With Liverpool now four games into what promises to be a gruelling pre-season, what can we, and what can’t we take from pre-season up until this point? Overall, there are two key elements to bear in mind.
The first thing to note is that team selection itself is generally unimportant. Jürgen Klopp has used at least 20 players in every game up until this point, indicating that who plays is not largely important.
Certain players, such as Alberto Moreno, Jon Flanagan and when he was used Lucas Leiva, are players that have no future at Liverpool whilst others: Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren and of course Sadio Mané, have all been nursing injuries, so their non-selection is inconsequential.
The second thing to note is that structural decisions are more likely to be highly relevant. Whilst where players are playing might be down to who is unavailable, it might also be a sign of things to come.
Last season, we saw Jordan Henderson used as a lone defensive midfielder in pre-season and Roberto Firmino used almost exclusively as a striker, two positions which we saw them both adopt for the majority of the 2016/17 campaign.
Moreover, the use of the 4-3-3 exclusively in pre-season last summer was the precursor for the default in 16/17, so it stands to reason that there are certainly gems to be gleaned.
4-3-3 still dominant
And with that in mind, the first thing to note is the fact that Klopp has used the 4-3-3 for the majority of the four games so far. Despite playing 4-4-1-1 in one half of football, the 4-3-3 has been the default again this summer. Whilst Klopp has promised that he will be more tactically flexible in this year’s pre-season campaign, that is yet to rear its head, and it is clear that 4-3-3 is the formation that he favours.
The diamond midfield that was touted at the end of the 16/17 season is yet to be seen, three at the back does not appear to be on the horizon and whilst the 4-4-1-1 was used to accommodate Dominic Solanke and Divock Origi together, Klopp was happy to play Solanke on the left in a 4-3-3 against Leicester City, when he could have opted for the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 again.
Part of that is down to the players available. Having natural wingers Mohamed Salah and Ryan Kent at his disposal has meant that Klopp has been reluctant to use the diamond, whilst a lack of depth at centre-back is still a huge reason Klopp has dodged three at the back up until this point. Nevertheless, it’s clear what the boss believes his primary formation to be.
New signings provide quality
Salah is a top class addition. That was already clear, but the way that he has slotted seamlessly into this Liverpool front line, scoring twice in the three games he’s played, just emphasises how much he is going to bring to the table. Salah is very, very fast, an extremely intelligent player with deft control and an excellent passer.
Whilst he’s not exactly a carbon copy of Mané, he’s the perfect player to have in the squad when Mané is unavailable, and the prospect of both in the same team, alongside Firmino, Phillipe Coutinho and Adam Lallana is absolutely salivating.
Solanke is another addition who looks very decent. Big, strong, powerful and yet with a good touch on him. His movement is excellent, and his finishing looks like his key attribute. Liverpool have three very good finishers in Daniel Sturridge, Origi and Solanke himself, which will hopefully add something different should the fluidity that Firmino offers not work.
Old faces looking sharp
It cannot be understated how important it is that some of Liverpool’s big name players are back near their best and looking very sharp. Whilst there was never any doubt of how good Coutinho is, it’s still brilliant watching him have Premier League defences on strings, and both Lallana and Firmino look sharp too.
But the two key names from pre-season are Henderson and Sturridge. Both have had an injury hit few seasons at Liverpool, with Henderson missing the end of the season and Sturridge’s injury problems well documented. But both look fitter than ever, and both claim they are completely injury free.
Their talents will add a lot to this Liverpool team. Henderson’s defensive work and range of passing in pre-season has been absolutely outstanding and Sturridge is one of the best finishers in the league. If both are fit enough to contribute serious minutes in 17/18, then Liverpool will have a lot of quality options.
Defensive reinforcements still required
One issue that remains clear is that Liverpool have a real lack of defensive depth. Joël Matip hasn’t got going yet in pre-season, Lovren struggled against Leicester, Joe Gomez has been poor and with Lucas gone and Ragnar Klavan ageing, Liverpool are in desperate need of a central defender.
But it’s not just centre-back that has been an issue. Trent Alexander-Arnold has had his moments in pre-season but defensively he doesn’t look solid and at just 18 he will make mistakes.
And whilst Henderson has been impressive in defensive midfield, with Emre Can not back yet, Georginio Wijnaldum is the only player left in the squad who can play in that role and his defensive responsibilities are severely lacking. Wijnaldum is a good midfielder but simply cannot defend well enough for what is required in that role.
So overall, there are plenty of positives things that Liverpool can take from what has been a good pre-season so far, but there are still plenty of things that need to be resolved and it’s also clear that we need to take everything with a pinch of salt. After all, it’s still just pre-season.