Liverpool face Tranmere in a pre-season friendly for the second time under Jurgen Klopp, and the game could indicate the shape of things for the season to come.
They say you can’t take anything from pre-season friendlies, but against Tranmere in Liverpool’s first warmup game of the 2016/17 season, Reds fans learnt a lot about how their team would play once the competitive games started.
Maybe this wasn’t known at the time, but the style of play and formation used in this game would go on to be the team’s staple for the rest of that season.
Just over a year has passed since, and Jurgen Klopp’s side are again heading across the water to Prenton Park for the first friendly of the 2017/18 season.
So, will this be just another game for the players to shake off the cobwebs after their summer break, or will it hint at something more significant for the season to come?
In the corresponding game last year Liverpool set up in a 4-3-3 formation, which at the time was passed off as a standard formation which best suited the players available in this early July run out.
Roberto Firmino played as the complete centre-forward, dropping deep like a false nine, but also doing some of the work of a target man and a poacher.
Sadio Mane played on the right wing but regularly ventured into the striker position, especially when Firmino fell back into midfield.
The winger on the left, Ryan Kent tended to cut inside to shoot on his right foot rather than attack the byline.
This front three was the blueprint for much of the season to come, and Philippe Coutinho had the most productive season of his career in the role which Kent played that Friday night in Birkenhead.
Behind them, Ovie Ejaria and Cameron Brannagan played in the dual attacking midfield roles which would become customary in the Liverpool lineup during the season, when Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana, and occasionally Emre Can took up the roles.
Later in the season Can dropped back to make the deeper lying position his own after Jordan Henderson struggled and eventually dropped out due to his worryingly persistent foot problems.
The entire team was changed for the second half, which could happen in the repeat fixture this season.
The relatively few fans at the stadium, and those watching on LFC TV, got a preview of the talent Ben Woodburn would go on to show glimpses of in the first team. In the second half, he played what would become the Coutinho role.
Another notable appearance was that of Trent Alexander-Arnold — not at right back, but as one of the attacking midfielders. He went on to become Nathaniel Clyne’s understudy and performed just as impressively as the England man when given the chance, but prior to this first team involvement, he had regularly played in midfield for the youth and reserve sides.
It was Trent’s driving run through midfield which set up the only goal of the game for Danny Ings who was returning from a long injury lay-off, but this time around the game might come too early for the former Burnley striker.
Subtle Changes for 17/18
So while the 2017/18 version of the Tranmere friendly may not be important in terms of the result, if the previous game is anything to go by it could give a better indication than many think as to how Klopp will line his team up this season.
Even if the personnel change; the shape, system, and formation could well be the one used in the first game of the season proper at Watford on August 12.
With the arrival of Mohamed Salah, Liverpool could be set to use two wingers rather than one winger and one wide creative player as was the case last season. This fits with Klopp’s words regarding Philippe Coutinho’s move to midfield
“He plays at the moment kind of wing ‘10’ but he can also play as a No 8,” said Klopp. “That is possible and maybe he will have more influence and we can involve another player on the wing.”
Will the game against Tranmere feature a creator on the left wing or a more direct player such as Mane or Lazar Markovic, who is still with the squad for pre-season?
Behind them it’s likely to be a similar story apart from the possible inclusion of a more Coutinho-like player in midfield which, for this game, could be Woodburn or even Yan Dhanda.
The double attacking midfielder formation looks set to stay thanks to its effectiveness during the last campaign, and it will allow Wijnaldum, Lallana, Ejaria, and Grujic to rotate around Coutinho. Can and Henderson will battle it out for the anchor role at the base of the midfield.
While pre-season friendlies don’t show the full picture, they can serve as a good outline. During the next month there are eight friendlies during which the gaps will be filled and the the lead characters added.
The club will hope this allows them to hit the ground running come the opening game of the season, and the important Champions League play-off which follows just days later.