With Mohamed Salah yet to sign a new contract, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for casting a fearful thought about what life after the ‘Egyptian King’ might look like. Yet Anfield may have an heir to the throne ready in waiting – all rise for Kaide Gordon.
The young winger only turned 17 earlier this month but is already making waves in the Liverpool first-team set up. Having been selected to spend preseason with the men’s squad, Gordon swiftly made his senior debut in a 3-0 Carabao Cup victory at Norwich in September.
Signed from boyhood club Derby County in February, Gordon’s rapid integration into the squad of one of European football’s giants marks a meteoric rise that few would have foreseen.
Leading sports scientist Simon Brundish is one of those few. With Gordon attending the same school as his son, Brundish had a front row seat to the winger’s early developments.
Technically excellent with a fierce attitude to match, Gordon’s recent physical growth has Brundish convinced that he is destined for greatness with both club and country.
“Unequivocally, the best 17-year-old I’ve seen,” Brundish told CNN Sport. “You definitely need to remember his name.
“He just grew four inches this year, when he’d already signed and played for Liverpool by this stage – so he wasn’t signed because he was big, he’s had to do all that problem solving as a little guy.
“And he’s a fiery little guy – he will rip your head off to win a game,” continued Brundish, speaking metaphorically. “But if he could rip your head off and then back heel it through your legs? That’s who he is.
“Now, he’s grown into the physical qualities – he now can top nine-and-a-half meters per second in sprint terms and can now do more than 40 sprints a game – all he will have to work on are the tactical elements and experience of playing in men’s football and he will fly.”
Like many young players, Gordon played several positions at youth level before settling on a more established role. Originally a central midfielder – graceful on the ball but a combative tackler nonetheless – Gordon eventually transitioned to the right wing, reflecting the rise of the inside forward.
It is fair to say that Liverpool already boast the best player in the world in this position – arguably the best in the world in any position currently – in Salah.
The Egyptian has waged a one man war on the record books since his arrival from Roma in 2017, picking up two more accolades in the historic 5-0 rout of Manchester United by becoming the Premier League’s first opposition player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford as well as the league’s all time leading African goalscorer.
Following up his incredible solo effort against Manchester City with an individual effort of equal brilliance against Watford two weeks later, Salah seems determined to host his very own goal of the season competition.
The goal at Watford in particular was a jaw-dropping display of dribbling and close control – receiving the ball just inside the box, Salah warps through three yellow shirts in a telephone box-sized space before feinting inside and curling the ball into the far corner.
It was a display of individual brilliance and touch that Brundish believes solidifies the “unprecedented” Salah’s reputation as the greatest Premier League player of all time alongside Thierry Henry and puts him on track for the Ballon d’Or.
READ: Mo Salah might be the best Premier League player ever but is the ‘unprecedented’ Liverpool forward still underrated?
Premier League full-backs look away now but Brundish believes Gordon, swiftly becoming a student of Salah’s game, may have already surpassed the teacher in some areas.
“His first touch – it’s absolutely phenomenal. It might be better than Salah’s already,” Brundish said.
“He [Gordon] is purely left-footed, he can kick it with his right but I think he’s modeling his game more and more on Salah. It was David Silva, and as a younger player, he used to play center midfield.
“He was much more like a very, very technical Roy Keane. He would snap you in half and then run off with the ball laughing at you and slam it into the corner.
“As he’s aging out – because he was never big enough to play center midfield in Premier League football – and Salah and the inverted forward emerged, he gradually moved over to the right-hand side.”
Deployed alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, Salah has fronted an attacking trident that has become synonymous with not just goals, but a ferocious work ethic necessary for manager Jürgen Klopp’s high-pressing brand of football.
Perhaps unavoidable given their quality, questions have been raised over the dependence of Liverpool on this trio. All three played a minimum of 35 league games last season – a testament to their brilliance and durability – but also an indication of a lack of depth.
The looming Africa Cup of Nations in January may see Liverpool forced to begin their new year title pursuit without Mane and Salah. Absence could spell opportunity for Gordon, and Brundish believes he is an excellent fit for Klopp’s tactical style.
“He has sublime vision, and the bravery to lose the ball and go and win it back again, which is a very Liverpool quality – winning the ball back in two-and-a-half seconds of losing it.
