Over the weekend the Liverpool players not involved in the European Championships, either because they didn’t go in the first place or because Roy Hodgson is their manager, returned to Melwood to begin their pre-season preparations. But how important is that? What will it entail and why does any of it matter?
Obviously there’s an extent to which it’s difficult to answer those questions. Only Jürgen Klopp and his staff know what exactly it will involve and how it will affect things for the players. But we can all make educated guesses and think about how it might be crucial to Liverpool’s upcoming Premier League campaign.
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll have a quick look at some of the things we can expect to see happen in the next couple of weeks and theorise on what that might mean for the Reds heading into next season. I’ll also discuss why I think pre-season is the reason people shouldn’t be losing their minds over the club’s perceived lack of activity in the transfer market.
Klopp Loves Pre-Season
Even someone with only a passing interest in Liverpool Football Club will know that Jürgen Klopp puts a huge amount of store into the importance of pre-season. When he took over from Brendan Rodgers last October ‘pre-season’ was one of the buzz phrases constantly being spouted by people associated with the club.
Klopp sees it as vitally important for the campaign ahead. Where some managers like Rafa Benitez aim to target players’ fitness hitting its peak level just after Christmas, Klopp wants his squad to hit the ground running from the first day of the season. There are a number of reasons why this could be the case, but one of them is surely the notion that getting yourself a healthy points total on the board early on stands you in good stead.
It’s far better to have other teams chasing you than it is for you to be chasing other teams. We saw with Leicester City last season how useful momentum is. Whilst everyone else was saying they would drop away around Christmas, the team themselves were happily just going about their business and getting points up on the board. Yes they were helped by no other team getting their act together, but establishing a near unassailable lead put them in a commanding position both literally and psychologically.
Klopp was apparently distressed by the lack of fitness he witnessed in the Liverpool squad when he took over from the Northern Irishman. The nature of the type of football that he likes to play means that his squad needs to be able to run and run and run and never stop running, closing down the opposition and harrying them into making mistakes and giving the ball away.
His ‘heavy metal football’ was all about co-ordinated charges, pressing the other team’s weak links and being ready to seize upon any mistakes they make. Whilst Pep Guardiola might favour possession football, Klopp’s teams aren’t bothered whether or not they have the ball as they’ll get it back soon enough whatever happens.
He constantly spoke about not having enough time on the training pitch with his players and about how the games they were playing were the club’s pre-season under his management. This time he gets an actual pre-season, so he can educated the players about how his system works in minute detail whilst also making sure they’re fit enough to carry out his plan.
For that reason one of the most important signings of this summer may well be Andreas Kornmayer, the fitness coach of Bayern Munich who has worked with the likes of Guardiola, Jupp Heynckes and Louis van Gaal in the past. Klopp himself has said of Kornmayer, “Don’t forget, the 2013 treble-winning team of Bayern was unbelievably strong and they had all their players fit until the end”.
Keeping players fit all season will be key to Klopp’s hopes of taking Liverpool higher up the table this time around. If Daniel Sturridge can manage 35 league games, for example, you’d expect him to get in excess of at least 15 goals. Likewise if Danny Ings can harness his natural pressing ability and combine it with increased goalscoring prowess then you’d hope he could get over the 10+ goals mark.
Klopp Needs To See What His Squad Can Do
This sounds like a ridiculous statement to some extent, but Jürgen Klopp really needs to be given a chance to see what his players are capable of before he can know exactly what he’s looking for in the transfer market. It would be entirely fair to point out that he’s had the best of a season to see what most of his players can do, but it’s not necessarily them that I’m talking about.
It’s interesting that Klopp has thus far signed four main players. Interesting because of who those players are, where they’ve come from and what positions they are here to fill. I’m not sure any Liverpool fan would have said a goalkeeper wasn’t a priority this summer, for example. Klopp has watched plenty of Simon Mignolet and noticed that he’s been found wanting. His instinct was to replace him and so he’s turned to the Bundesliga, a league he knows only too well, and cherry picked the best young talent from the division to plug the gap.
Most people would also readily admit that the defence needs to be improved upon, especially with the departure of Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel as well as the uncertainty over the future of Mamadou Sakho. Low and behold Klopp has signed a central defender. Where has he signed him from? The Bundesliga, of course!
