Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Fleetwood Town 0-5 Liverpool: Reds Turn On The Style

In the second fixture of their pre-season preparations, Liverpool travelled to Fleetwood’s Highbury ground. As in the Tranmere match, Klopp elected to play two entirely different sets of players in each half – the opening forty-five minutes was not too far away from a full-strength side minus those still away following international duty, while the second period saw an opportunity handed to more of the young players. Both impressed, but interestingly it was the younger side that scored the bulk of the goals – four of Liverpool’s five were notched in an extremely strong second half performance.

The biggest positive of the first half was undoubtedly Marko Grujic. He was unable to feature in the Tranmere game due to bizarre work permit regulations that required him to leave and then re-enter the country, and he seemed determined to make up for lost time. He certainly managed to impress Klopp and the fans: he played some lovely passes, and looked impossible to dispossess. He also showed some quick feet, winning a penalty early on: in a passage of play that highlighted some of his best attributes, he effortlessly shrugged his man off before bursting forward and comprehensively beating the defender with a series of step-overs. Ings missed the subsequent spot kick, but Grujic soon rectified the situation – just minutes later he rifled one in following some nice play down the left by Sadio Mane. Nobody really knows exactly what squad role Klopp envisages for Grujic this season, and it would be foolish to read too much into a pre-season game, but the Serbian is certainly inserting himself at least into the first team picture.

Grujic aside, it was a fairly uninspiring first half. There was nothing specifically wrong with it – the general style of play was actually encouraging, with everyone looking to string together quick, incisive passes. However, nobody really shone: Mane was probably the best after Grujic, but even he was guilty of some poor decision-making in places. Particularly concerning was the apparent impotence of the right hand side; Markovic has purportedly been given pre-season to try and force his way into Klopp’s plans, but as in the Tranmere game he failed to impress. Almost all attacks went through Mane on the left – considering Markovic is supposed to be a direct winger who likes to cut inside and make things happen, this was particularly disappointing. Admittedly Mane was assisted by the ever-marauding Moreno whereas Markovic had Flanagan, but he would nevertheless certainly have liked to have had a bigger influence on proceedings.

This lacklustre showing was thrown into sharp relief by the performance of youngster Ryan Kent in the second half. He played exceptionally well, demonstrating awareness beyond his years. He was rewarded for this with two assists: both were clever square balls from situations where many wingers would simply have lashed the ball at the near post. As well as the assists, he also showed some lovely skill to beat his man on a couple of occasions – with Klopp known for bringing young talents through to the first team, Markovic will be well aware that he will have to step up to ensure he remains higher up the pecking order than Kent. He was one of many who impressed: academy prospect Woodburn scored one goal and created another in an excellent performance, whilst sole regular first-teamer Roberto Firmino bagged a poacher’s brace. It was interesting that Klopp once again elected to play Firmino in the number nine role: with Sturridge, Origi and Ings all occupying that position it is hard to see him getting many minutes up top during the season, but he was undeniably impressive there in this fixture. There was a real clinical edge to the second half performance – even Lucas managed to get on the scoresheet! Transferring this ruthlessness into the Premier League season is going to be a key element of any success in the forthcoming campaign: Klopp got Liverpool creating chances aplenty last season, but not taking them with sufficient consistency.

The absence of a lot of regular first team players makes it particularly hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from this game, but if nothing else it is fair to say that Liverpool’s future looks bright. Marko Grujic looks capable of developing into a player that could control our midfield for years to come – the prospect of him playing alongside Can, both with their potential fulfilled, is a mouth-watering one. Add to this the likes of Brannagan, Kent, Woodburn, Ejaria and potentially Ilori, and the club looks in very good shape; it would be na├»ve to think that all of these players will one day make the first team, but even those who don’t will surely go on to fetch decent sums of money for us. Sergi Canos was in a similar bracket to the aforementioned crop of youngsters: he has just departed to Norwich for a fee which could rise to close to five million pounds, giving an indication of how valuable these talents are as assets. For the time being, however, they remain very much a part of Liverpool Football Club – a club that will undoubtedly be content with how pre-season has gone so far.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 11 July 2016

Liverpool vs Tranmere: Return of the Reds

Little time seems to have passed since the disappointing end to the last campaign, but today Liverpool returned to action in a pre-season friendly against Tranmere Rovers. This could hardly be called a significant fixture, but it provided a good opportunity to see some of the new signings and academy prospects in action; the result was always secondary in this match, but Liverpool will be pleased to have come away with a 1-0 victory.

