BEING a Premier League winger must be one of the most challenging roles in football. Your job description involves many elements; some of the main ones being beat your man, provide assists and contribute a few goals.
In other words, the game-changing, match-winning tasks that are understandably hard to accomplish because opponents are fully set on stopping you carrying them out.
In fact, at some point you are cast iron guaranteed to fail in the first of those three aspects. There has yet to be a footballer who got past a challenge on every single occasion he entered in to a one v one. Modern defenders are fast and strong and often have help from fellow members of the back-line or colleagues tracking back to assist them.
So being a winger is tough, really tough. But the supporters want you take on the man every time. And, if you don’t, or sensibly decide to pass inside to retain possession you will hear about it. Sometimes you might get a collective groan from the stands. On other occasions it is a shout of ‘get at him’.
It’s under these types of pressure that two young LFC wide-men have enjoyed, or endured, contrasting fortunes this season.
2015/16 began with fans having great hopes for London born Jordon Ibe. He had impressed during the previous campaign, spending the first half of it on loan at Championship Derby County where he made such an impact that he was called back by Brendan Rodgers and went to make 14 appearances, almost netting what would have been a spectacular winner in a scoreless Merseyside derby along the way.
That involvement led to a new contract during the summer and he was pictured doing extra training at the LFC Academy in Kirkby alongside Kenny Dalglish. There was a buzz about him and what he could give the team.
Of course one element of why fans were willing him to do well, aside from his obvious talent, was the transfer of Raheem Sterling to Man City around that time. With him gone, albeit for a huge fee of £49m, there was an understandable longing for Ibe to take his place and be even better. That would be hugely satisfying for the Kop.
Supporters were heard saying the lad who had originally joined Liverpool’s youth set up from Wycombe Wanderers in 2011 ‘is better than Sterling’ or ‘has more to his game’. They wanted him to show that the club could thrive without the departee, that the England winger’s loss wasn’t really such a big deal.
Ibe started the first two league games, 1-0 victories over Stoke City and then Bournemouth. While he didn’t play poorly in either he didn’t really stand out.
He wouldn’t get another league start until November 8. By then Jurgen Klopp had replaced Rodgers. And, initially at least, the German seemed to get more from Ibe.
His first senior LFC goal came in a 1-0 Europa League win away to Rubin, after which the manager embraced him joyfully on the pitch while humorously screaming ‘Ibeeeeee’.
Klopp: “Ibeeee”??? https://t.co/FZfgmQvHmc
— Scott (@RedsOrDead) November 5, 2015
There was also a well-taken strike in a 6-1 League Cup romp at Southampton and then a semi-final first leg winner at Stoke City in the next round.
That was as good as it got for him this season though. His lack of playing time from that game until the middle of April even led to suggestions that he had fallen out with the manager, something which Klopp was quick to deny after Ibe had started in a 2-1 win away at Bournemouth where he played a part in the first goal and set up the second for Daniel Sturridge.
Klopp, as he proved at Borussia Dortmund, knows how to help youngsters develop and his remark that “sometimes they [youngsters] are in the squad, sometimes not” is very true. Young players who are still progressing won’t always play and Ibe certainly fits in that category as he doesn’t turn 21 until December.
Another common belief around emerging talents it that they will inevitably have good and bad spells as they learn about the game.
Again, Ibe comes under that heading. This season – his first full one at Premier League level – has seen him have ups and downs.
A recent 2-0 win over Watford probably encapsulated his fortunes right now. He was producing tricks to go past opponents but then falling over. Getting clipped but not being awarded a free-kick.
Or taking two touches when one was required.
It was almost like he was trying too hard for the 90 minutes and it just wasn’t happening. Even when a low ball zipped across goal and came to him at the back post his attempted finish smacked the outside of the woodwork and flew in to the Kop.
Meanwhile, the youngster who started the game on the opposite flank, Sheyi Ojo, seems to only have to barely try to make something happen at the moment.
Against Watford he blocked down a clearance. The ball could have flown anywhere. It landed at the feet of Roberto Firmino who drove forward and scored thanks to some awful goalkeeping from Heurelho Gomes. It meant Ojo had earned an assist by not doing anything incredible, just working hard as Klopp demands.
For the boy from Hemel Hempstead who had moved to Merseyside from MK Dons in the same year as Ibe this was his third assist in four Premier League starts, as LFC fans gleefully Tweeted.
Like Ibe the previous season, Ojo spent the first half of this campaign on loan – in his case at Wolves – before being recalled to Anfield, mainly due to the demands of an injury crisis and a congested fixture list.
No matter the circumstances, the 18-year-old has grabbed that opportunity and right now he is buzzing. On Wednesday night he again ended up creating a goal.
This time it was from the left flank. Asmir Begovic completely failing to deal with his cross and, more or less, palming it on to the head of a grateful Christian Benteke to score a last minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw. ‘Another assist’ somebody who must have been a relative of Ojo’s sat behind us in the Main Stand at Anfield screamed.
You get the feeling that if Ibe had been the deliverer of the same ball then Benteke would have headed it over or wide, such is the winger’s fortunes right now.
But, while Ibe is clearly going through a dip in form, nobody can ever accuse him of hiding. He continues to want the ball and to try to impress. That attitude could help him to fulfil his undoubted potential.
Whereas for Ojo it’s just a case of continuing to enjoy himself in the knowledge that it won’t always be like this. It won’t always go to plan when he pulls on a red shirt and those are the times when he’ll have to dig in and keep going, just as Ibe is doing right now. That’s another big part of the challenge involved in one of football’s most demanding roles.