Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders has expressed his excitement at Harvey Elliott’s return to full training, saying that the youngster “didn’t lose his football brain.”
Elliott has been out of action since September, having dislocated his ankle in a 3-0 Leeds United. The teenager had played in all four of Liverpool’s previous games this season.
The 18-year-old returned to full training earlier this week and Lijnders smiled as he was asked about the former Fulham player at a news conference ahead of Liverpool’s EFL Cup semi-final second leg at Arsenal.
“Let me say it like this, he didn’t lose his football brain,” Lijnders said, though he did not put a timescale on Elliott’s return to match action.
“He shows immediately what he’s about. It would be a crime if you would not play him if he trains like this, but we know it’s just the start of the team training. He needs time and we go step by step, of course.
“Some players they never knock on the door, they run through it – and he’s one of them.”
Elliott, the youngest ever Premier League player, returned to Merseyside at the end of last season having enjoyed a productive loan spell at Championship side Blackburn Rovers, where he registered the joint-third most assists in the division (11), behind only Emiliano Buendia (16) and Michael Olise (12), who is now playing a starring role for Crystal Palace.
He was also the only player in the Championship to register as many as three second assists – which Opta defines as a pass/cross that is instrumental in creating a goal-scoring opportunity – and was eighth overall for successful passes into the final third (519), ahead of the likes of Olise (495), Leicester City’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall (478 while on loan at Luton Town) and Tottenham’s Oliver Skipp (441 while on loan at Norwich City).
In his three Premier League starts and one substitute appearance this season before his injury, Elliott created five chances, more than team-mate Curtis Jones (three) has in his four starts and three appearances from the bench, and won possession in the middle third of the pitch (17) more often than Jones (11) and even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (12) despite the former Arsenal man making 15 league appearances, seven of which have been starts.
Lijnders also had words of praise for Liverpool’s opponents on Thursday, crediting the work that Mikel Arteta has done since taking charge of Arsenal just over two years ago and noting how well the Gunners played in the goalless first leg at Anfield despite going down to 10 men in the first half when Granit Xhaka was sent off.
Arteta, too, has been happy to utilise younger players as he continues to freshen up Arsenal’s squad.
“First of all, Arsenal always had really good players but, for me, they have a really good team at this moment,” Lijnders added. “I think credit to Mikel, they matured.
“You see many games where the team with 10 men plays better than the 11 – not play better but they give just this extra step, they give this extra [bit] more because they know they have one player less. What happens many times with the 11 players is that they do one thing less because they know they have one player more. That’s exactly what happened.
“Anyway, what I like about the Arsenal game is that we wanted to surprise them with our intensity and that’s what we did until Xhaka went off.
“I really think that in football the only advantage exists if you go to the last minute of the game, to be honest. Before that, it’s quite even. I think Mikel did an unbelievable job. The team is a proper team.
“They were struggling as well with injuries and, how you said, COVID cases and they had to change as well in the last minute, but if you can play with 10 men like that then you have a mature and good team.”