“IF it’s easy in each game in the pre-season, then we get the first problem in the first game in the Premier League. So we want to have the problems in the pre-season and be well prepared in the Premier League.”
Although that quote is from Jürgen Klopp, it echoes the sentiment of managers at all levels of the game at this time of year. Pre-season is the time to smooth out any wrongs from the previous season, and to develop your team in order to be ready for the season ahead.
Last week, on an Anfield Wrap show titled ‘Shaping Up’, Neil Atkinson, Paul Senior and I debated the ways in which the Liverpool manager will be assembling his squad this pre-season.
Listen: The Review – Shaping Up
Klopp would have began assembling his team in his mind almost from the moment he arrived. Almost straight away, he let his squad know that they were playing with a clean slate. “I said I didn’t want to hear about my players any more. I wanted to watch and start learning about them. They are all nice guys with big skills with big passion — all that we need, and now we can work together,” he told the Echo.
It’s been a similar message this summer, with Klopp reiterating that every player on the books at Liverpool is there for a reason. Somewhere, sometime, someone saw something that said they could do a job at Anfield.
Every manager at any level will let his players know privately and publicly that they have the opportunity to impress, and it’s true to an extent. However, as a manager you have to have an idea in your mind at the earliest point what you think your first team will be upon kick off in August.
That Klopp had already made decisions about the good and bad of the squad has been evident in Liverpool’s business so far in this transfer window. A mere two weeks into the window and four players have already been signed, with three arguably coming in as first-choice options in Marko Grujic, Sadio Mane and Loris Karius. A number of players have already been sold, too, with club veteran Martin Skrtel joining Jordon Ibe, Sergi Canos, Jerome Sinclair and Jordan Rossiter as ex-Reds, while keepers Danny Ward and Ryan Fulton have headed out on loan.
They are unlikely to be the last, with Klopp revealing several clubs are interested in loaning fringe players including Brad Smith, Connor Randall and Pedro Chirivella. At the other end of the squad value-wise, it looks likely Christian Benteke will eventually join Crystal Palace.
Not only will it help the manager to make acquisitions early, the quality and decisiveness of the recruitment is vital. There are only two windows a year where you can address the weaknesses in your squad. If you get that right, irrespective of your budget, that will cover any weaknesses in any area of your football club.
You could have the fittest team in the league, be one of the most organised teams in the league, your training could be the best in the league but if your recruitment is not up to scratch, you’re not going to succeed.
By hiring Klopp, Liverpool appear to have effectively put the manager in charge of that. By giving him a new contract under a year into his reign, they have only strengthened that.
“There’s only one person that has the final say over what players play at Liverpool Football Club and that’s Jurgen Klopp right now,” Ian Ayre told a Dublin Web Summit.
That appears to be true. Marko Grujic was recommended by Zeljko Buvac, Loris Karius arrived from Klopp’s former club Mainz, Sadio Mane interested him while at Red Bull Salzburg, and Joel Matip was earmarked by Klopp when he was on his sabbatical.
If recruitment is therefore largely boxed off, Klopp will be looking to focus on the training ground culture and team spirit he has worked so hard on cultivating since he arrived at the club in October.
Players, more often than not, look forward to returning to pre-season training. If you’ve got the right backroom staff and the right culture, the club should be full of optimism and excitement at this time of year. It’s their chance to get their love of football back, and to impress the manager.
For most, it is also their chance to see their teammates again and get back to kicking a ball, which, at the end of the day, is why they got into it in the first place. You enjoy playing football.
The vast majority will see the bigger picture. No player wants to start the season with a team that’s not tactically prepared or fully fit. Everyone wants to have success, so I think everyone buys into it. Whether they enjoy it or not when they’re doing it is one thing, but the incentive of friendlies also plays a part.
Most players will ring a couple of friendlies in their diaries. Whether it’s a non-league team like Tranmere Rovers playing Liverpool, or a big match at Wembley against Barcelona, there will always be a friendly a player will really want to get minutes in. It’s a chance to play and enjoy it without the pressures regularly heaped onto them.
Liverpool will play nine of these friendlies this pre-season, with two already in the books and Wigan Athletic to come on Sunday. It’s not so much the number of these fixtures I would be worried about, but the stress that going abroad may add. It’s not the travel as such, but the different timezone and climate issues you may encounter.
Perhaps Pep Guardiola’s most successful season came when he and his Barcelona squad decamped to St Andrews for a week, as told by Guillem Balague in his book, Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning: “For Barca’s players there was no respite and nowhere to hide. When Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Andres Iniesta joined the squad following Euro 2008, they could hardly believe the transformation, the sheer intensity”.
For Klopp and Liverpool there will be no St Andrews, but a training camp thousands of miles away in California.
It will be one of Klopp’s biggest challenges to recreate a similar atmosphere in the face of a series of different climates. Ideally, you want to go somewhere with a similar climate to the UK. That way, you can get your players away with no distractions, enjoy a change of scenery and ensure your training facilities are top notch.
Klopp faces a modern reality in that, if you want the biggest transfer budget you can get, and to sign the biggest players you can get, you’ve just got to accept that the club needs to make money — and needs to play games in far foreign lands in front of supporters who love the club.
What will be key for Klopp is to continue to build upon what earned him the massive six-year contract — installing his electrifying passion and drive into a club that has been in desperate need of it.
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