HOW do we make sense of the phoney war? You can hardly compare pre-season friendlies to an extended period of inactivity on the Western Front, but there’s no doubt that drawing conclusions from glorified training sessions games can be misleading.
I gave up attending friendlies years ago; the unrealistic and frustrating calm that descends on proceedings at the sound of the referee’s opening blast on his whistle firmly embedded in my mind.
With current apologies to fans on the United States west coast (taking a rare opportunity to see the Reds in the flesh) there’s a satisfying smugness in keeping your money in your back pocket until the real battle commences.
That said, the perennial intrigue that surrounds the build-up to a fresh campaign is growing. The season begins in just over two weeks’ time. This year, a sense of expectation is heightened by Jürgen Klopp’s first real shot at glory; which ultimately boils down to one thing — the Holy Grail; a first league championship since 1990.
Despite our instincts telling us pre-season doesn’t matter, we’re all still well aware that Liverpool’s domestic ramble across the North West (and Huddersfield) yielded four wins and four clean sheets. We’re all excited by the emerging young talent (in my opinion most obviously in Ovie Ejaria, and maybe even Ben Woodburn) that might tempt the instinctive Klopp to cast the cotton wool aside.
When I re-subscribed to LFCtv this week — even the old and cynical get excited about new seasons — the first show I watched featured journalists discussing the “risks” of asking teenagers to step up to first-team duty and how the modern game is so unforgiving; so driven by results. Try telling that to Roy Evans and Michael Owen — as though pressure didn’t exist in 1997. Ultimately, if they’re good enough, they’re old enough.
Promisingly, the 18-year old Ejaria has travelled with the squad for Camp America and featured in exciting fashion in the 1-0 defeat against Chelsea on Wednesday. Whether the tyro midfielder, snared from Arsenal, appears in first-team action this season remains to be seen, but at least he’s being given a chance to stake a claim.
Complicating matters is that the Reds look well stocked in midfield. Jordan Henderson, striving to regain fitness and form after a troubled year on both fronts, and Emre Can look favourites to be Klopp’s preferred options in the middle. If Henderson is behind the eight ball for the opening weeks, then Georginio Wijnaldum might assume the deeper lying role that is one of several advertised strings to his “versatile” bow.
Seeing as the Liverpool are currently Stateside, I’ll throw in a curve ball and suggest that Kevin Stewart might occupy a loftier place in Klopp’s thoughts for a holding midfield role than some would expect. After one of the domestic warm-ups, the manager made reference to Stewart doing “all” the covering and defending. Managers often have favourites at odds with the perception of fans — history tells of another workmanlike Kevin (MacDonald) who bore the brunt of the crowd’s moans but was highly valued by Kenny Dalglish in 1986.
In an attacking front four — or three if the manager persists with an occasional liking for solidity away from home — the addition of Sadio Mane to the proven qualities of Daniel Sturridge, Phil Coutinho and Roberto Firmino means that Adam Lallana, Divock Origi, Danny Ings and possibly Wijnaldum only sit on the bench.
Klopp can only pick 11 to start, but if surgery has been performed to inject pace and some width, more goals from midfield, competition for places and to offer stronger substitute options, Liverpool might actually be spoilt for choice higher up the pitch if the more expensive new recruits hit the ground running.
One of the aspects of improvement under Klopp last season was a surfeit of goals — at least in certain matches — in contrast to the ridiculously barren 2014-15 under a failing Brendan Rodgers.
All of which brings me to my weekly gripe. I don’t like to disappoint those who read this column and confirm that my refusal to get carried away, on a Sedan Chair decorated with the jewels of blind optimism, equates to the moans of a miserable old cynic.
If Liverpool have had an Achilles heel over the past few seasons it has been in defence. Under Rodgers — at least for some — the concession of 50 goals blew any chance of the league title. Two years later, under a different manager and with different defenders, the ball hit the back of Liverpool’s net another 50 times.
On the face of it, Klopp has also moved to shore up the defence. The signings of Loris Karius and Joel Matip are the embodiment of this. The goalkeeper and centre-half come with ringing Bundesliga endorsements. A summer-long apparent pursuit of a left-back, if you accept that Liverpool’s stance on the untried and newly-contracted Ben Chilwell is merely a negotiating one, may yet bring one final addition to the class of 2016-17.
The sight of an unclaimed cross — from a corner — headed in from six yards at the Rose Bowl the other night was a reminder of undermining defensive fragility. That Gary Cahill out-jumped and out-muscled two midfield players (Firmino and Marko Grujic) suggests more time on the training field isn’t a guarantee of defensive improvement.
So much doubt surrounds each member of the Reds’ rearguard. The Premier League is a notoriously physical environment for keepers proven in European Leagues, notwithstanding Karius’s teenage sojourn in Manchester. Matip, too, has adjustments to make in new surroundings.
Of last year’s cast, Mamadou Sakho’s crowd favouritism masks an erratic performer, capable of great games over great seasons. His recent spat with Klopp over tardiness is probably a red herring. The manager’s frustration will more likely have its roots in the player’s carelessness that brought an untimely ban, regardless of the confusion surrounding UEFA’s ruling on the matter. Sakho’s future hangs in the air and isn’t helped by his propensity for injury.
Dejan Lovren had a decent second half of last season, but if Matip’s arrival sees him shifted back to the left-side of central defence, concerns are that his questionable balance and decision-making again come under scrutiny. There’s every chance Lovren can continue his improvement but we can’t be sure.
At full-back, amid the inertia of the left-back saga, it would seem that Alberto Moreno will continue as first choice. My biggest concern, other than his sometimes errant brain, is that he has “crowd scapegoat” written all over him. Someone has to assume The Mignolet Mantle, and having carried the can for the Basel collapse, Moreno is in pole position.
On the other side, Nathaniel Clyne is an oasis of solidity and consistency but if he were to fall victim to injury, I’m not sure where the cover lies and I’m not having James Milner suddenly morphing into a young Philipp Lahm.
Of course, its early days and pre-season tells us very little, but in defence there are more questions than answers. Once the real action begins there may be echoes of Klopp’s first season, perhaps with reminders of Norwich and Dortmund to the fore as Jürgen wrestles with the balance between defence and attack.
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