The Papa John’s Trophy is hard to take seriously. There’s no getting around it. The EFL Trophy’s sponsorship places it right up there with the Uber Eats Ligue 1 and the Carabao Cup. However, putting the name to one side, the competition has actually presented an interesting format following a reformulation in 2016/17. Since then, Premier League academy teams have been allowed to enter, competing alongside outfits from League One and League Two. Having held out for three seasons (along with Manchester United), Liverpool finally accepted the invitation to the competition in 2019/20. With the majority of the group stage dates now confirmed for the new season, it’s worth considering how Liverpool should approach the tournament.

It’s fair to say that things haven’t gone well in Liverpool’s first two EFL Trophy campaigns. Despite having played six matches, the academy side have recorded just one point, coming in a 1-1 draw against Fleetwood Town in September 2019. Even this ended up as a technical loss — another quirk of the tournament format is group stage penalty shootouts, with the winners (in this case Fleetwood) earning an extra point. Other results do not make for pretty reading: a 5-2 drubbing by Accrington Stanley, a 6-1 defeat to Wigan Athletic and a 4-2 defeat to Port Vale mark some of the low points.

Port Vale form part of Liverpool’s group once again for 2021/22, along with Bolton Wanderers and Rochdale. The game against Rochdale will take place on August 31st, while the young Reds travel to Bolton on October 5th. The date of the Port Vale game is yet to be announced. On paper, these games give the Liverpool u21s at least a fighting chance: Rochdale and Port Vale are both in League Two, while Bolton only secured promotion last season. Given the amount of promising talent on the books at Kirkby, it would be disappointing to see yet another tame exit.

At its best, the revamped EFL Trophy format can be excellent for academies. There is a constant debate about the benefits of loans versus staying in-house; senior experience has to be weighed up against elite-level coaching and exposure to the parent club’s style of play. A decent run in the Papa John’s Trophy offers both, allowing clubs to take control of development for their most promising youngsters while also providing an opportunity for the players to test themselves against senior opposition. Exiting at the group stage after just three games minimises these benefits.

Of course, it is not as though Liverpool’s youth setup are trying to lose these EFL Trophy games. The club’s commitment to the tournament might be questioned, given the amount of time it took to even agree to enter, but the strongest available youth teams are being fielded. Even as late as last season, Caoimhín Kelleher started the 6-1 defeat to Wigan: less than a year later, he is the club’s senior number two under Jürgen Klopp. Nonetheless, perhaps the hierarchy’s somewhat equivocal stance on the competition has filtered down — there has been no official announcement about the draw on the club website, for example.

Given the promising talent currently on the books, it is surely time for Liverpool to get fully behind the EFL Trophy. The senior pre-season camp announced today features Jake Cain, Leighton Clarkson, Marcelo Pitaluga, Harvey Davies, Billy Koumetio, Owen Beck, Kaide Gordon, Mateusz Musialowski, Tyler Morton and Conor Bradley from the youth ranks: all are clearly rated highly enough to train with the first team. Musialowski in particular is considered a top talent: the Polish forward scored eight goals and assisted a further four in 19 appearances in the u18 Premier League last season. He also scored four times in six FA Youth Cup games. A proper run against some senior sides could be a real developmental boost.

Depending on how much he ends up featuring for the first team, Harvey Elliott could even be thrown into the EFL Trophy mix. Still only 18, he spent last season on loan in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers — his progress has been rewarded with a fresh new long-term deal at Liverpool. Of course, for the most part he would ideally be playing at a higher level, but dropping into the u21s for an occasional cup fixture could give him the chance to serve as a leader and role model. Again, if Klopp has decided to fully integrate him into the first team then this will not be plausible, but it could develop the mental side of Elliott’s game while providing a little more high-level experience to guide the u21 regulars.

Regardless of the exact personnel on display, it has to be hoped that Liverpool will put up a more respectable showing in the Papa John’s Trophy this year. Despite the name, the competition has the potential to be serious business when it comes to the development of young players: everyone involved should have the mindset that a good performance could give Klopp a selection headache.