It was Saturday morning when Liverpool’s Singapore Airlines plane touched down in Manchester.
The sweltering conditions they faced during their tour of Asia proved to be the perfect preparation for what awaited them when they regrouped at their Kirkby training complex on Monday as a heatwave grips the UK.
Their preparations for the new season have continued in equally hot if more familiar surroundings this week before Jurgen Klopp’s squad travel to Germany for a friendly on Thursday against RB Leipzig. From there, it’s on to Austria for a week-long training camp, which incorporates another warm-up game against Red Bull Salzburg next Wednesday.
“My time,” is how Klopp describes that next leg of Liverpool’s pre-season plans.
The peace and tranquillity of Austria will be a world away from the scenes akin to Beatlemania that accompanied their every move in Thailand and Singapore during the two-match tour. No commercial commitments, just time on the training field and team-bonding exercises off it, including the annual karaoke initiation for the new signings.
So, what kind of shape are Liverpool in as their Premier League opener away to promoted Fulham on Saturday, August 6 edges closer? Who caught the eye on tour, and who returned home frustrated?
“Everything was top class, from start to finish. Thank you very much Singapore, it was absolutely outstanding. If it was closer I’d come here more often, but a 14-hour flight is not exactly around the corner,” Klopp said following the 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at the National Stadium on Friday, before the team coach headed straight for Changi Airport so the squad could embark on the long journey home.
The Liverpool manager was genuine. Embarking on a 14,000-mile round trip wasn’t top of Klopp’s wish list for this pre-season but he appreciated the importance commercially of touring again after a three-year hiatus from such trips due to the pandemic.
It was a success both in terms of what was achieved on the training pitches, and off it with the club’s vast fanbase in Asia certainly embracing their presence.
To Klopp’s relief, the torrential downpours that wreaked havoc in Hong Kong on his previous trip to the continent in the summer of 2017 stayed away and by keeping players and staff on ‘tour time’ (three hours ahead of the UK) they avoided the full effects of jet lag.
For the game in Bangkok, it was telling how the Liverpool shirts inside the Rajamangala Stadium comfortably outnumbered the Manchester United ones.
There, 50,248 fans paid between £116 and £580 to watch their heroes. The only downside, speaking to some outside the ground, was the fact that many friends and family members had been priced out by promoter Fresh Air Festival. Nearly 10,000 seats remained unsold.
The stadium in Singapore three days later was closer to capacity with 50,217 attending the game with Palace. Tickets were cheaper there, ranging from £90 to £180.
The results of the matches are, of course, irrelevant.
Losing 4-0 in Thailand had to be put in the context of Klopp using 32 players across the 90 minutes, including 10 teenagers, against a more experienced United line-up who were a week ahead in their preparations. Careless mistakes were punished and chances were spurned.
In the same way, comfortably swatting aside an under-strength Palace team 2-0 was little reason to rejoice as captain Jordan Henderson rather sheepishly did his trademark shuffle before lifting the Standard Chartered Singapore Trophy.
But in terms of how Liverpool functioned as a unit, both with and without the ball, Klopp and his staff felt important steps were taken during their week away. “It looked really like proper football,” beamed Klopp. “Our pressing was extremely obvious, which is very important for us. We were much more compact.”
Two of the big winners from the trip are Harvey Elliott and new boy Fabio Carvalho, who both caught the eye in each of the two matches.
A year ago, winger Elliott spent pre-season being taught a new midfield role by Klopp and Pep Lijnders. He sparkled to such an extent that by the end of August, he was starting Premier League games there.
That horrific ankle injury he suffered against Leeds in September derailed his progress and after returning to action in February his game time dwindled, but now his sharpness has returned. The 19-year-old set up the opening goal for Henderson against Palace.
“I’ve just got to prove myself to the manager and put myself in the best possible position to get minutes,” Elliott tells The Athletic. “I’m enjoying my football again and it’s my dream to be able to put on the shirt for this club.
“I did a bit more in terms of fitness work this summer to ensure I was in the best possible position coming back. I lost a fair bit of weight in the off-season. I had a target last season, which I reached, and I’ve done it again.”
Elliott, who has changed his shirt number from No 67 to No 19, also took inspiration from spending time with basketball’s Boston Celtics after sponsors New Balance organised an NBA trip for him.
“To be in and around those players, seeing how they warm up, seeing how they control games, it was an experience of a lifetime,” he adds. “I was really grateful for the opportunity.”
It was telling while in Singapore that when Klopp was asked again about the possibility of Liverpool signing another midfielder during the summer window he said there was “no need” and name-checked the former Fulham youngster, who moved to Anfield three years ago.
Harvey ➡ Hendo
A brilliant strike to put us ahead in Singapore 👏 #LFCPreSeason pic.twitter.com/1Y8HaKYd3w
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 15, 2022
“For me, Harvey is a new signing as well,” Klopp said. “He is very young. He came back brilliant (from the injury), then had a little low — that is completely normal after being that long out. So I’m really excited about seeing him.”
Carvalho, also 19 and off the same Fulham youth production line, has certainly wasted no time showing why Liverpool were so pleased to win the race for his signature this summer when they agreed a £7.7million ($9.3m) deal with the west London club.
