Following the departure of Raheem Sterling to Man City in the summer, much of the burden to replace him fell on the young shoulders of Jordon Ibe. After the strange decision to loan-out Lazar Markovic to Fenerbahce for the season, this left Ibe as the only recognisable winger in the senior squad at Liverpool. After being recalled from Derby in January last season, Ibe made an immediate positive impression in the first team, confirming his status as Liverpool’s brightest academy prospect.
However, things didn’t turn out quite as expected for Ibe at the start of the 2015/16 season, as he struggled with a severe lack of confidence and a worrying dip in form in the early stages of the season. He looked afraid to take players on, often dribbling down blind alleys before giving the ball away- unrecognisable from the fearless, bold player we know he can be. The arrival of Jurgen Klopp signified an upturn in form for Ibe, who quickly developed a strong relationship with the new manager.
Ibe scored his first goal for Liverpool with a superb finish in the 1-0 away victory against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League, as he collected Firmino’s pass before surging through the opposition’s midfield to find the bottom corner from the edge of the area. His first senior goal clearly boosted Ibe’s confidence, as his performances improved significantly. He added a second goal to his collection with a fine finish, drilling the ball into the bottom corner after controlling Moreno’s cross to make it 5-1 as Liverpool thrashed Southampton at Saint Mary’s in the League Cup quarter-final. In the semi-final of the same competition, Ibe scored in the first leg as Liverpool beat Stoke 1-0. The slender advantage was cancelled out as Liverpool went on to lose by the same scoreline at Anfield, eventually progressing to the final on penalties.
Ibe’s stats for the season so far stand at 3 goals and 3 assists in all competitions. Not terrible, but hardly prolific for an attacking player. In terms of chances created, he averages 1.33 per game in the Premier League, which is significantly lower than similar-type players such as Sterling (1.79), Deulofeu (2.26) and Oxlade-Chamberlain (1.83), but higher than £28 million Memphis Depay (0.72). In terms of successful take-ons per game, Ibe fairs very well in comparison to these players. Ibe manages 3.61 successful take-ons per game, slightly higher than Oxlade-Chamberlain (3.55) and Deulofeu (3.19) and significantly higher than Sterling (1.91) and Depay (1.89). However, where Ibe clearly falls short is in terms of his finishing. Ibe manages just 18% shots on target, compared to Sterling (63%), Depay (44%), Deulofeu (83%) and Oxlade-Chamberlain (33%). Stats aren’t everything, but these numbers give a clear indication of Ibe’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison to similar-type players in the Premier League.
Some of Ibe’s recent performances have been rather frustrating to watch due to his lack of end product, despite receiving lots of the ball in promising positions. The lack of goals and assists from Ibe has led to suggestions that perhaps he isn’t of the required quality for Liverpool in the long term. Another winger with bags of pace, but little to show for it. Although it is true that Ibe’s productivity must improve, it would be harsh to make such a defining judgement at this stage in his career. Despite being a first-team regular, he is still only 20 and time is very much on his side.
Ibe possesses many natural attributes needed to succeed. He is blessed with great natural speed and strength, whilst his balance and dribbling ability are impressive. His powerful, driving runs are difficult for defenders to stop once he gets into full flow. There are, however, some fundamental aspects currently missing from his game. For a winger, his crossing is especially poor as he often fails to beat the first man. Ibe’s decision making is his biggest weakness and he must learn when to release the ball. Too often he carries the ball high up the pitch but fails to pick out the right final pass, giving away possession. His finishing leaves plenty to be desired, although this should improve with time. He does possess a powerful strike, but he needs to be more consistent with his shooting, as it is often erratic and well off-target.
It is inevitable that Ibe will face comparisons with Sterling due to their similarities in play-styles. At this stage in their respective careers, Ibe is some way behind Sterling in terms of development. However, it is a difficult comparison to make, as Sterling had the luxury of playing alongside Suarez and Sturridge and was able to feed off their brilliance to a degree. Ibe, in contrast, has been playing in a Liverpool side much lower in confidence and ability. While Sterling had the movement and flair of Sturridge and Suarez, Ibe has spent much of his playing time this season with Benteke as the focal point of the attack- a player whose lack of movement has proved a major problem this season. Ibe often looks a better player coming off the bench as an impact-sub, and it is difficult for a 20 year-old to bear so much responsibility as the only senior winger at the club.
Only time will tell as to whether Ibe has the quality to become a long-term success at Liverpool. His has many of the raw attributes, but his decision making and end product simply have to improve as he gains more experience if he is to make the grade. Aged 20, there is plenty of time for Ibe to develop these skills, and despite his current shortcomings and tendency to frustrate, we cannot write-off such a promising young talent at this stage. One thing is for certain- Ibe has the attitude and the professionalism which will help him go a long way. He is motivated, well-grounded and has the hunger to succeed. Next season will be an important one for Ibe, who will face more competition as Klopp will look to reshape and add to his squad in a summer overhaul. Ibe is currently tied down to a long-term deal at the club, and the next 18 months will be revealing in terms of his long-term prospects at Liverpool. Personally, I strongly hope and believe that Ibe has what it takes to make a successful career- a case in point for other youngsters that the path from the academy to the first team can still be bridged.