What’s It All About?
Pre-season is an interesting time of year. On the one hand clubs play games against different levels of opposition (sometimes good, sometimes not so much) and fans watch under the assumption that the results might mean something. On the other hand the players see it as a slightly more intense version of a training session, hardly giving their all and often not taking it entirely seriously.
So what does it all mean? Does pre-season offer anything of any value to anyone at all? In the pre-season of the 2013-2014 season Liverpool won 7 matches and lost 1, scoring 21 goals and conceding just 2. They went on to finish 2nd in the league, missing out on the league title by just 2 points. In the pre-season for 2014-2015 the Reds won 5 matches (one via penalties) but lost 3, scoring 13 and conceding 9. They went on to finish 6th in the league, 8 points off 4th placed Manchester United.
Most people would say that pre-season means nothing and that you can’t read anything into it, but is it any coincidence that Liverpool’s best pre-season in recent years preceded their best league finish? Equally, is it shocking that a mediocre pre-season came before a decidedly mediocre league campaign?
Sufficed to say, then, that whilst you shouldn’t use pre-season as a gospel for how a team will perform in the upcoming season, it can offer a slight barometer of how your team will do when the ball starts to get kicked competitively. Here’s what Jose Mourinho had to say about it, “Pre-season is fake, for good and for bad. If you’re very bad, it’s fake, and if you’re too good, it’s fake”.
Whilst the results themselves may only give us a slight indication of what’s to come, we can still learn plenty from the pre-season games themselves. What formation does the manager seem to favour? Are some players being used more regularly than others? What tactics will the team use as the season commences?
Liverpool’s pre-season so far suggests that Brendan Rodgers is going to employ one of either the 4-3-3 formation or else the 4-4-2 diamond that worked so well for the Reds in the 2013-2014 season, when they came so close to winning the league. He attempted to use the 4-4-2 diamond at times last year, but a combination of the heartbreak the players seemed to be suffering from after missing out on the title, the loss of Luis Suarez and the fact that Steven Gerrard didn’t seem to have the legs to play the deep-lying midfielder role meant it never quite clicked.
Instead the Reds spent two thirds of the season playing 5-3-2, a formation that they hadn’t really used in pre-season and that only worked intermittently during the course of the season itself.
This time around Rodgers feels he’s got the players that can fit into the 4-4-2 diamond role much more smoothly, with Joe Allen, Lucas Leiva and Emre Can all midfielders who could play in the ‘Gerrard role’. Meanwhile, Henderson, Milner, Coutinho, Firmino, Ibe, Markovic and Lallana are all players who can be chosen to fill out the rest of the midfield and make the Reds a potent attacking force. Then Rodgers can choose from Benteke, Sturridge (when fit), Origi and Ings in the striker’s roles – to say nothing of Balotelli, Lambert and Borini hanging about the place if they aren’t moved on before the transfer window closes.
However it’s worth remembering that Rodgers was a strong advocate of the 4-3-3 formation, with that being his default position during his time with Swansea and the manner in which he tried to get the Reds to play during his first campaign as manager in 2012-2013. His use of the 5-3-2 (or 3-4-3-1, if you’d prefer) last season came about mostly because he tried to add some defensive solidity to the team, whereas his 4-4-2 diamond and 3-4-1-2 in 2013-2014 came into being as Rodgers tried to accommodate both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. The necessity to find a place for two strikers without forcing either of them out wide wasn’t such a conundrum for the manager last season, however.
The arrival of Nathaniel Clyne suggests that Rodgers will have 4 at the back pretty consistently. After all, there’s no point adding an orthodox right back and then not playing him in his natural position. Admittedly Rodgers doesn’t always do the orthodox, with Raheem Sterling and Lazar Markovic both playing as wing backs last season when they didn’t suit the role, plus Emre Can as a right sided centre back as part of 3, allowing him to be constantly exposed by stronger attacking players. You have to assume, though, that this was because Rodgers didn’t have much faith in players like Glen Johnston and Alberto Moreno and that, having signed Clyne and with rumours circling that a bid is imminent for Lucas Digne, 4 at the back will be the way forward.
With Christian Benteke likely to be the spearhead of the team moving into the season, Brendan Rodgers will have a host of quick, buzzing young players to slot either side of him depending on the opposition. Markovic, Firmino, Ibe, Lallana and so on will all offer options, giving those in the opposite dugout to the Liverpool manager all sorts of headaches. In the middle of the park a trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Philippe Coutinho will never stop running, pressing and harassing their opposite numbers into submission before finding pockets of space and feeding the attacking players.
The biggest decision Rodgers needs to make is what his strongest XI is. Last season he chopped and changed more often than a sex-change surgeon, meaning the players didn’t know what was happening and who was coming or going. Towards the end of the season his formation of choice was constantly up for grabs, with the FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa seeing 3 different ones used within just 90 minutes.Rodgers changed his team not only within games themselves, but also from game to game. Now he has a big squad and needs to find a way to keep everyone happy without causing confusion to his players. The best way he can do that is to take advantage of the club’s presence in the League Cup and the Europa League. If the Northern Irishman is brave enough he could use one team for those competitions and another for the Premier League and FA Cup campaigns, only changing which competition the players play in when there are injuries or bouts of fatigue.
A starting XI in the Premier League of Mignolet – Clyne – Skrtel – Sakho – Moreno – Coutinho – Henderson – Milner – Firmino – Lallana/Markovic – Benteke would surely be enough to get the better of the majority of teams in the league. Switch that to a starting formation of Bogdan – Flanagan – Toure – Lovren – Gomez – Lucas – Can – Allen – Ibe – Origi – Ings and you can see how the Reds would feel confident of taking on most teams in the country and being able to get a result.
