As Liverpool’s pre-season preparations reach their half-way stage and with less than a month to go until the new season now seems the ideal time to assess the Reds preparations so far, as they gear up for an assault on all four fronts in 2008-09. This pre-season has been overshadowed by one common theme, the continuing disruption caused by the international commitments of various members of the squad.
The triumphant Spanish quartet of Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa will finally return to training this week after a well earned rest, just as Liverpool lose three other important young members of the squad ‘“ Javier Mascherano, Lucas and Ryan Babel ‘“ to the Olympics. Add to this the late returns of other internationals, most notably Dirk Kuyt and Mascherano, and the niggling injuries to players such as club captain Steven Gerrard, and all has conspired to prevent Rafa Benitez and his new look backroom staff from working with anything closely resembling a full squad.
With new ‘“ if somewhat familiar ‘“ coaching staff joining the club and the arrival of new signings Philip Degen, Andrea Dossena and Diego Cavalieri, not to mention the already pressing concern of closing the gap on the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, pre-season is a crucial time. It is a period during which players can gain fitness and an understanding of one another, whilst Rafa assesses the squad at his disposal and determines the need for any late additions and tactical refinements. However with so many disruptions combined with the marathon transfer sagas surrounding certain deals for Gareth Barry and Robbie Keane, the teams which have played in the four pre-season matches to date have been far short of what we can expect when the real action gets underway in mid-August.
However, not all has been negative. A rather disjointed pre-season has allowed many of the promising young reserve team players and fringe players to prove a point to Rafa and his team. And ‘˜prove a point’ is exactly what many of them have done. Damien Plessis, Daniel Pacheco, Jay Spearing, Stephen Darby and Emiliano Insua have all seen plenty of action against Tranmere Rovers and on the tour of Switzerland. This, of course, can only be beneficial for their development, and the impressive nature of their performances suggests that we are likely to see more of them over the coming season. Pacheco in particular impressed in starts against Tranmere and Lucerne. He looks to be technically gifted forward, and, at just 17 years of age, has plenty of time to progress physically, although the level of his performance suggests that he may well be given the occasional opportunity to impress over the coming season.
Two players who we will likely see more of are Insua and Plessis; both now seem very much a part of the first team squad and pre-season has provided them with an opportunity to stake their claims for a more regularly berth in the Liverpool team. Squads at top clubs such as Liverpool are so big that it is often difficult for young players to earn a chance to impress, but its good to see that the youth and reserve team successes of recent years may well have an opportunity to benefit the first team. It is also encouraging to note that it isn’t only the legion of foreign starlets who are having an impact this pre-season. Spearing and Darby have appeared in all four matches to date and have comfortably stepped up to the first team standard. Jack Hobbs and David Martin have also built on their previous involvement in the first team and academy graduates Ryan Flynn and Martin Kelly were both given run outs against Tranmere. Reserve team captain Stephen Darby has particularly impressed with solid performances against the likes of Lucerne and Wisla Krakow. Darby is likely to be given further opportunity as pre-season progresses, but with Arbeloa, Degen and Steve Finnan all still on the playing staff he is going to have big competition for the right-back spot.
The lack of big names at the Swiss training camp has also allowed last seasons fringe players an opportunity to impress. Andriy Voronin has been the stand out performer, with man-of-the-match displays, particularly against Hertha Berlin, and a couple of goals to boot. It would be fair to say that Voronin often struggled in his debut season on Merseyside. Whether his up-turn in form will translate into an improved second season or merely add a few more Euros to his valuation for the cluster of German clubs reportedly pursuing his signature remains to be seen, but either way it can only be beneficial. Eye catching goals for Yossi Benayoun against Tranmere and Lucas against Lucerne are further positives. Whilst the return to fitness of Daniel Agger is perhaps the greatest plus of the pre-season campaign. Agger has started all four matches in a partnership with Jamie Carragher which will hopefully continue throughout the season.
With the return of the Spaniards and a solution to the major transfer deals of the summer hopefully not too far away Liverpool’s preparations for the new season can now truly begin to take shape. The opening weeks of pre-season have provided the rising stars and fading lights of the Liverpool squad to gain valuable playing time, culminating in 2 wins and 2 draws. Now it is time for the first team stars to get their campaigns under way, with trips to Villarreal, Rangers, Valarenga and an Anfield curtain raiser against Lazio still to come, before the action really gets started.