Jurgen Klopp elected to play two entirely different teams in each half. The first half gave us our first glimpse of new signings Loris Karius, Joel Matip and Sadio Mane: Karius had absolutely nothing of note to do, but Matip and Mane were both involved. The Cameroon centre back made a couple of errors towards the start of the match, but that can hopefully be attributed purely to nerves. He settled a little as the half progressed, and showed off some impressive distribution – both he and Lovren played some excellent balls out from the back, allowing for good transition from one end of the pitch to the other. One such pass from Lovren found Mane, who had made a bursting run into the box endemic of his lively performance; the Senegalese international beat the onrushing keeper to the ball then unleashed an audacious scoop shot from an extremely tight angle, only narrowly missing out on an exquisite first goal. In fact, the newest addition from Southampton was probably the half’s best performer – in addition to his intelligent off-the-ball movement, he also impressed with his direct runs and clever turns. One such turn, where he allowed the ball to run between his legs before swivelling and sprinting away from his man, resulted in a chance that forced a fine save from the Tranmere goalkeeper. His link-up play with Firmino was also encouraging: Firmino was playing as a striker in this game, something he will likely not be doing regularly over the course of the season, but their understanding was nevertheless a positive sign.

A couple of the youth players also seized the chance to impress in the first half. Ejaria, playing as an attacking midfielder, was one of the lesser-known youngsters on the team sheet – he put in an excellent performance, showing a wide range of qualities. His passing was generally excellent, he put pressure on the Tranmere defence with some powerful, direct runs and he even tracked back admirably: many Liverpool fans will now be keeping a close watch on his development. In contrast, Brannagan is one of the most high-profile young talents at the club – Barcelona have reportedly shown interest in signing him to their youth setup, and it was clear in this game why he has attracted such attention. His levels of composure on the ball are remarkable for such a young player. He pulled the strings from a slightly deeper midfield role, and barely put a pass wrong all game – he also showed quick feet to beat a man on a couple of occasions. The only real negatives from the half were the lack of goals (although this cannot really be read into at all in a pre-season match) and a close call from a set piece, where a Tranmere man was able to find space and directed his header on to the post. Hopefully this persistent set-piece vulnerability gets addressed before the season gets properly underway.

The second half saw changes all round: two of the most notable introductions were Danny Ings, only recently back from a serious injury that kept him out for much of last season, and Lazar Markovic, who spent the last year out on loan at Fenerbache. Both players are still very young, and whilst some fans have written them off others are intrigued to see what part they could play in Klopp’s plans for the upcoming season. Markovic didn’t do his cause much good with his performance – seemingly functioning fairly central rather than in his natural right wing position, he struggled to influence the game. More worryingly, he missed two very good chances: the first was ballooned over the bar from about 12 yards out, and the second struck the post with the goal gaping. The latter miss was frankly criminal, and in any competitive game would be nigh-on unforgivable. However, the Serbian did begin to impress in the latter stages: he began to drift over to the right on occasion, and from here he was effective. One particular delivery for Danny Ings was inch-perfect: the striker nearly gave it the finish it deserved, firing just wide with an acrobatic bicycle kick. Ings did eventually get his goal a few minutes later – Trent Alexander Arnold went on a lovely run before finding Ings, who controlled the ball excellently before lashing it into the net. Although he will have a tough time getting minutes ahead of Sturridge and Origi, it is certainly nice to have Ings back fit as an option: his pace, finishing and work rate make him a very useful player in any side, but particularly under Klopp.

The Ings goal secured the win, but more important was the fairly high level of performance in both halves. Liverpool always looked in control, and impressed with their quick, accurate passing under pressure. They were expected to dominate, of course, but that does not detract from the fact that they were able to completely dictate the game – new signings and youngsters alike put in performances that gave the fans reason to be optimistic for the future. It is foolish to read too much into pre-season games, but it is certainly fair to say that there were promising signs. If nothing else, it was great to see Liverpool back in action again: here’s to many more wins in the coming season.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013