Klopp is also believed to favour a fast, pacy winger who can score goals. Enter Sadio Mané, the former Saints player who Klopp knows well from his days at Red Bull Salzburg. This time the player has not come from the Bundesliga but rather the Premier League. No bad thing, though, considering Klopp now knows the English top-flight well and Liverpool’s scouts have been keeping tabs on him for years.
The other player who has come in this summer is Marko Gujic. Now admittedly he’s not from the Bundesliga or the Premier League, but he’s also not likely to be a first-team regular for at least a season or so. Plus the likelihood is that he’s been brought in to replace other second-string midfielders such as Joe Allen, so it’s not too important that he hasn’t exactly been setting the world alight.
No, pre-season is a chance for a host of other players to catch Klopp’s eye. Lazar Markovic, for example, reportedly caused much celebration within the transfer committee when his signature was secured two years ago. He was a bright young talent for Benfica, scoring goals and terrorising defences on a weekly basis. Things didn’t work out for him under Rodgers, but now he’s got an opportunity to re-ignite his Liverpool career with a manager famed for developing talent on the training pitch.
Given Klopp’s love of pacy wingers it is entirely possible that Markovic could become an important player for Liverpool this season. He could be an alternative to Mané should the Senegalese international go through one of his reported ‘cold streaks’. Pre-season is a chance for the Serbian to prove his worth and he’s already making a favourable impression on the Liverpool manager. He’s determined to give himself the best opportunity this campaign, so he turned up at Melwood early to begin his training.
What of Alberto Moreno? Can he prove that he’s not quite as brainless and dimwitted as he spent last season appearing to be? Could Jon Flanagan be the Scouse heartbeat that the team has been lacking recently? Can Joe Gomez fulfil the promise that he seemed to offer before his ACL injury? Could the three of them between them convince Klopp that he doesn’t need another left-back?
So far the only decisions Klopp’s made in the transfer market have been to fill positions that desperately needed filling with players he knows plenty about. Pre-season could be a chance for others to convince him that he doesn’t need to spend big bucks in the transfer market to make Liverpool into a team that can compete. It won’t please the fans, of course, but that’s completely irrelevant. The German has long been an advocate of improving his squad through training, not by splashing the cash.
It’s also fair to say that some players will be using pre-season to play for their future. The manager made clear at the end of last season that, with no European football to worry about, he would need a smaller squad. What, then, will happen to the squad players who mainly got to feature in the likes of FA Cup and League Cup games? Can Kev Stewart persuade the manager that there’s a place for him? Will Jordon Ibe be able to prove he can still offer something? Is Lucas Leiva a player the manager can trust in the long-term? Questions that can be answered this summer, you suspect.
A Chance For Klopp To Experiment
It was interesting to read in a number of publications this week that Klopp isn’t bothered about winning any of his pre-season matches.
As a nation England seems to put quite a lot of stock into friendlies and pre-season games. When the national side beats Brazil or Germany, for example, the press seem to take it as a sign of development, something that can be taken into the next tournament and built upon. We all know differently, of course, but it doesn’t stop people from getting excited.
Equally, when Louis van Gaal arrived at Manchester United they won every game that they played in their pre-season campaign, including matches against the likes of Valencia and Real Madrid. We all know how the rest of his reign at Old Trafford turned out.
So Klopp’s approach actually makes sense. Don’t worry about the result and see what you can learn from your players and your system. Can Origi and Sturridge player together in a two? Does Ings work as a wide player rather than an out-and-out striker? What about the defence? Is three at the back a viable proposition?
Many believe that Klopp has a certain way of playing that he sticks to no matter what, but last season he showed himself to be a pragmatist when it matters. He can use the eight or so games that Liverpool have got lined up this pre-season to experiment, to try different things and to see what happens.
He can also find out quite a lot about his squad. Do all of the players play flat-out regardless of the opposition? Or do some of them slack off because it’s only Tranmere in a pre-season?
Too often in the past Liverpool teams have been found wanting against the ‘lesser’ teams. We’ve been able to get ourselves up for games against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, but have fallen over the hurdle presented to us by Aston Villa or Fulham. This is a chance for Klopp to instil within the team a winning mentality regardless of who the team is that you’re up against. He’s currently got a bloated squad, so it should be made clear to players that if they don’t pull out all of the stops then there’ll be somebody else ready to step into their shoes in a heartbeat.
Pre-season is unimportant in so many ways. Yet this year it feels as though it’s going to be a shock to the system for a whole host of players who simply aren’t used to the sort of methods Klopp is keen to employ. It will, quite literally, be survival of the fittest.