In the second fixture of their pre-season preparations, Liverpool travelled to Fleetwood’s Highbury ground. As in the Tranmere match, Klopp elected to play two entirely different sets of players in each half – the opening forty-five minutes was not too far away from a full-strength side minus those still away following international duty, while the second period saw an opportunity handed to more of the young players. Both impressed, but interestingly it was the younger side that scored the bulk of the goals – four of Liverpool’s five were notched in an extremely strong second half performance.
The biggest positive of the first half was undoubtedly Marko Grujic. He was unable to feature in the Tranmere game due to bizarre work permit regulations that required him to leave and then re-enter the country, and he seemed determined to make up for lost time. He certainly managed to impress Klopp and the fans: he played some lovely passes, and looked impossible to dispossess. He also showed some quick feet, winning a penalty early on: in a passage of play that highlighted some of his best attributes, he effortlessly shrugged his man off before bursting forward and comprehensively beating the defender with a series of step-overs. Ings missed the subsequent spot kick, but Grujic soon rectified the situation – just minutes later he rifled one in following some nice play down the left by Sadio Mane. Nobody really knows exactly what squad role Klopp envisages for Grujic this season, and it would be foolish to read too much into a pre-season game, but the Serbian is certainly inserting himself at least into the first team picture.
Grujic aside, it was a fairly uninspiring first half. There was nothing specifically wrong with it – the general style of play was actually encouraging, with everyone looking to string together quick, incisive passes. However, nobody really shone: Mane was probably the best after Grujic, but even he was guilty of some poor decision-making in places. Particularly concerning was the apparent impotence of the right hand side; Markovic has purportedly been given pre-season to try and force his way into Klopp’s plans, but as in the Tranmere game he failed to impress. Almost all attacks went through Mane on the left – considering Markovic is supposed to be a direct winger who likes to cut inside and make things happen, this was particularly disappointing. Admittedly Mane was assisted by the ever-marauding Moreno whereas Markovic had Flanagan, but he would nevertheless certainly have liked to have had a bigger influence on proceedings.
This lacklustre showing was thrown into sharp relief by the performance of youngster Ryan Kent in the second half. He played exceptionally well, demonstrating awareness beyond his years. He was rewarded for this with two assists: both were clever square balls from situations where many wingers would simply have lashed the ball at the near post. As well as the assists, he also showed some lovely skill to beat his man on a couple of occasions – with Klopp known for bringing young talents through to the first team, Markovic will be well aware that he will have to step up to ensure he remains higher up the pecking order than Kent. He was one of many who impressed: academy prospect Woodburn scored one goal and created another in an excellent performance, whilst sole regular first-teamer Roberto Firmino bagged a poacher’s brace. It was interesting that Klopp once again elected to play Firmino in the number nine role: with Sturridge, Origi and Ings all occupying that position it is hard to see him getting many minutes up top during the season, but he was undeniably impressive there in this fixture. There was a real clinical edge to the second half performance – even Lucas managed to get on the scoresheet! Transferring this ruthlessness into the Premier League season is going to be a key element of any success in the forthcoming campaign: Klopp got Liverpool creating chances aplenty last season, but not taking them with sufficient consistency.
The absence of a lot of regular first team players makes it particularly hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from this game, but if nothing else it is fair to say that Liverpool’s future looks bright. Marko Grujic looks capable of developing into a player that could control our midfield for years to come – the prospect of him playing alongside Can, both with their potential fulfilled, is a mouth-watering one. Add to this the likes of Brannagan, Kent, Woodburn, Ejaria and potentially Ilori, and the club looks in very good shape; it would be naïve to think that all of these players will one day make the first team, but even those who don’t will surely go on to fetch decent sums of money for us. Sergi Canos was in a similar bracket to the aforementioned crop of youngsters: he has just departed to Norwich for a fee which could rise to close to five million pounds, giving an indication of how valuable these talents are as assets. For the time being, however, they remain very much a part of Liverpool Football Club – a club that will undoubtedly be content with how pre-season has gone so far.