From Seville to Tranmere Rovers. Though, the class of opposition may have drastically altered there is always a lot to learn about a Liverpool side threatening to develop past perennial nearly-men. Having endured what is known to some as ‘International’ football, but now regarded by any England fan as a living nightmare, club football has returned – and dear God have we missed it.
Yes, even on the cusp of a match against a team in the fifth tier of English football it was hard not to be cautiously excited. Commemorating the day of perhaps Liverpool’s best signing in a decade, one Jurgen Klopp, this superficially unimportant friendly promised a little more than usual.
Most notably, a whole bunch of new, old – and wait I forgot about poor Markovic – faces. Indeed, Loris Kariius, Matip, Mane, Flanagan, Lovren, Lucas, Firmino and a host of talented academy players were set to start, with the inclusion of returnees Ings and Markovic on the bench. Though, critics are likely to write off preseason as a glamourised training schedule, what Liverpool supporter would ignore the prospect of familiarising themselves with both fresh, and seasoned talent.
But, this isn’t just a case of remembering that who is still a Liverpool player, instead, this marks a particularly crucial moment in the club’s history. One season without a trophy, and without Champions League qualification (no matter how close) can be written off as progression, thanks to an escape from the brink of a Brendan-shaped abyss. Yet two, two might be a bit harder to stomach.
Certainly, preseason must be taken with a pinch of salt. Yet, there are clear factors that suggest its understated importance. Firstly, as a matter of match-practice and fitness training – strikingly Klopp blamed Sturridge’s recurring injuries on not having proper pre-season training for four consecutive seasons.
While, it is also imperative for fringe players to impose their worth, even against weaker opposition as a few strong games can spark the transformation from reserve player to substitute, and even substitute to starter. Finally, on a tactical level to Klopp it is of great significance, as Liverpool’s ambassador Gary McAllister perceptively outlined:
“His tactic is about physicality. It’s demanding. It’s hard-working. But it needs organisation as well. When one presses everyone else has to do it as well. There’s been no time to emphasise that to the players because it’s just been game after game. It’s been: play the game, rehabilitate for the next game. There’s been no time to work on the training ground. That’s where pre-season, with new players coming in [is important].”
As Klopp said way back in May, “Football is about training… We have to do a lot to create a base for one year”. So how did this foundation-building for the new season begin against Tranmere?
Encouragement tempered by wastefulness
Fans better brush up on their Ovie Ejaria knowledge, once of Arsenal for nine consecutive years, the talented midfielder joined the Reds in 2014 despite significant interest from elsewhere. And, he was by far the best player of the first 25 minutes with a composure, and willingness to receive the ball suggesting a maturity far beyond his 18 years. Elegant, and precise in possession, he bought a clever free-kick with quick feet and created a couple of notable half-chances.
Those chances often fell to Firmino and Mane who linked particularly well despite playing together for the first time. Both looked again and again for their attacking partner, with the Brazilian receiving several good through-balls from the ex-Southampton man, enabling him to receive the ball in his favoured position just behind the back four.
Before half time Firmino had two guilt-edge chances created by a pacey Mane (who also had a one-on-one well saved). And, though, the quality of finishing by both players was ultimately questionable, much like Firmino’s new cut-rate Samurai hairdo, this relationship certainly bodes well.
Besides these first team contenders, Ryan Kent also impressed by continually exerting himself on the pitch by knocking on the door with two particularly good chances. The latter occurring when he rode a strong tackle to hit a narrowly-wide effort which curled just past the post after a mere 7 minutes.
At the other end of the pitch Matip and Lovren looked solid, if unspectacular, in their first centre-back pairing. Introducing himself with an early, rash foul, Matip may have revealed his over-eagerness, yet he was quick to make up for it displaying an athleticism and confidence both on and off the ball (including one or two useful surges forward reminiscent of either Merseysider, Agger or Stones).
Ultimately both communicated well with Lovren looking to continue a remarkable turnaround having played an unbelievable outside of the boot through-ball to Mane, sending him clear on goal, but unable to find the back of the net with an audacious chip.
With this in mind, alongside the prospect of now free man Mamadou Sakho returning as well (whose name could be heard sung across Prenton Park) Liverpool look likely to have stability and options at the back – even if our zonal marking and general frailties from set pieces refuse to go away.
A complete turnover of all eleven players certainly halted a rampant Liverpool in their tracks, with a noticeable reduction in quality after the break. Though, the return of Markovic provided intrigue, excitement, and frustration in equal measures.
The first sign of the Serbian came after he produced a fizzed ball through to Ings, who narrowly missed a connection, which would have lead to a certain goal. While Markovic continued with this intent, it often lead to disappointment, at first with a wayward half-volley from the penalty spot and then with a glaring miss on the 66th minute. After a well positioned Ings produced a good save from the keeper – a cannoned shot off the post showed disappointing technique and hurriedness at the crucial moment from the winger, a feature that can all too dearly cost sides.
Although his pace was a constant threat, and he produced a great ball once again to Ings -who acrobatically missed an overhead kick – at best it shows the need for match sharpness and at the worst shows a typicality of his sometimes inefficient game.
With the match developing a cyclical pattern of Liverpool controlling the ball and Tranmere defending deep the Reds maintained quality possession in tight areas, with a refusal to take a single long goal-kick.
Admirable play produced opportunities, but no breakthrough moment – exemplified by youngster Woodburn’s well-placed shot producing an incredible save off the line. With Klopp stating prior to the game that it was a “very important session”, that it “could, hopefully would, be a bit wild” and that his his team would “try everything” it would have been entirely unfortunate if even the kitchen sink hadn’t broken the Tranmere defense.
Thankfully, a surging run from an impressive Trent Alexander-Arnold provided Danny Ings, who having missed early chances simply refused to spurn another – with the hungry striker finishing a superb move with a well-taken volley inside the area, finally gifting Liverpool the breakthrough and gifting the greatly-missed Ings the entirely appropriate homecoming.
While such a performance would not indicate any kind of need for a LFC TV subscription, or pulling a sicky for the International Champions Cup it exemplified the simultaneously deceptive and entirely necessary need for preseason.
Liverpool’s youthful, inexperienced eleven, or 22, produced an admirable performance against a smaller side, despite displaying several clear deficiencies (Connor Jennings shot of the post and several failed clearances being evident). And, though many would dismiss such shoots breaking through as simple refreshment from the anti-climax of last season – these games if anything show Liverpool’s opportunity for gradual development, through Klopp’s ability, to mould a winning side out of the ashes of another forgettable season.
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