Klopp has used Carvalho on the left of a front three and as part of a midfield trio. Always wanting possession, the Portugal Under-21 international makes things happen and there are stylistic similarities with Anfield predecessor Philippe Coutinho in how he cuts inside onto his right foot.
Denied a first Liverpool goal by a post against United, he was thwarted by a fine sprawling save from Palace keeper Vicente Guaita. Mohamed Salah stood and applauded the youngster.
“I’m sure Fabio will show everyone in the world why Liverpool signed him,” says Elliott, who played in the youth ranks with the newcomer at Fulham. “He’s a great kid. I’ve known him for many years. We kept in contact after I left Fulham, so to be able to play with him again is really special.”
Another feature of both games in Asia was the huge injection of quality and energy provided when Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold were reunited down Liverpool’s right. They looked so sharp after a tournament-free summer of rest, and combined expertly for Salah to score the second against Palace, courtesy of a deflection.
The Egyptian King doubling our lead in Singapore ⚽#LFCPreSeason pic.twitter.com/MMR2sR0D3l
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 15, 2022
Salah, especially, needed to recharge his batteries after scoring just once in Liverpool’s final nine matches of a gruelling 2021-22 season that saw him play 60 times for club and country.
Fabinho mentioned in his recent exclusive interview with The Athletic how the Egyptian also seems happier since speculation over his future was ended by him signing a new three-year contract at the start of this month.
Klopp boasts an array of stars but nobody in the squad draws in a crowd quite like Salah, with the noise levels cranked up considerably every time he touched the ball or appeared on the big screen in the stadium.
Luis Diaz, who made such a blistering start to his Liverpool career in the second half of last season after arriving from Porto in January, clearly doesn’t do friendlies. The all-action displays he put in against United and Palace whet your appetite for what his first full campaign with the club may bring. The Colombian just needs to be more clinical in the final third.
What about new striker Darwin Nunez? There was always going to be intense scrutiny on the 23-year-old Uruguay international, given the size of the €100million (£85.2m, $102.4m) deal that brought him to Merseyside from Benfica and the fact he is the prolific Sadio Mane’s replacement.
A first goal for the club eluded him in Asia.
The clip of a glaring Nunez miss against United went viral as rival fans mocked him and Liverpool, but the reality is that Klopp and his staff have been more than satisfied with what they’ve seen from the player so far.
They loved his movement and his ability to get away from defenders and find pockets of space. There were also promising signs of an understanding being formed with both full-backs, who looked to exploit his pace and power in behind.
Virgil van Dijk is certainly a fan, telling The Athletic: “We saw how good Darwin is when we played against Benfica last season (in the Champions League quarter-finals).
“He’s a very talented striker — one for now and also one for the future. I just remember in the away leg, he tried to target Ibou (central defensive partner Ibrahima Konate) a bit more than me!
“He did well. He caused a lot of problems for us as a team. Very direct, quick and strong. I was sad that Sadio left us (for Bayern Munich), but we knew it was coming. He felt that it was time to move on and get a new challenge. We all respected that.
“The club reacted by getting Darwin in. Hopefully, he’s going to have a fantastic career for Liverpool.”
Nunez, who was denied by good saves in both the Asian games, certainly shouldn’t be judged after playing an hour combined across two friendlies. Klopp has already made it clear that this is a long-term project and there’s no pressure on him to be fully up to speed for that trip to Fulham in three weeks. Liverpool have an array of attacking options, with Roberto Firmino looking lean and strong after the fitness issues that hampered him last season.
“I am not worried at all (about Nunez),” Klopp says. “The general judgement is 0.0 per cent interesting. We all know it’s a joke, or a game for some people to pick out some situations where a player is not doing well.
“The only really important thing, first and foremost, is how I judge the situation for the player. I couldn’t be more calm about it. I am completely convinced about his potential.”
Academy youngsters including Bobby Clark, Stefan Bajcetic, Luke Chambers, Isaac Mabaya and Thomas Hill returned home from Asia with memories they will never forget.
However, for Diogo Jota and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, there was immense frustration.
Jota, who saw Diaz jump above him in the pecking order in the second half of last season, had been doing rehab over the summer after damaging a hamstring playing for Portugal against Switzerland in the Nations League on June 12.
Dr Andreas Schlumberger, the club’s head of recovery and performance, who has been handed greater responsibilities by Klopp this season, spent time over the summer working with Jota in his homeland to carefully manage his return. However, after being given the green light to resume full training on tour, the 25-year-old broke down again.
Klopp has already ruled him out of the Community Shield against Manchester City on Saturday, July 30 in Leicester.
The manager expects Alisson to be fit by then, after his Brazilian keeper came off during the United game because of an abdominal muscle problem and then didn’t face Palace. Defender Joe Gomez has already resumed training after he also didn’t feature in Singapore as a precaution.
But Oxlade-Chamberlain remains sidelined after limping off against Palace with pain in his hamstring. It was a bitter blow for a player desperate to force his way back into contention having not featured at all in the final two months of last season, when he was either an unused sub or did not make the matchday squad.
The England midfielder, who turns 29 in a month, is on course to be out of contract next summer and his future beyond 2023 is uncertain, but Klopp still sees him as part of his plans for the coming campaign.
A few casualties were inevitable given the intensity of the tour schedule, but there is still plenty to be positive about as the focus turns to that training camp in Austria.
Liverpool returned from Asia in good shape.
(Top photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
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