Brendan Rodgers likes to try to outwit his opposite number via a combination of different formations and alternating playing staff, yet if he can be consistent enough with his choices whichever team he selects should be strong enough to get the better of most teams Liverpool will play against. It’s worth bearing in mind that, on their day, Liverpool Football Club are better than 16 other teams in the league. Of course games against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal can be close and the Reds will win as many as they lose like the tossing of a coin, but they only have to play those teams 6 times in total. Remain unbeaten in the other 32 games and the Reds will be in an incredibly comfortable position moving forward.
It would be title winning form to go unbeaten in 32 games, so it would be unlikely to happen to say the least, especially with several unknowns still to be discovered. Will Benteke fit in to the team, or will he be the blunt instrument so many pundits seem to think, forcing Liverpool to change the way they play in order to accommodate him? Will Firmino settle into the Premier League as well as he did into the Bundesliga, or will the Brazilian struggle to adjust to life in England?
There are plenty of imponderables that will only be answered as the season progresses, but there are plenty of signs to suggest that Liverpool fans can be quietly confident as the season approaches. Admittedly the pre-season opposition hasn’t been the best, but 3 victories and 1 draw, with 9 goals scored and just 2 conceded with 2 games to play is a lot closer to the 2013-2014 pre-season statistics than it is to the results that came before the 2014-2015 season.
What Else Have We Learnt?
It’s not just formations and playing staff that we have learnt about in the pre-season so far, though. What about Joe Gomez, for example? Many presumed that the 18 year old would head straight out on loan when he came in from Charlton this summer, but his performances thus far suggest he could yet have a role to play in the forthcoming season. When asked about the young defender Brendan Rodgers said, “A big plus tonight was young Joe Gomez. I’ve seen him at centre half and at right back, but I wanted to see him at left back and I thought he was outstanding. Joe will stay with the club this season. I’ve already seen enough in this period. With young players I bring them in and I judge them over the pre-season period and seeing him close at hand and his personality he will be staying, he will get games”.
Though we’ve already mentioned James Milner and Jordan Henderson it’s worth discussing them a little more, too. Steven Gerrard will always be spoken of in the same breath as Kenny Dalglish, Bill Shankly and other greats of the game – and with good reason. But the fact that Gerrard has now moved on to LA Galaxy and Liverpool have replaced his Hollywood style passes with an industrious, unsung hero of the Premier League speaks volumes for the way that Brendan Rodgers intends to take the team forward.
Brendan Rodgers, Sean O’Driscoll and Gary McAllister all favour an aggressive, pressing team and both James Milner and Jordan Henderson are kings of the press. The fact that they can both put the ball in the back of the net will surely help the Reds, too. Indeed both players have played a large part in the pre-season so far and part of the reason Milner chose Liverpool over a renewed contract with Man City was that he’ll get to play in his favoured central midfield role at Anfield rather than be a jack of all trades as he was at The Etihad. With Henderson being confirmed as club captain it’s reasonably safe to assume that Liverpool’s midfield will be made up of Milner, Henderson and one other player for most of the campaign.
And what of Christian Benteke? The forward was the main man at Aston Villa, but that isn’t quite the same pressure as he’s going to face when he leads the line for Liverpool. Yet Benteke doesn’t just steamroller the weaker teams, consistently putting the ball in the back of the net against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and, of course, Liverpool. On top of that, since the start of the 2012-2013 season only Luis Suarez (54), Sergio Aguero (50) and Robin Van Persie (48) have scored more goals than Benteke’s 41.
Since his second spell with Genk the Belgian forward has been a 1 goal in 2 man and across his entire career he’s netted 1 in 3. If he can repeat that feat with Liverpool then it’s more than likely that the Reds will be competing at the right end of the table. There’s no reason to think he won’t be able to do just that, given his consistency has spanned numerous different managers and several different playing styles.
Of course neither Benteke nor Firmino have kicked a ball in anger for Liverpool yet, with both of them remaining on Merseyside after the former’s protracted signing and the latter’s exertions in the Copa America with Philippe Coutinho. Adding the three of them into the first team won’t be easy for Rodgers with just 2 pre-season games to play. Yet if they click as well as everyone hopes then Liverpool could have a team to be reckoned with an attacking force just as potent as that of 2013-2014.
Pre-seasons don’t mean much. Last year Manchester United won every game they played after the arrival of Luis Van Gaal, beating LA Galaxy, Roma, Real Madrid, Valencia and Liverpool before beating Inter Milan on penalties. They then had a torrid start to the season, losing to Swansea and drawing with Sunderland and Burnley. A 5-3 loss to Leicester at the end of September saw them remain resolutely in the bottom half of the table until results started to pick up.
So there’s no point in pretending that an unbeaten pre-season campaign will see Liverpool soar to the top of the league and leave all of the other teams in their wake. Yet the matches thus far have given us an insight in to how Rodgers wants to move forward and the choices he is likely to make once the league campaign gets underway.
If the Reds find a formation that works and that they can use in most games then they’ll surely be on to a winner. On top of that, if Benteke, Firmino, Clyne and Milner all settle quickly then there’s no telling what the limit will be to Liverpool’s forthcoming league campaign.
Pre-season may not mean anything, but there’s no question that a good one will stand the team in good stead. It will certainly be better than consistently losing, any way. Only time will tell if the lessons we’ve learnt so far will go on to mean anything, but right now there’s an expectation surrounding the club and a sense of positivity and – given how last season ended – that can only be a good thing.