SUPPORTERS were broadly pleased with Liverpool’s performance in the 4-0 win at Tranmere on Wednesday night but how much of a bearing will it have on Jürgen Klopp’s plans?
The general consensus about pre-season is that it’s used by clubs as a marketing exercise and that the only real benefit to the team is the time it allows to get players back to full fitness after several weeks on their holidays.
So does performance influence the manager’s thinking around his squad as well as who he buys and sells? Is travelling to all corners counterproductive to trying to get players back at peak fitness?
We spoke to Roy Evans, who played, coached and managed over 33 years at the club, and Stephen Warnock, who came through the academy to play for the first team, to get an insight into why pre-season is so important.
LISTEN: Stephen Warnock on TAW Player’s ‘Pro View’ show discussing what players get up to over the summer and how clubs exercise control
Josh Sexton: How much did pre-season performance affect your plans?
Roy Evans: “Obviously you like to see the team do well, you like to see them play well, you like to see them win, but the initial part is about their match fitness. Once you’ve done your pre-season training, and you’ve bought one or two new players, you want to get them into the situation where they know their fellow players. So the results are not the most important thing but obviously the performance as the pre-season goes on and you play in your latter games becomes more important.”
JS: Did it affect your thinking around buying and selling players?
RE: “We tried to buy our players quite early to try and get it all organised and not be in a situation where you go on pre-season and you haven’t signed some of the players that you’d have liked. That way you’d know what your squad would be like and you’d see how they would blend into your system and how they blend into the team culture. Sometimes, of course, that doesn’t happen and you have to wait a little bit, which gives you less chance to assess them and might mean it takes them a little while longer to fit in.”
JS: How important was it to assess the mentalities of the players in the way they react to playing in friendlies?
RE: “Every game you play at the top level you’re always looking for the players to put in a performance and to try and improve as they go along. The pressure is on them to go out and perform, even though it’s not always about the result it’s about seeing improvement in the integration of the team. There’s a lot of things that go on in pre-season but it’s a big time for the players to get to know each other. You go on tour somewhere, for two or three weeks you play games against teams from all over, you’re very rarely at home so it’s a matter of them bonding together. It’s nice when you get it right and hit the ground running ready for the start of the season.”
JS: Did you notice a significant difference in performance between friendlies and competitive matches?
RE: “Sometimes you can have really good pre-season games but as a manager and a coach you’re trying to find out all about your players so you’re constantly changing your teams, bringing people on and taking them off. You’re messing them around a lot in many ways but you’re trying to find out about the entire squad so you try to give everybody a chance. You’re always looking forward to that first league game of the season and you want to have the best knowledge of the team that you’ve got. You’ll have some players who have been there for several years, some who will have been there a few weeks and some young kids who are trying to break into the first team. You want to give them all the opportunity to show what they can do but also allow yourself to have the knowledge to pick the best team for that first game.”
JS: How much does going on tour become a balancing act for the manager; knowing the benefits in terms of growing appeal abroad, giving foreign fans the chance to see the team in action while making sure the players are fit and ready for the season ahead?
RE: “I’m a great believer in getting the balance right and obviously now Liverpool are a massive team around the world, they can go anywhere from America to China, the Middle East to the Far East. But we shouldn’t forget that we also have a selection of teams around us, the likes of Tranmere, Southport, Crewe over the years, Chester, and we’ve always tried to help them in some way and it’s nice to see this time we’re playing some more games against the local teams. That gives them great support and we should always be looking out for local talent and that’s where it’s going to breed. Of course you’ve got to go further afield because we’ve got loads of fans there. We’ve now become a global brand and it’s good to give everybody the chance to have a look at the team in their own countries.”
JS: Can it be frustrating and counterproductive to travel long distances when you’re trying to get the players back to a certain level of sharpness?
RE: “Usually training takes place for two or three weeks before you go away and the intensity of the training improves every day, it gets harder as you try and get to another level. Sometimes when you’ve been training for two or three weeks you’re glad to get away, and once you do get away the lads are together 24/7 so you get to see those personalities and you can make those decisions around what your team is going to be for the coming season.”
Josh Sexton: Do some players tend to approach pre-season differently; some throwing in big tackles and desperately trying to make an impression while others take it easy to avoid any setbacks?
Stephen Warnock: “It’s just different when you’re the age that you are, you come back with a different mentality. Young lads come back with a point to prove, want to show how fit they are and that they’ve been looking after themselves to impress the manager straight away. Whereas experienced players will ease themselves into it a bit and know there’s no medals won on the first day. The senior players will ease themselves into it even in game situations, they won’t be throwing themselves into tackles because they know the most important thing is to be fit for the first game of the season.”
JS: If you come into pre-season injured how much of a blow is that, does it take a while longer to get up to speed having missed that opportunity?
SW: “It’s very difficult because there is a lot of leg work done in pre-season. It’s a strange thing because you think you can get to a certain level and be fit but you need four or five weeks in your legs to get you up to speed and then that stands you in good stead for the rest of the season. It’s often the same when you get a hamstring injury during the season, you come back and you only train for a week or two and think you’re ready to play but your form is not as good because your fitness isn’t as strong as it would have been if you’d had a full pre-season. So to be fit in pre-season is everything.”
JS: How do you approach friendlies given the difference in the level of quality on the pitch compared to competitive matches?
SW: “You’ve got to understand that the opposition players will be thinking the same thing and they’ll have young players within the team who will be trying their hardest but there will be senior players who will be knowing what they can do and whether they can push themselves to a certain level. It’s also about trying to get your touch back to a certain degree and getting your bearings back on the pitch, but the be all and end all is to get fit and be ready for the first game.”
JS: Are there different pressures to deal with in terms of focusing on individual performance despite the result not being as crucial?
SW: “You’ve got to have the mentality that if even you don’t play well not to panic about it. Some people tend to worry about their form even in pre-season but you’ve still got three or four weeks left to get yourself fully match sharp and get yourself up to speed, but that is another thing that comes with age. Sometimes you can worry about certain things that you’re not doing within your game that you’re used to doing but when you come to the first few games suddenly that’s there again because you know how to go into a competitive match situation.”
JS: Did you feel you were being given the chance to influence the manager’s plans?
SW: “You’d hope your performance would affect the manager’s thinking. That was the thing that I always came back thinking. You know you need to come back and hit the ground running because you never know when a player might pick up an injury and you might get a chance. But you just want to show that you’re improving as a player year on year, that was the thing that you go into the practice matches thinking. You want to impress to the point where the manager thinks he can trust you to put you in the squad and help the team through the league season.”
JS: As a player at a club like Liverpool what was it like to experience the global appeal that the club has?
SW: “It’s brilliant. When you’re at Liverpool you understand the magnitude of the club, going to foreign countries where everybody knows who you are and what you do. It’s like a religion to them, they follow it and they get that opportunity to see you for the first time and it’s a massive appeal. It’s great for the players as well to see how well the team are followed.”
For extended coverage of Liverpool’s pre-season tour make sure you subscribe to TAW Player. Look out for post-match podcasts from friendlies as well as discussion of Liverpool’s transfer targets over the course of the summer. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive — here are some of the highlights so far…