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James Balagizi: Liverpool wonderkid who left Man City behind

1:30 PM IST 12/05/21
James Balagizi NXGN GFX
The 17-year-old has starred for the Reds in their run to the FA Youth Cup semi-finals, with his displays likely to have caught Jurgen Klopp's eye

He may have grown up in the shadow of the Etihad Stadium, but James Balagizi’s eyes are firmly fixed on a career at Anfield.

And Liverpool’s loss could well be Manchester City’s gain, in that regard. 

At 17, the gifted attacking midfielder already has plenty going for him. Tall and strong, creative and classy, hopes are growing that the Reds may have found another player capable of following the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones from the academy into Jurgen Klopp’s first-team setup. 

First things first, though. On Wednesday evening, Balagizi should have a big role to play if Liverpool’s Under-18s are to reach their second FA Youth Cup final in three seasons.

Marc Bridge-Wilkinson’s side are strong favourites to overcome Ipswich Town at Portman Road, with either Aston Villa or West Brom awaiting the winner. 

Balagizi has certainly shone in the competition so far. He scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win at Leicester City in the last 16, and then produced another high-quality display in the quarters, laying on two goals as Arsenal were seen off 3-1 at Anfield.

Klopp was in attendance that night, and the Liverpool boss has already been impressed by what he has seen from Balagizi, who has trained with the Reds’ senior squad and was part of a highly-competitive 11v11 training match at Kirkby during the March international break.

Balagizi lined up for the ‘away’ side that day. The ‘home’ team’s midfield was a diamond of Fabinho, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita, yet Balagizi, along with U18s team-mate Mateusz Musialowski and U23s staple Leighton Clarkson, are said to have looked at home in such esteemed company.

That will not surprise anyone who has watched Balagizi and Musialowski flourish this season, particularly since Christmas. Liverpool are a fine side at U18s level and those two, along with the in-form Max Woltman, have been the standouts. 

One of six siblings, who grew up in the Beswick area of Manchester, Balagizi officially arrived at Liverpool as an U11s player, having initially been spotted playing local league football at the age of just six. 

Manchester City had their chance, but when they chose not to enrol the youngster at St Bede’s - the private school attended by the likes of Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, among others - Balagizi and his family, who originally hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo, chose Liverpool.

Ian Barrigan, the man who discovered Alexander-Arnold, among countless others, worked hard to convince them. The Reds paid a compensation fee of just £9,000 ($13,000) to City.

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Balagizi quickly caught the eye at Kirkby, though there was little sign initially of the size and power he would come to possess. 

“If anything, he had puppy fat,” says one academy source. “But you could tell he was a fine prospect.

"He had so much confidence on the ball, he was always involved in games and he was always one of the strong players in his age group.”

Liverpool have had some success recruiting players from Manchester, and from City in particular, at youth level in recent seasons. Rafa Camacho and Bobby Duncan earned the club money having moved from the Etihad as teenagers, while Ryan Kent (now of Rangers) and Cameron Brannagan (Oxford United) were spotted early and signed up before City or United could get their pens out.

Others, such as Harvey Blair and Oakley Cannonier, were picked up playing in Yorkshire, a testament to Liverpool’s well-developed scouting network. 

Balagizi’s progress has been steady. He has developed physically, and is versatile enough to play as an orthodox midfielder or, as he has tended to more recently, as a roving attacker. Academy sources believe he will end up as a No.8, due to his size and ball-carrying ability.

He is already an England U18 international, part of a revered group which carries so much promise for the Three Lions.

His peers include NXGN 2021 stars Jude Bellingham and Harvey Elliott (plus Jamal Musiala, who has since switched allegiances to Germany), as well as the likes of Liam Delap (Manchester City), Shola Shoretire (Manchester United) and Karamoko Dembele (Celtic).

Aston Villa trio Louie Barry, Aaron Ramsey and Carney Chukwuemeka, who may yet await Balagizi’s Liverpool in the Youth Cup final, are also very highly thought of.

Others in Kevin Betsy’s squad have already played league football. Alex Scott has featured for Bristol City in the Championship, while Kwadwo Baah has been linked with a move to City this summer after making more than 20 senior appearances for Rochdale in League One.

Given Liverpool’s riches, Balagizi is likely to have to wait a little longer for his chance, though his development this season, despite an ankle injury which kept him out for almost three months, has been impressive to say the least. 

“He’s come on leaps and bounds,” says Bridge-Wilkinson, who has been particularly impressed by the youngster’s willingness to improve his work off the ball. 

“Having worked with him with the younger age groups, that probably wasn’t something he was always too keen on,” the coach added.

Other academy sources, naturally, preach caution. Balagizi has always been viewed as a player of huge potential, but that means the bar is set higher. Being ‘good’ is not enough, for someone of such talent. They want to see him dominate games consistently.

Balagizi knows that, and has responded to the challenge, laying on 10 assists in all competitions this term. He is no diva, despite the attention his performances have inevitably attracted.

He signed his first professional contract on his 17th birthday in September 2020, and is now looking to end his first year with a trophy.

The expectation is that fans will be hearing an awful lot more about him in the months and years to come.