Why This Pre-Season Is Telling Us So Much

Posted by Paul Tomkins on July 30, 2004, 02:20:52 PM

Pre-season friendlies are not meaningless. They don't actually count for anything (even if you win a shiny cup - although there's rarely any expense spent: you'll tend to find it was purchased from the local high street trophy shop, and upon closer inspection will reveal a bronze-coloured figurine of a darts player with a football super-glued to his foot), but still they can provide useful insights.

Can the players - as first indications suggest - really improve dramatically under Benitez? Or rather, had the limitations of the previous management meant many were unable to remove their light from under those pesky proverbial bushells? Frankly, anyone who can get Henchoz to score the first time he takes charge of a team has to have the Midas touch, surely?

It's easy to get carried away, and that's clearly dangerous (Celtic had just played Chelsea in searing heat a couple of days earlier, although they were ahead of us in their preparation - as were Chelsea, who started training a week before us - and while Celtic were not at full-strength against us, we also neglected to field their strongest side at any given point. Celtic then beat Man U, so some comparisons with two of our rivals can be made).

Pass-and-move is easier without the pressure of a "real" game, of course. What struck me, however, was just how good our pass-and-move was. For the first twenty minutes, every player did the same thing: one touch to control and then pass with the second; or simply a first-time pass. All well and good until the ball landed at Milan Baros' feet, and then for him it was 73-touches-and-counting, heading towards the byline (has another Liverpool player ever won so many corners?). Of course, once the ball is in the final third there's less space, therefore you either want the kind of inch-perfect and incisive one-twos that Cisse and Murphy played for the Frenchman's two goals (which aren't easy to play), or you're looking for players to beat their men with skill or pace to work an opening: and hence you expect players like Kewell, Owen, Baros, Gerrard, Pongolle and Cisse to run with the ball when there's nothing else on.

But the improvement in our play doesn't stop there. Take Igor Biscan (something I'd have implored you to do a couple of seasons back).

He may have become a laughing stock (unfairly) to many last season, but I felt that there was some real quality present (having believed, after his abject and mildly-horrifying performances in 2001 in the Worthington Cup Final and at Goodison Park, that he was a total waste of space). I'm not saying seeing qualities in him last season means I'm a superior judge to anyone else, but when I assess a player I'm watching all aspects of their game - not just the obvious aspects, like goals or mistakes.

But I also look for consistency - it's the sign of a great player, not a potentially great player. I'm of the belief that any professional footballer can have at least one amazing game, and look a world-beater, if he's full of confidence. Many players are buzzing on their debuts, but cannot sustain it: Diouf scored two-thirds of his LFC league goals on his home debut (however, watching the first few games of someone like Patrik Berger, you could tell he was top quality and something rather special, even if he went off the boil for a while shortly after; you never quite got the sense with Diouf that he could deliver). It's how you cope with the ups and downs over a period of months or years that proves your quality.

Igor is another who started his Liverpool career well, in late 2000; his first few games included wins over Arsenal and Man U, and he did well in central midfield. However, I didn't see enough to make me think he could be a world-beater - this Gullit-esque player Ossie Ardiles claimed Igor was; he looked merely steady. In a bizarre way, it was last year at centre back that I could see Igor really was the real deal, and potentially something special (ignoring the silly lapses in concentration and lack of experience in that role). There were times when he charged upfield with the ball and was an awesome sight. That was soon knocked out of him by Phil Thompson; in a sense you could see why, but it was another symbol of the lack of invention of recent years - you don't want silly risks, but if you take no risks at all in football you'll never get out of your own half (or you do so simply by launching the ball 60 yards).

However, you can make those kind of charging runs from deep in midfield with less risk attached. You only had to see those he made against Wrexham and then the brilliant run that led to Riise's goal against Celtic to see that he could really make an impact this season. Later in the Celtic game, he chased back and made a brilliant interception down in the right full-back position.

He's got extremely good control, is clearly very fit, has great pace and acceleration, and looks much stronger than when he arrived in England. He's also good in the air - a bonus from a midfielder for set pieces. He has the making of a great all-round player, and could form a powerhouse midfield partnership with Stevie G, with the two alternating their forward bursts (if only one of the central midfielders has license to attack, he becomes easier to mark). Igor's yet to prove he can read the game like Didi Hamann, but his greater pace helps; if he's fractionally slower in seeing something, he can make it up with his strong running. Of course, I'd never write Didi off - he's too good to dispose of before Igor (or anyone else) proves their consistency.

