With three games squeezed into seven days and Jamie Carragher having started on Sunday, it was surprising to see Sebastian Coates begin the game on the bench against QPR. After coming on late in the first half as a substitute and subsequently being the only Liverpool defender blameless in Rangers' three late goals, and with not even the most hopeful fan entertaining dreams of a push for the top four any longer, it would be rather more than surprising were he to find himself once again starting on the bench against Wigan on the weekend.
When Wednesday started, some will have still held on to those faint hopes for Champions League qualification—hoping against all odds and evidence is, after all, a long-standing cornerstone of sports fandom. Perhaps, one might have argued, Kenny Dalglish and the club's coaching staff would similarly have been clinging to those hopes, too, despite that their jobs require they be more coldly objective than a supporter hollering from the away end.
Others will have pointed to Coates' relative inexperience and a desire not to stunt his growth by playing him too early, potentially denting his confidence should he make a major mistake—despite that the player being discussed won last summer's Copa America as part of a unit that conceded two goals in the five games he played. Having faced down an Argentinean frontline of Messi, Tevez, and Gonzalo Higuain, kept three clean sheets, and been named young player of the tournament, it was always a touch ridiculous to think Bobby Zamora might be capable of doing so much damage as to permanently derail Coates' career.
It also ignores that in his previous appearances for Liverpool, Coates always recovered quickly from any mistakes he made. Far from being a fragile player who wilts at the first sight of adversity, every scrap of evidence so far seen in his time at Liverpool suggests he has the mental strength to shrug off the occasional error that comes with being a young and still developing player. While that doesn't mean he's ready to step in and play forty games in England without the cumulative mental and physical toll leaving a negative impact, it does suggest he's entirely capable of filling in for an injured Daniel Agger without being ruined by the experience even if he encounters a few rough moments.
In the end, though, almost any argument against starting Coates before Wednesday's game really boiled down to a rather unfortunately looped piece of logic, an Ouroboros of reason too busy eating its own tail to notice that it was in fact eating its own tail. Sebastian Coates, it seemed, couldn't play against a side in the relegation zone because he didn't have enough experience in the Premier League to play against even a side in the relegation zone. How would he ever get that experience, then? Nobody could be exactly sure, but what was clear was that it couldn't come from playing a side in the relegation zone at a time when fourth was out of reach for Liverpool and the club had nothing to lose by playing him—because he simply didn't have the experience for that yet.
Meanwhile, experience in a major international competition against some of the world's best players wasn't allowed to count as real experience—not sat next to the majesty and violence of the Barclay's Premier League. Though for that last bit one has to for a moment ignore that the proven Premier League talent Liverpool paid such a premium for last summer continues to collectively underwhelm while other clubs—key amongst them Newcastle United—have made massive gains with players who came in lacking the mystical intangibles Coates similarly finds himself without.
In truth, there was only one compelling argument for not starting Coates against QPR: Jamie Carragher had started the previous two games, had played competently though he hadn't faced overwhelming pressure, and managers historically are loathe to mix and match centre backs, preferring instead to stick with a set pairing as much as possible. Though given Liverpool's need to prepare for a future that won't involve the 34-year-old Carragher, and given that fourth hadn't been a reasonable target since the club followed up victory in the League Cup with defeat at the hands of Arsenal, there was little to justify such reasoning even then—assuming, that is, that "Because it's what managers usually do" is even granted the weight of argument rather than being viewed as a minor capitulation of individual autonomy.
And in any case, all of that is now largely a moot point. All now agree that fourth is out of reach, while after his stunning strike against QPR and subsequent innocence in the goals against most have belatedly come to agree on something that should have already been more than clear. Namely, that it's time for Sebastian Coates to start. The discussion does, however, lead into a second case of under-utilised youth, and it is a case that is perhaps even more difficult to understand than that of the Uruguayan defender.
In some ways, the Jonjo Shelvey situation seems even more bizarre, as it increasingly appears that he was recalled from a Blackpool side he was quickly growing into the offensive star of only to sit on the bench at Liverpool. Against QPR, there seemed to be a silver lining in that Charlie Adam's return to the lineup after a two game absence came as part of a three-man midfield. But beneath that, there was reason to wonder why yet again the proven—and largely disappointing—quality was being given yet another chance while the unknown was left ignored.
Shelvey was recalled to help cover for a man whose position he's entirely unsuited to play, and he was recalled from a club where he was starting every match and making a difference—a club that moreover was on form to return to the Premier League while he was with them. That he has hardly even been given a chance off the bench since his return is, frankly, baffling. While some would fear ruining Sebastian Coates' career through playing him too much, it's equally easy to ruin a promising career by playing too little. And Shelvey has quite clearly played very, very little since he returned to Liverpool—this despite Steven Gerrard's intermittent injury concerns and Adam's tendency to tire in the second half when he does start.
Sebastian Coates must start against Wigan on Saturday—at this point, anything else would signal that Kenny Dalglish doesn't consider him part of the club's future. But so too, with a few caveats, must Jonjo Shelvey. In his case, there are reasonable arguments to be made that starting him would only make sense if it was as part of a midfield trio, while even then Jordan Henderson also needs time in the middle to develop. If Charlie Adam, however, starts ahead of him it will be a mistake no matter the game's outcome. So too will it be a mistake if Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly aren't healthy enough to start at right back and Jon Flanagan isn't given the nod.
Coates' case may be the most straightforward at this point, but just as interesting will be what the lineup on Saturday tells us about where the coaching staff see the likes of Flanagan and Shelvey in the club's plans. Given Liverpool's current league standing, seeing Charlie Adam or a hobbling Martin Kelly in the starting eleven would have to lead to serious doubts about whether either of the younger players has a future at the club. And that would have to lead to serious doubts about Dalglish and the coaching staff, as no matter what players may be showing in training, at this point there truly is nothing left to lose by giving a chance to some of the most promising youngsters.