Dominic Solanke was the player of the tournament as England won the Under-20 World Cup. But can he be a success at Liverpool following his summer switch from Chelsea? Adam Bate spoke to the club and international coaches who know him best to find out.
He was supposed to be the Chelsea academy graduate who was certain to make it. The youngest player that the club had ever sent out on loan. An England star at youth level. A forward who made his Champions League debut just weeks after turning 17. “Believe me, it’s the first of many in a Chelsea shirt,” said captain John Terry at the time.
It turned out to be his only senior appearance for the club.
Almost three years on and after an entire season on the sidelines, frozen out due to a contract dispute, Solanke has moved on to Liverpool in the hope of making the next step there instead. His progress has stalled, but his performances for England on the way to the Under-20 World Cup triumph in South Korea are a reminder that this is an unusual talent.
A penalty against Argentina in the opening game was the first of four goals that included the winner in the quarter-final against Mexico and two in the impressive 3-1 semi-final victory over Italy. Ultimately, he was named as FIFA’s player of the tournament – a recognition that as well as his goals, Solanke brought others into play and worked hard for the team.
“That is a really pleasing thing about him,” England’s out-of-possession coach Andy Edwards tells Sky Sports. “Defending starts from the front and he is aware of that. You cannot afford to carry anyone defensively and we certainly don’t. While forwards are the match-winners and they get the glory, the other side of it is important too. The best teams all have that.”
It is an indication that Solanke has the right attitude to succeed. Certainly, Edwards has no doubts. “He is a really good, solid lad who is very hard-working, very humble and very talented,” he adds. “I think he is going to have a very good career,” It’s a view shared by those who have worked with him at club level too.
Former Chelsea youth-team coach Adi Viveash knows him better than anyone. The former Reading defender used to drive the nine-year-old Solanke to training. “I’ve known him since he was a baby sitting in the back of my car,” Viveash tells Sky Sports. “He was a very shy and quiet boy. To have him as one of my main players 10 years later meant a lot to me.”
It was under Viveash that Solanke became the hero of the 2014 FA Youth Cup final against Fulham, equalising with 10 minutes to go before scoring a last-gasp winner. When Viveash became Chelsea’s under-21 coach the following season, Solanke moved up with him – top scoring in the UEFA Youth League and getting what turned out to be the winner in the final.
“I have been very lucky as I have worked with some very talented players,” says Viveash. “But Dominic is right up there at the top of that list. He is an outstanding footballer. He’s intelligent and has great movement. He plays like a No 9 and a No 10 put together. Without being disrespectful, he reminds me of Teddy Sheringham but quicker.”
It’s the sort of praise that only adds to the frustration at a wasted season. An unused substitute for Chelsea’s EFL Cup win over Bristol Rovers in the autumn, Solanke has not featured in a senior squad since. His only league football at senior level remains the 25 Eredivisie appearances for Vitesse last season in which he found the net only seven times.
“If you are elevated to a status where you do so well so young, which he did in scoring winning goals in an FA Youth Cup final at 16 and scoring the winning penalty in the Under-17 European Championships with England, it gets you to a level where you need to be playing senior football,” admits Viveash.
“He did that with Vitesse. Obviously, there were certain parts of that in terms of going to a different country that I think he found difficult. People expected him to go there and score more goals than he did. Since that time it has been frustrating for him. But it has nothing to do with me what has happened there with his contract.”
What has happened is that Solanke has decided that his prospects are better at Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s reputation for encouraging young talent will surely have been a factor. “I was overjoyed as a developer of young players by Klopp’s approach,” former Liverpool under-23 coach Michael Beale told Sky Sports. “He’s very patient with young players.”
Speaking to Klopp earlier in the season, the Liverpool boss outlined why. “We have to create a situation where these boys see a real perspective,” he explained. “It’s very important because they need to know there’s a way. That’s not unselfish. It’s selfish, because we want these boys. We want to help them and we want them to help us from a specific point on.”
World Cup pedigree
Dominic Solanke joins Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Paul Pogba as a winner of the Under-20 World Cup’s best player award.
Now Solanke is one of his boys. A playing in need of nurturing. A player in need of a chance, according to Edwards. “He is going from one big club to another big club but I am sure he wants to be playing first-team football as soon as he can because he is a player of massive potential,” says his England coach. But Viveash knows first-team action is still no certainty.
“There is no guarantee going to Liverpool that he will get more opportunities,” adds his old Chelsea coach. “There are obviously three very good senior forwards ahead of him. That is the challenge but he and his advisors obviously feel he will get that opportunity. But I’m not sure it’s not just about getting a fresh start as much as anything else.”
That was not going to happen at Chelsea. “If you don’t bring kids through the academy, the best thing is to close the academy,” Jose Mourinho had said just weeks after giving Solanke his debut, having previously admitted he would blame himself if the player did not become a Chelsea and England forward. But that dream is over. Another one begins.
As a result, perhaps some bitterness might be expected at the Bridge. Not all supporters will wish him the best in Liverpool red. But there are those at Chelsea who still expect Solanke to make it. And they will be feeling pride if and when he does. “Everyone at Chelsea will just want Dominic to have the best career that he can have,” insists Viveash.
“He needs to come again. He has to find himself, but the talent is amazing. I really hope he can fulfil that potential. Sometimes people need that change of scenery to make that happen. Let’s hope that’s the case with him.” Success in South Korea could be just the start.