With kick-off in the Barclays Premier League 12/13 season less than four weeks away, pre-season is in full swing. Many of the biggest clubs go on foreign tours these days to play their pre-season friendlies, in an attempt to reach their out-lying fan bases and in the hope of spreading their brand ever further, for largely commercial purposes. Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea, amongst others, are all currently in sunnier climes as they limber up after the short break and begin preparing for the new campaign.
Liverpool Football Club are no different. With the club now under the ownership of Boston based Fenway Sports Group, headed up by John W. Henry and Tom Werner, Brendan Rodgers and his men embarked on a fortnight’s tour of North America last Monday. Based at Harvard University in Boston Massachusetts, the Reds tour encompasses three matches, the first against Toronto FC having already been played. Liverpool also face AS Roma on Wednesday evening and Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday before returning to the U.K..
In the first tour match, as mentioned above, Liverpool made the trip to Canada to face Major League Soccer outfit Toronto FC. The game was played in blistering heat, with stifling humidity thrown into the mix for good measure, and was a fairly typical pre-season encounter, with unlimited substitutions and the gruelling conditions making for a rather tepid contest.
The Canadian club are in the midst of their regular season, however, due to the number of recent fixtures they did not field their first eleven, opting instead to mix in some of their youngsters, recent signings and fringe players with their more established names. Torsten Frings, the ex-German international, was one of the more recognisable figures to take the field for Toronto.
Liverpool were without new signing Fabio Borini, due to arrive in Boston today after cutting his holiday short. They were also bereft of all six players who were called up to the England squad for the European Championships, Henderson, Gerrard, Carroll, Downing, Kelly and Johnson, also due to arrive today. With Luis Suarez, Sebastien Coates and Craig Bellamy all on Olympic duty, Brendan Rodgers first squad was primarily made up of youth team players, players on the fringes at Anfield, and players returning from loan or injury.
Most years, pre-season friendlies you can take or leave, however, with Brendan Rodgers now at the helm at Anfield many, including me, were keen to see how Liverpool would set up, and whether Rodgers had been able to impart some of his short-passing and high-pressing, possession holding philosophy onto the players. The chance to have a look at youngsters such as Raheem Sterling, Andre Wisdom and Suso was also a draw, as well as casting the eye over prodigal sons Alberto Aquilani, Daniel Pacheco and Joe Cole.
Rodgers set the team out in his preferred 4-3-3 formation. Pacheco, playing from the left had a bright opening half, his trickery causing the Toronto defence all kinds of problems, particularly in the first fifteen minutes. Jordan Ibe, the sixteen year old, playing down the other flank, also had a promising half. He wasn’t afraid to take his man on and he got to the byline on a number of occasions. Nathan Eccleston played through the middle and didn’t do a bad job, however, with Pacheco and Ibe hugging the touchlines and the midfield slow to support, Liverpool lacked any real attacking threat in the first half.
At the back, Brad Jones started in goal and was relatively untroubled. Jamie Carragher captained the side, with Stephen Sama, the youngster, acquitting himself well beside the seasoned veteran. Andre Wisdom at right back was more than assured, quick and confident in possession he certainly looks like one for the future. Jose Enrique at left back had no trouble at all.
Aquilani, Adam and Spearing started in a midfield three and they all performed well enough. Aquilani’s pass completion rate was 95per cent, the Italian only failed with one pass in the forty-five minutes that he played, a very neat and tidy statistic and something that bodes well should he stay on Merseyside. Adam wasn’t bad either, much maligned by some Liverpool fans and an easy target for a lazy media, Adam could well flourish in a three man midfield under Rodgers and, despite rumour to the contrary, could certainly be in the new manager’s plans as he looks to build a squad that has strength in depth. Jay Spearing was his usual terrier like self in the holding role and, keeping it simple, his passing was also good.
Into the second half and Rodgers started a totally new eleven which included, Suso, Sterling and Adam Morgan, with Peter Gulacsi in goal. Martin Skrtel took over the captaincy and was accompanied in defence by Flanagan, Robinson and Wilson. Joe Cole, Jonjo Shelvey and Krisztian Adorjan completed the eleven.
Liverpool went behind in the 58th minute to a Quincy Amarikwa goal. Sergio Camargo picked up the ball just inside the Liverpool half and drove at the defence, Skrtel and Wilson backed off far too far and allowed Camargo to shoot from the edge of the box. Gulacsi got down well but could only parry and Amarikwa, Toronto’s recent signing, was easily first to the rebound.
A response came, however, as the Reds upped their game slightly. Suso was beginning to exert his authority on the game. His touch is sublime, as is his ability to shield the ball and hold onto it under immense pressure, before, more often than not releasing the right ball at the right time. Sterling was showing his ability in flashes, the lad has pace to burn and trickery to match but is still a little raw, not as confident or polished as Suso.
Jonjo Shelvey, always competitive, put in a good shift and looks as if he will play more of a role this season. In the 69th minute, a little stop-start piece of skill from Sterling, on the edge of the box, got him away from his man and he got a left footed effort away which beat the keeper but needed to be finished off as it span towards the line, a task which was gleefully accepted by Adam Morgan. Morgan is only eighteen and Brendan Rodgers has already described him as a natural goal-scorer. High praise indeed, Liverpool, arguably, haven’t had one of those since Robbie Fowler left the club.
In the final fifteen or twenty minutes Liverpool dominated. Reds fans were delighted to see Lucas Leiva mark his return from injury with a late cameo. The Brazilian metronome had been out since December but his recovery has gone well and he is back in the frame two months ahead of schedule. Suso was showing more flashes of genius and at one point danced himself out of a cul –de-sac of three defenders and made space for a rasping shot, which the keeper held on to. Breath-taking skill! Liverpool and Morgan almost had a second in the final few minutes but it wasn’t to be.
The game finished 1-1 and both sides were satisfied with the result. For Liverpool it was a good work-out in their first pre-season game and there were some huge positives to take out of the game. Firstly, the players seem to have no problem with the philosophy. The Reds enjoyed 75 per cent possession, against inferior opposition perhaps, but Toronto are in the middle of their season and therefore at peak condition. Brendan Rodgers charges completed 660 passes compared to 227 by their opponents, another very impressive statistic when you consider that Liverpool averaged 495 per game last season, over a third less.
Perhaps the most important plusses for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers to take from this friendly though were to do with personnel. Nobody who was involved, with the exception possibly of Jon Flanagan, looked uncomfortable within the system, in fact, quite the opposite and some individual performances really caught the eye.
Aquilani showed his class and, at the risk of getting prematurely excited, could really add fluency to the midfield in the coming season, should he stay. Suso was fantastic! Man of the match in my opinion. He has the confidence, touch and strength of a young Cesc Fabregas and his emergence into the first team squad this season should be something to savour. Sterling showed he’s not too far away either, although a possible loan to the likes of Blackpool, Swansea or Wigan could really help him to progress quickly in terms of gaining more game intelligence. With Adam Morgan displaying his nose for goal and Shelvey looking confident, things are looking up for Rodgers, who still has most of last year’s first team to welcome back.
Liverpool returned to their base at Harvard near Boston following Saturday’s match, where the rest of the squad are due to join the camp today. The Reds face Roma at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, in mid-week and new signing Fabio Borini could play a part against his former employers. The Reds face Tottenham in Baltimore on Saturday before returning to Merseyside to prepare for the first leg of their Europa League qualifying tie.
Aquilani image by Kong Niffe aka Inge Knoff.
Rodgers and Shelvey images by Bernard C aka Bernard Chan.