“He just needs to learn the appropriate times to be taking the risk, where the traps are set to lose the ball to win it back.
“He can beat a man, he is quick enough to get beyond the final line. You will see it as an England fan as a little bit [Phil] Foden-esque, but he’s a little bit bigger,” adds Brundish, referring to the Manchester City player.
“He’s grown and he’s probably got another 10 kilos of muscle to add which will transform his game because his brilliant first touch will have a lumbering left-back just bounce off him.”
The story of Kaide
When the Football Association (FA) canceled academy football due to the pandemic, Gordon was one of a select few promoted from Derby’s Under-18’s side to train with the first team under the new management of former Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney.
There is often a romantic notion that the ‘cream always rises to the top’ – that the best young players travel on a linear, almost pre-ordained path to greatness – but Gordon’s opportunistic break is reflective of several other English talents.
Marcus Rashford got his chance at Manchester United in 2016 following an unprecedented injury crisis, while Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane – on course to become the Premier League’s all-time leading scorer – had spent several seasons out on loan before finally getting his chance under new manager Tim Sherwood in 2014.
In reality, breakthroughs can often spawn from coincidence and chance, though they must always be seized upon when they arrive. Like Rashford and Kane, Gordon did so emphatically.
“He might have benefited more from Covid than anybody else on Earth not called Jeff [Bezos],” quips Brundish.
“There’s a famous moment where he stuck the ball through Rooney’s legs in training – Rooney plays all the time in training – and it kind of struck a chord in Rooney’s head, a little bit like a famous moment where Steven Gerrard did the same thing to Paul Ince.
“And so he was first team training and he got to play in one of the cups when lockdown first subsided and that got him some repute, agents were about and there was lots of talk of him going to Man United.
“Liverpool were not letting that happen. Also there may or may not have been conversations with people that know stuff about Liverpool that might have said it’s a really good pathway to be involved in and it’s really good from a family setting,” Brundish added.
‘Wow, we have a new player here!’
Ahead of the Norwich game, Gordon received a glowing appraisal from Liverpool’s assistant manager Pep Ljinders.
Explaining how the club’s best young talents typically begin the season a week earlier than the senior squad by training with the Under-23’s, Ljinders recalled how Gordon immediately caught his eye.
“I went to the U23’s training ground and I see one player – and he has fire in each moment he touched the ball,” Ljinders told the Liverpool website.
“He passes players like they are not standing there, so I call Jürgen [Klopp] immediately like ‘Wow, we have a new player here!’”
One passage of play in Gordon’s unofficial senior debut – a preseason fixture with Austrian side Wacker Innsbruck – provided a tantalizing taste of things to come.
Running on to a pass to stand up the defender on the byline, Gordon knocked the ball through the legs of the opposition player and darted round to collect the ball on the opposite side.
It was one of several moments during preseason that helped Gordon earn the respect of his older colleagues – no easy feat in a squad formed of some of the most experienced and decorated players in the game.
“You know you have a good player around you when the senior players start taking care of this young player,” Ljinders said.
“So when you see James Milner speaking with Kaide, when you see Trent [Alexander-Arnold] becoming a proper mentor, when you see that they invite him to sit in the table – all our boys invited him in our group and that made it good for him, how to adapt to our team and to our style.
“What you see a lot with these wingers is that they can outplay, they can combine but he has a goal in him and this natural ability to be in the box, between the goalposts to score – even when the cross comes from the other side – and not many talents have this.
“They may have the dribbling skills, but they don’t have this desire to shoot, to come in the box, to score. So he’s a typical Liverpool Football Club winger in my opinion because he has goals, he has speed – we really like him and we’re really happy he’s with us.”
His debut at Norwich a few weeks later was no surprise. Gordon looked comfortable playing in a rotated Liverpool side against Premier League opposition and earned the plaudits of his manager after the game.
“Yes, he’s good – that’s what it says about him,” Klopp told the Liverpool website.
“A lot of things to improve, a lot of things to settle, a lot of things to learn but there’s a lot of things already there. We are really happy to have him around and we will treat him carefully … but I am really happy that he is here, he is a big talent.
“The first thing Kaide said to me after the game, when I wanted to say, ‘Congratulations,’ he said to me, ‘Thank you!’ I said, ‘Nothing to thank me for, you deserved it.’ All fine, these boys are good and thank God they are ours.”