It’s been a shorter pre-season than usual, with games all against low quality opposition and very little rotation of players, is this a concern ahead of the new campaign? Karl Matchett discusses.
Summer, two months off, pre-season running, meaningless friendlies. All of that went out the door in the world of English football right around the time the top clubs realised there were other countries to visit, other (potential) fans to attract and additional revenue streams to be generated by glamour ties and competitions.
Pre-season might not, even now, be an indication of what is to come in the next 10 months — but the Premier League is so competitive, so important and so saturated by daily, even hourly, coverage that 10 months is barely relevant any more.
What matters, and enormously so to Liverpool for 2015-16, is the opening day. Then the next game. And maybe a few after that…but certainly no more than a month or two down the line. That’s as far ahead as the first-team scene can afford to look right now, and the immediate signs for the Reds are decidedly mixed.
Rotation of players
The summer work has gone well for Liverpool. Regardless of whether you are encouraged or horrified by each individual signing, it’s impossible to ignore that the club have decided early on who their main targets are, which positions they want to fill and then simply gone and got it done.
No posturing, low-balling or, god forbid, monitoring of players; Liverpool have snapped up the out of contract players they wanted, then struck early for the big-money signings.
Brendan Rodgers has the players he wants, no doubt. Liverpool have quite a squad now in terms of numbers and, even if the likes of Roberto Firmino, Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho haven’t been available on tour, there was still a big selection of players available to get game time in Australia and Asia.
It hasn’t really happened.
The first game was standard: two complete teams, 45 minutes each against Thai All Stars.
But then, a change: Rodgers has seemed almost to pick a first XI, play most of it incessantly and alter just two or three players each game.
No less than six players have started each of those next three games — Nathaniel Clyne and Martin Skrtel in defence, Jordan Henderson and James Milner in midfield and Adam Lallana and Divock Origi in attack.
Dejan Lovren, Lucas Leiva and Simon Mignolet, plus youngsters Joe Gomez and Jordon Ibe, have started two of the three.
It seems an obvious ploy to get his chosen starters totally match-fit and firing ahead of the new campaign, but at the expense of everyone else.
Lazar Markovic scored just a few minutes into the start of pre-season, but has barely featured since. Joe Allen has started just once, Kolo Toure not at all since his 45 minutes against Thai All Stars.
What happens if Skrtel takes a knock against HJK or Swindon? Does a half-fit, 34-year-old Toure have to step in against Stoke and be expected to look the part? Danny Ings started against Brisbane but hasn’t featured much since that game on July 17. A behind-closed-doors match was a glorified training session, hat-trick or not.
Again, it looks planned and calculated from Rodgers. He appears to want most of his opening day team firing and ready and challenge those on the fringes to prove they have more to offer once things get underway. In itself it isn’t a problem… unless the plan doesn’t pan out.
Bad results or individual performances, injuries or suspensions; any or all could impact severely on Rodgers’ preferred XI to start the campaign. Those who come in might not quite be up to speed, and that would be a problem.
Standard of opposition
This isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it is a little concerning. Liverpool have played very much second-tier teams this summer, not being tested on a technical or tactical level whatsoever…and still haven’t managed to wipe the floor with any side other than a hastily put-together Thai All Stars team, which didn’t even include all their usual starters.
Two A-League sides, Malaysia, HJK Helsinki and Swindon Town…the English side are likely to be close to the toughest opponents that Rodgers’ side faces, and they play in League One. (The A-League sides might be technically or tactically better in the normal course of events, but are well outside of their season window. Swindon will be about to kick off their league campaign. Even Everton beat them this summer.)
To an extent, this is arguably planned.
Playing lower-standard teams means you will inevitably have more possession, more time to prepare and practice attacking routines and, crucially for the Reds, practice maintaining a high press without the ball.
Rinus Michels did a similar thing before Euro 1988 with his newly taken over Netherlands team, playing regional sides as a warm up to the tournament to encourage his players to press without fear, win the ball quickly and immediately go on the offensive. So it’s hardly a new technique and certainly one with precedent at all levels of the game… but it’s still a tad risky.
Liverpool could be hit with quite a shock to the system when they rock up on the opening day of the Premier League and an opponent suddenly doesn’t allow them 60% of the ball and all the time in the world.
The latter is the more concerning; low-quality opposition gives the Reds players lots of time to play in, make their decisions and execute. The outcome has been a low tempo of play, the absolute opposite to what Liverpool need.
Once the intensive training sessions of pre-season—another point of contention, but not one for here and now—are over and done with, the hope must be that Rodgers’ players have the energy and mentality to raise the tempo as well as the quality.
Pre-season 2013/14: Preston, Indonesian XI, Melbourne, Thai XI, Olympiacos, Valerenga, Celtic
– Win first three games 1-0. Finish season 2nd.
Pre-season 2014/15: Brondby, Preston, Roma, Olympiacos, Man City, AC Milan, Man United, Dortmund
– Worst league start for 52 years, finish season sixth
Pre-season 2015/16: Thai XI, Brisbane, Adelaide, Malaysia XI, HJK Helsinki, Swindon Town
The need to hit the ground running
This is more for Brendan Rodgers than the team, almost. Of course, the fans want the side to do well and who is manager is—*to a point*—almost incidental, but the man in place right now absolutely needs to have a good start to win back confidence throughout the terraces and avoid ongoing media speculation.
Rodgers has been backed in the transfer market, has gone on record stating the backroom staff changes are his own choices and now has nowhere left to turn: results this coming season, especially at the start of the campaign, are down to himself and his coaching.
Get it right and he’ll have won more than a few battles, including who should have a bigger say in transfers and in his own coaching methods, but if results go against Liverpool then the knives will inevitably be out.
To that end, there’s no more appropriate test to start the season with than Stoke City away, the scene of the horrifying end of the last campaign. An embarrassing end to the season was the tipping point for many who thought Rodgers should have walked there and then, but his first chance to right those wrongs in competitive surroundings will be against the exact same opposition—easily measurable, then, the amount of progress the Reds have made over the summer.
Make no mistake, Liverpool could be looking at needing a new manager by mid-November and Rodgers knows it, even if he’s completely right to not publicly acknowledge it. He faces a tremendously tough run of games in October and just beyond: Everton away, Spurs away, Southampton home, Chelsea away, Palace home, Manchester City away. If a significant points haul isn’t taken from that glut of games and Liverpool made a reasonable-to-good start to the season before that run, fourth place will already look like a distant and near-impossible dream.
It’s only pre-season but… concerns yet linger that not enough has changed for the better since May 24.
The remaining matches in Helsinki and Swindon, with the rest of the squad set to feature, will hopefully provide far more evidence that the Reds are ready to head back to the Britannia Stadium and fare far better just 77 days later.