AUGUST 4, 2006: Rafa Benitez’s Reds are five days away from the first game of their season — a Champions League qualifier at Anfield against Maccabi Haifa. They’re in Germany to face a little known Bundesliga side called Mainz in their final pre-season friendly.
It was a short pre-season and Liverpool, after playing Crewe and Wrexham in England, based themselves in the Alps and played Kaiserslautern and Grasshopper Zurich to prepare for the forthcoming campaign.
Liverpool had to get off to a flyer or they wouldn’t be qualifying for the Champions League. There was also a Cardiff date with Chelsea in the Community Shield to ready themselves for.
Pre-season hadn’t worked out particularly well. Narrow victories over lower-league sides were fine, but conceding five against Kaiserslautern and Grasshoppers while scoring only two in reply in games we lost, not so much.
Liverpool went to Mainz for one final game — to improve their fitness levels, to figure out the system that Benitez would implement for the season ahead.
What happened? Liverpool got snotted. A 5-0 defeat to the side who finished 11th in Bundesliga the previous season. Jack Hobbs was on the pitch in tears and Liverpool were embarrassed.
Things didn’t look great at all for the season ahead. Ten goals against in their final three pre-season games? Five days to bounce back before a huge game against Haifa. Just over a week before taking on the team who won the title so easily the previous season.
It wasn’t a particularly positive looking time.
There was a piece in the following day’s Liverpool Echo. It read: “It is a continuing lack of cohesion in almost every department of his team that will be of great concern to the Spaniard. The Anfield team once again appeared leaden-footed, lacking spark, energy and creativity.
“The week’s training camp in Switzerland had been constructed primarily to improve fitness levels but, on the evidence of the three friendlies played during that time, it has come at the expense of performance.”
Pretty brutal analysis. I didn’t watch the game, and it was 10 years ago, so I can’t really tell you how bad it was.
But, ultimately, who cares? People get hung up on a lot in pre-season. This time around, we’re three games in — a 1-0 win against Tranmere Rovers, a 5-0 win at Fleetwood Town, and a 2-0 victory at Wigan Athletic.
There are six more to go — a game at Huddersfield Town tonight, then Milan, Chelsea and Roma in the USA, Barcelona at Wembley and curiously, 10 years on, a rematch against Mainz.
I say rematch in the way that you would think there might be a grudge held. This is pretty unlikely given that the only person involved now who was involved then is our manager.
The results really are inconsequential though. I’ll be honest, I don’t even watch them. I just don’t care that much. The first one I’ve properly watched in years was the Wigan game on Sunday because I was doing the Monday podcast.
I didn’t watch it live, though — there was test match cricket, a golf major and the Tour de France on. Priorities.
I thought it looked like a pure friendly. Promising youngsters, players getting back to full fitness, bits of rustiness and a game where no-one seemed hugely fussed about the outcome.
Philippe Coutinho looked lively, hit the post twice, and pulled off an outrageous piece of skill. It did the job. And Ben Woodburn really does look like something to get excited about.
In terms of young players, I really hope Jürgen Klopp has a serious think about how we will go about using the loan system. One thing that has emerged from the potential Georginio Wijnaldum deal is Benitez being interested in taking a couple of players for the season.
I fail to see how sending Ryan Kent and Cameron Brannagan for a season of regular football in a side who will dominate possession and get somewhere in the region of 100 points is anything but a good idea. They’ll learn far more in that season than they will on a training ground in Liverpool.
But back to pre-season results — again, who cares? Within three weeks of that aforementioned Mainz game, Liverpool had bagged a trophy of sorts and qualified for the Champions League. The short-term goals had been achieved and the pre-season was geared towards exactly that. Job done.
Pre-season football is designed very differently to competitive football. Tonight Liverpool will go to Huddersfield — in three-and-a-half weeks we’ll go to Arsenal. Is the preparation really going to be the same? Are Klopp, Željko Buvač, Peter Krawietz and Pep Lijnders going to sit down and formulate a tactical plan to combat Huddersfield’s strengths and target their weaknesses?
No, why would they? The result is completely and utterly devoid of meaning. Winning is always nice, but the goal is to get the players fit, to get them playing to a system, defending as a unit, doing the right thing at the right time with the ball — it’s about learning.
We could set up to get a result, but what would be the point? Does anyone remember who we played last pre-season? Any of the results? I know we’ll have gone on a tour of somewhere but if you asked me the countries I wouldn’t know off the top of my head.
So I used that Google thing. We went to Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, Finland and er, Swindon. Three goals against, 13 goals for, five wins and a draw. Glorious football from the Reds, great results.
The manager lasted 11 games in all competitions and was sacked in October with Liverpool sitting tenth in the league. We won four of those games, one a penalty shoot-out victory against Carlisle.
A strong set of results in pre-season didn’t help us with the meaningful football.
At some point over the next two-and-a-half weeks, chances are that Liverpool will lose a game, maybe draw a game and maybe even concede a goal. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. They’re glorified training sessions, the first couple of which basically involved us turning up at 30 per cent fitness to get Fleetwood and Tranmere’s bank accounts looking healthier (£23 for Fleetwood, robbing bastards).
Some young players looked good, some older players looked rusty.
If we do lose, fine. The only issue is if the players don’t look fit and raring to go when we play Barcelona and Mainz.
Five nil we lost to Mainz that year, 5-0. Grim. Nine months later what of Liverpool? You shouldn’t need to me to tell you that we reached our second Champions League final in three seasons and qualified for the Champions League comfortably.
You might need me to tell you what happened to Mainz, though: relegation.
A resounding win a week before the season started, followed up with an opening day win. Followed up by…not winning another league game until after the winter break.
What we see now doesn’t tell us anything, really.
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