles in the creativity department, Abraham, a striker like Solanke, has scored four times in the top flight. The Liverpool man has only taken seven shots across his eight appearances, with none finding the net.
All three men were handed senior England debuts during the last international break in recognition of their status as the future of the Three Lions. They could even be in wth an outside bet of making Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad next summer, but Solanke must first crack the starting XI at club level on a semi-regular basis before he can even becomes a consideration. As things stand, Abraham and Loftus-Cheek – who played in both of England’s last two friendlies whereas Solanke featured only once – must be further ahead in the queue.
Of course, when their loan spells finish at the end of the season, Loftus-Cheek and Abraham will return to Chelsea, where no youth team graduates have established themselves as a bona fide first-team star since John Terry broke through in the late 1990s – although Andreas Christensen appears on the verge of bucking that trend. There is no doubt that Solanke’s Liverpool move leaves him better placed for starring in an elite side down the line.
But there is a strong argument to be made that, right now, developmentally, Solanke could benefit from taking a step or two down the ladder temporarily.