With just Cisse and Josemi added - the former a certain starter, the latter a tough and uncompromising defender who may become our right back - it will give Rafa the chance to prove that GH bought extremely well, on average, but that he didn't get the best out of them. (For example, GH is still criticised for buying Biscan, but if he plays as he has been this summer, that will need re-assessing). With the CL qualifiers looming, we have the benefit of a squad that has been together for a few years now; and finally, in pre-season at least, Rafa has got them playing like they've actually met before. When it comes to reaching the first objective of our season - to qualify for the CL - then the familiarity and unity will be a great benefit. The last thing you need is four or five new players thrown in, and there being no understanding. If we qualify, then more money will be there to be spent, and new players can be purchased and blooded more slowly.

Look at Chelsea in 2002/03 - not a single player added to the squad, and they improved on their previous season to pip us for fourth spot. Even last year, for all those hefty cheques, Ranieri stuck mostly with players bought before Abramovich's cash injection. Of course, the more top-class players you buy, the better your chances of getting it right eventually. But understanding - and practice to make it perfect - is a crucial part of that process.

Which brings me onto my second point: training, and keeping the ball.
The reports from training encourage me massively. Players have commented on how they are doing more work with the ball and not so much running without it. As well as Rafa's hell-bent desire to win every game - even a friendly - there's the way he has changed the approach of the players.

On a personal note, I used to hate pre-season training, pounding the streets or jogging in total boredom around the football field for hours. I'd always be far more knackered (and enthusiastic to train a few days later) after a good hard 5-a-side into which I'd put every ounce of energy (after all, you're jogging, sprinting, tackling, shooting - all the muscles you need for a full game are stretched, with unpredictable movements). The more players enjoy training, the better they feel generally.

You need to do some running and conditioning work, but better (for example) to instruct a player to run the length of the pitch as fast as he can with the ball under control and shoot at goal (even if it's an empty net) than to just do plain running work. The ball itself is crucial - it should be a friend (how few LFC players under Houllier believed that!). I remember that eccentric 1970s/80s goalkeeper John Burridge used to go to sleep with a football and his keeper's gloves on; perhaps going too far, but it should certainly be with you at all times during training. You imagine players like Zidane have such great control because they work with a ball all the time. Okay, Djimi Traore's never going to have that kind of touch, but it'll help him to do more than run very fast. You can imagine a genius like Zidane or Aimar treating the ball like a lover (not literally, of course. That would just be wrong).

We went from a training program that was too relaxed under Evans (all 5-a-sides - where you can imagine out-of-condition certain players, like Neil Ruddock, coasting - although even coasting suggests some level of effort) to too little ball work under GH. I've always felt Rafa needs to ally the pass-and-move of Evans'-era LFC to the hard-work and defensive nous of Houllier's LFC (the combination Valencia seemed to find). An example of what Houllier excelled at was in working out how to return from an away European game (stay the night in the country and get a good night's sleep) and arrive back refreshed; we won something like 11 out of 12 league games after away trips to the continent. He knew the "scientific" preparations inside out, but the team wasn't doing enough in terms of how to play the game. Under Evans, the lack of fitness training as the game progressed and became more modern and scientific meant we were okay when we had the ball, but not capable of competing to win it back when we didn't.

Above all else, intense ball-work leads to players understanding each other's games better - the instinctive moves are transfered to the pitch because players are used to how their teammates move, and each player can pop off one-touch passes.

My main concern (only concern?) at the moment is that the players end up training too hard during the season. The physical demands of the Spanish league far are less than the Premiership: both in terms of each individual game, and because we play more games in this country with shorter rest periods. Just as marathon runners ease off in their training before a race, you need to keep gas in the tank for a big match, and the games themselves are the most stringent form of exercise. Training Liverpool's players in terms of fitness as he did Valencia's could be problematic. Hopefully Rafa appreciates that; he's not stupid, so I'm sure he will. He's studied English coaching enough in the past. We don't want to burn-out and "hit a wall" in January. Champions tend to stay with the leading pack and then hit the front in the second half of the season; it's not essential, but it tends to work that way. You need to keep freshness; Alex Ferguson has taken to giving his players two weeks off at various points of the season (although, this doesn't explain why they all go missing when playing us). The best part of a pass-and-move style is that you make the ball do most of the work; the extra conditioning is needed to make sure you can win the ball back once you've lost it.

Of course, the main key for Rafa will be how he works the rotation: keeping super-fit players from going over the edge, and into fatigue. You then need to balance the rotation so that you retain most of your key players for most games; changing an entire team from week to week was Claudio Ranieri's main problem at times at Chelsea. Too little rotation, and you burn-out. Too much, and you lose the rhythm a successful team - such as Arsenal - needs. If we can't yet match Arsenal's first eleven in terms of quality, then we can hope that freshness - and our greater striking options - may win the day. If not, so long as we have a good season trying.

Whatever happens, the initial signs are as good as they can possibly be. And while it ultimately doesn't mean anything until the first ball is kicked, it's always preferable to be in good shape and winning friendly matches, rather than bad shape and losing.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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