Liverpool find another defensive colossus
One of the great joys of any pre-season is enjoying the sight of new players – and new kits – as hopes and dreams for the new campaign begin to build.
This is undoubtedly Liverpool‘s most unusual close-season ever, the players only having been given two weeks off due to the coronavirus-delayed conclusion to the previous campaign and the tight turnaround ahead of the start of 2020/21 in early September.
With just three friendly matches – including next Saturday’s Community Shield against Arsenal at Wembley – so far scheduled before the Reds begin their title defence against Leeds United, every word, picture and video clip from Liverpool’s pre-season camp in Austria has been devoured by supporters still cold-turkeying from not being able to see their heroes in the flash since March.
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But one image in particular caught the eye of many fans this week as Klopp’s side were put through their paces in the shadow of the shadow of the Bavarian Alps.
The giant defender must have fallen on the wrong end of the scoreline but what struck most observers was that, for once, the 6 foot 4 Dutchman was not the tallest man in the frame.
It will have been the first glimpse many Reds will have had of Billy Koumetio but, while only the most die-hard of Liverpudlians will have been aware of him before this week, plenty will now know who he is after a tantalising cameo against Stuttgart.
Despite naming one of the strongest ever seen in an opening pre-season friendly, Klopp confirmed he would make eleven changes for the second half as is often the case in such matches.
17-year-old Frenchman Koumetio – only promoted to the Reds senior squad earlier this summer – did not make the cut for the second 45 in Salzburg, Sepp Van den Berg and Nat Phillips replacing Van Dijk and Joe Gomez at the break, but moments after Rhian Brewster scored Liverpool’s third midway through the half Koumetio was substituted on in place of Van den Berg.
And in a little over twenty minutes action, he gave notice Liverpool may have a new collossus on their hands to walk in the giant footsteps laid down by Van Dijk, Sami Hyypia, Ron Yeats et al.
Winning towering headers is taken as red given his size and Koumetio displayed his aerial prowess on a number of occasions as the German side dominated the last 20 minutes searching for a consolation goal.
But just as important is defensive nous and the Lyon-born youngster showed that in spades when one Stuttgart counter left him exposed but rather than diving in, he held his ground – not dissimilarly to one of Van Dijk’s most famous tackles on Spurs’ Moussa Sissoko at Anfield in March of last year – forcing the attacker to make a decision and enabling him to get in a crucial block.
One slide-rule pass down the line to fellow debutant Kostas Tsimikas – who enjoyed a steady first 45 minutes in a red shirt – illustrated Koumetio also has the ball-playing ability Klopp requires from his defenders.
With Dejan Lovren having left the club for Zenit St Petersburg, there has been assumption Liverpool will enter the market for another central defender.
One 20-minute cameo in a friendly does not necessarily mean the Reds’ giant young Frenchman is ready for Premier League action yet but Klopp can be satisfied with Koumetio’s first taste of first team action and will be as intrigued as anyone who saw him in action in Austria to discover how quickly the Frenchman can prove he’s ready for the next step up.
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Brewster’s goal hunger can solve Klopp dilemma
Another of the areas some observers and supporters have been suggesting Liverpool may need to enter the transfer market in is the forward positions so the return of Rhian Brewster was always going to be watched with interest.
The 20-year-old striker enjoyed a very successful loan spell at Championship side Swansea City earlier this year, scoring 11 times in 22 appearances as he helped the Welsh side reach the play-off semi-finals where they narrowly lost out to Brentford.
Jurgen Klopp has never made any secret of his admiration for the London-born forward, regularly talking up his prospects as a future first-team player after he signed a five-year professional contract two years ago.
But after sparkling at the beginning of last season’s pre-season programme, he only made three appearances in the first half of 2019/20, starting the Carabao Cup games against MK Dons and Arsenal and coming off the bench in FA Cup win over Everton and did not manage to get on the scoresheet in any of those games before being farmed out on loan.
His prolific exploits in south Wales saw him return to Merseyside high on confidence but questions remained about Liverpool’s back-up striking options, with some suggesting the drop off in quality between the feted front three was so great Klopp would have no alternative but to enter the market for reinforcements.
Brewster will have known he has a point to prove, to his manager as much as anyone else, that he is ready to pick up the goalscoring mantle whenever the holy trinity of Salah, Mane and Firmino need a rest and he showed against Salzburg the benefit of his six-month spell with the Swans.
Playing in a largely second-string eleven after half time, Brewster was not given a host of chances to feed off but was a regular menace to the German defence, prowling and closing down with intent and, crucially, taking the one opportunity which did come his way clinically.
He might have won a penalty within two minutes of being on pitch, a bustling run inside the left channel of the penalty area being halted by a challenge which knocked him off his feet and didn’t win the foul Brewster’s reaction thought it deserved.
It did not dissuade him however and Brewster’s hunger for goals was apparent as he searched for openings and mistakes from defenders on the rain-sodden Salzburg surface.
Midway through the second half he got the kind of goal which all strikers love, a bread-and-butter strike from a couple of yards out after James Milner had linked well with Marko Grujic and Harvey Elliott, made possible by his positional sense and that vital striker’s knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Brewster had an even stronger penalty claim in the closing moments as he was clearly tripped as he ran into the right-hand edge of the penalty area, the referee presumably been keen to get out of the rain as he blew the final whistle moments later with little or no stoppage time.
The young striker will have been mildly frustrated he didn’t get the chance to double his tally from the spot but can be satisfied that his first 45 minutes back in a red shirt following his Swansea sojourn has given Jurgen Klopp food for thought as he ponders his striking dilemma ahead of the new campaign.
Adrian winning keeper battle
The sight of Loris Karius back in Liverpool colours during the pre-season training camp raised eyebrows, especially on social media.
The German goalkeeper has returned to Anfield following his aborted loan spell with Besiktas in Turkey and still has two years remaining on his Anfield contract.
Some had suggested he may be able to put Adrian under pressure for the number two goalkeeper spot but, in his first appearance since his harrowing mistakes against Atletico Madrid helped loosen Liverpool’s grip on the European Cup, the Spaniard showed many of the attributes which led Jurgen Klopp to bring him to Anfield in the first place.
Coming on at half time and playing in front of a very youthful back four in Ki-Jana Hoever, Nat Phillips, Sepp Van den Berg and Kostas Tsimikas, Adrian was a vocal and reassuring presence behind them, barking out instructions and directing those in front of him as they found – and then tried to keep, given the slippy conditions – their feet.
The second half of the second half saw him increasingly called into action with the first of a number of saves he was called on to make being the best one, expertly turning aside a well-struck angled shot from 12 yards after Phillips had played Hoever into trouble.
He made a couple of more routine stops as Stuttgart exploited gaps in the youthful Reds rearguard, although with the weather conditions even routine tasks required focus and concentration.
Given his senior status to those in front of him and the knowledge Karius is back in the picture, the last thing Adrian needed would have been to be guilty of errors so it was an important run-out for him to restore some confidence and reputation after what happened in extra time at Anfield against Diego Simeone’s side nearly six months ago.
It remains to be seen whether Karius will get any first team opportunities given the limited pre-season action available to the Reds this summer but Adrian can be happy he’s put an early marker down in the bid to be Alisson Becker’s main back-up again this season.
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