Liverpool are well into their preparations for the 2021/22 campaign, with Jurgen Klopp opting for a four-week training camp in the Austrian town of Saalfelden, under the Alps in Salzburg, replicating their trip from a year previous.
This time around, the Reds’ time away sees them take in friendlies against FC Wacker Innsbruck, Stuttgart, Mainz and Hertha Berlin, with the club utilising their contacts to organise an ideal - if unorthodox - warmup schedule ahead of the return to Anfield for back-to-back clashes to round off pre-season.
As the world makes advances in the ongoing pandemic, and restrictions are lifted across England, Liverpool can look to edge closer to normality, with a lengthy preparation for the campaign ahead welcomed by Klopp and his players.
Pre-season can be an exciting time for supporters, too, and this year it is no different, with a host of things to watch out for over the weeks ahead - here are five of those.
The return of Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip
The trio of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip couldn't hide their smiles - nor did they attempt to - as they walked out onto the pitch for their first training session back in Austria.
Lengthy injuries for all three centre-backs plagued Liverpool’s 2020/21 season, with Klopp’s struggle to fill the void well-documented as Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Ozan Kabak, Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams all stepped up.
Now they are back, and while the club’s medical staff will ensure all precautions are taken as they look to return to action in the pre-season friendlies, their time on the pitch will be much anticipated by fans.
😄 @VirgilvDijk and @J_Gomez97 at it again 😄Good vibes only, lads 👌 pic.twitter.com/2QM5KSsB8sJuly 19, 2021
Van Dijk is, of course, the priority, as the Reds’ leading centre-back and, arguably, their most important player alongside the likes of Alisson, Fabinho and Mohamed Salah.
Having them back at the heart of defence will be an immeasurable boost for Liverpool.
Elliott and the youngsters
“Harvey made a step, I have to say. He looks in a proper shape, really, really fit,” Klopp told the club’s official website in a wide-ranging pre-season interview.
“He came back in a good shape and is here now in full training obviously. You can see last year really worked well for him. Now let’s make the next steps together.”
A season-long loan move to Blackburn came as a surprise for Harvey Elliott last October, but the the teenager embraced the opportunity and shone in the Championship, scoring seven goals and laying on 12 assists in 42 games for Rovers.
With a space potentially opening up the squad as Divock Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Takumi Minamino are made available for transfer, Elliott looks poised to step up as a new favourite of Klopp’s and competition for Salah and Sadio Mane.
He may not be the only youngster to catch the eye in pre-season, either, with right-back Conor Bradley, midfielder Tyler Morton and forwards Mateusz Musialowski and Kaide Gordon among the high-potential teenagers set for exposure in the Reds’ friendly fixtures.
There is every chance one seizes the chance - like Elliott has - and paves the way for a breakthrough campaign at first-team level this season.
As it stands, Ibrahima Konate is Liverpool’s only signing of the summer, and while that may be a sore subject for some supporters, it is worth noting that few Premier League sides have conducted serious business so far and the Frenchman is currently the fourth-most expensive signing across Europe.
While Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip will remain core options for Klopp at centre-back, Konate has not arrived to warm the bench, and the £36 million buy from RB Leipzig could contend for a first-choice role immediately.
Konate has earned praise from Klopp, his assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders and vice-captain James Milner already in pre-season, and he boasts the quality required to shine in Liverpool’s defensive system.
“For Ibou it is important that he gets minutes quickly,” Klopp has explained, “that’s what pre-season is for.”
Expect Liverpool’s new No. 5 to see plenty of action throughout pre-season, and potentially set himself up for a starting spot against Norwich in the Premier League opener on August 14.
A new formation
Despite Klopp calling upon a 36-man squad so far in Austria, the manager is still without eight of his senior players, including all three of his first-choice midfielders in Fabinho, Thiago and Jordan Henderson.
The trio, along with Alisson and Roberto Firmino, are not due to report back until the first week of August, which leaves the manager to utilise other options - particularly in the middle of the park - in the warmup friendlies.
Milner, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones are his primary midfield candidates in the first weeks, along youngsters such as Morton, Leighton Clarkson, Jake Cain and Ben Woodburn.
There is still scope to field a three-man unit, then, with Clarkson, Keita and Jones an exciting trio, but in the absence of his likely starters against Norwich, there is a possibility Klopp plays around with his formation.
Could we see a 4-2-3-1, for example, with Keita and Jones in midfield and Oxlade-Chamberlain joining the likes of Salah, Mane and Minamino in attack? It could certainly add a string to Liverpool’s bow for the season ahead.
Fans back at Anfield
Liverpool are due to round off their pre-season schedule with a friendly double-header against Athletic Club and Osasuna at Anfield in the days leading up to their trip to Carrow Road - the latter a tribute to the late Michael Robinson.
Two games over the space of two days will give the Reds an opportunity to fine-tune their high-intensity game after a long break, and it will also provide fans the chance to finally return to Anfield in their thousands.
With lockdown restrictions lifted in the UK, Liverpool could feasibly sell out their 53,862-capacity stadium for both games, allowing them to test safety protocols ahead of the campaign proper.
It would be a brilliant sight to see Anfield packed out again, after 16 months with either no fans or a smaller allocation in the stands, and though the games will be friendlies, the atmosphere would be unparalleled.
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