“Consider a Ben Doak in top shape!”
Scot Gemmill, the manager of Scotland’s under-21 team, made this remark after watching the Liverpool winger terrorize Spain on his debut start for his nation’s U21 team on Monday night in Spain during their UEFA European U21 Championship qualifier.
Ben Doak gave an outstanding performance, Gemmill continued to say to reporters. “I’d even add that he still has more to offer. Due to his little playing time for such a prestigious team, he is currently not entirely match fit.
“Hopefully everyone saw that it was a top performance,” I said.
With Doak’s performance attracting the attention of many who were watching the match, it is safe to suppose that many viewers of the game, whether they were watching it on television or in the 12,569-seat Estadio de la Victoria, home of Real Jaen in Andalucia, were moved to say the same thing.
The inference that Gemmill is making about Doak’s lack of fitness has nothing to do with the winger’s 17-year-old age. Instead, it is a reference to the number of minutes the player has managed this year as he balances the difficult line between playing time with the Academy and the periphery of the first team.
Not surprisingly with Mohamed Salah his main competition for a place on the right side of Jurgen Klopp’s impressive attack for Liverpool this season, Doak has found his appearances to have been limited.
Doak had a strong preseason, playing for 45 minutes against Karlsruhe, another 45 against Greuther Furth, a similar amount of time against Leicester City in which he scored, 15 minutes against Bayern Munich, and 30 minutes against SV Darmstadt.
The young Scot, who joined from Scottish Premiership champions Celtic for $600,000 last summer after having experience playing in an Old Firm game against Rangers for the first team, would go on to impress Liverpool captain Van Dijk.
Van Dijk continued to tell reporters who were at Preston for the final preseason friendly against Darmstadt in early August, “I remember when I saw him last year, I remember when he came on against Villa away last year (for Doak’s Premier League debut as a late substitute in the 3-1 win at Aston Villa on Boxing Day), and he did that stepover and went past the full-back.
He is highly engaging, straightforward, and one-on-one. Because of how quickly he moves and how he buzzes around, I refer to him as a Tasmanian devil. He has all the time in the world to improve his decision-making, so he might very well be one for the future.
“But I’ve seen also so many players his age-accelerating very well, and then not going to the next level. Hopefully, he can do that for us. Let’s be positive and hope for him that he will be part of our success.”
But when the real stuff of the Premier League season has got underway, Doak has been restricted to just 13 minutes from the bench at the end of the 1-1 opening weekend draw at Chelsea, after which he has been an unused substitute against Bournemouth, Newcastle United and Aston Villa, all of which were won by Klopp’s side to ensure their strong start to the season with 10 points from 12 games, a tally only surpassed by leaders Manchester City and their 100% record after four games.
Of course, it is early days both in terms of the season and the Liverpool career of Doak, who does not turn 18 until November but has already made several appearances for the Scotland U21 side.
But Doak does not take a long time to get to the point of what he is trying to achieve. In his first game for the U18s, he would score his first goal after only five minutes and also scored another in a 6-2 win over Middlesbrough. After only five games in the U18 Premier League North, Doak would be promoted to the U21s where he would mark his first start with a strike in the 2-1 mini-derby win over Everton at the Academy.
That came only days after his bow in the EFL Trophy while Doak would also become a regular in the run to the UEFA Youth League quarter-finals, contributing four goals and four assists. Indeed, his absence was keenly felt following his early substitution due to having suffered a concussion in the last eight defeat at Sporting Lisbon.
Doak would make his first in November as a substitute in the League Cup tie against Derby County in which a brief cameo wowed the Liverpool supporters who had turned up to watch the fourth-round tie, which ended goalless with the Reds eventually winning via a penalty shoot-out.
“That’s Ben,” Liverpool boss Klopp told reporters afterward at Anfield. “His instructions were easy: do what you do all the time. He is a lively boy, a smart player, a good dribbler, fast, and can use both legs. He’s good. It was nice to watch, really nice to watch – him coming in and immediately a lot of things are natural to him, which is helpful.
“I am pretty sure his family was here. I can remember when I saw the family at the AXA (Training Centre) when we signed the boy, how excited everybody was. Now having this night, it’s the next step, it’s cool. He showed up.”
Following his brief appearance in his league debut against Aston Villa on Boxing Day, Doak would go on to make similar FA Cup appearances against Wolves and a Premier League cameo at Brighton in the New Year. With less than three minutes left, Doak came on to replace Darwin Nunez, and his first contribution was to challenge Lucas Digne, knocking him to the ground, and then, seconds later, to challenge the same player again with a turn and a trademark thrust into the penalty area from the right flank.
The U21s’ loss in this season’s competitive play in Premier League 2 was caused by the promotion to becoming a first-team matchday squad regular. Opportunities in the League Cup and Europa League may now be knocking for a guy who has played for Liverpool’s first team for just 73 minutes, as those competitions begin this month with home games against Leicester City and away games against LASK of Linz, respectively.
If Ben Doak were fully fit, Liverpool would have a viable alternative for the upcoming weeks and, if he keeps improving, even beyond that.