With Norwich City’s 2021/22 Premier League season set to begin against Liverpool at 5.30pm on Saturday, our ‘Ask the expert’ series returns on canaries.co.uk.
To learn more about Liverpool’s pre-season and the shape they’re in ahead of the new campaign, we caught up with reporter James Pearce, who covers the club for The Athletic.
canaries.co.uk: How has pre-season gone? Are Liverpool fans optimistic going into the new season?
JP: Yeah, I think it’s been a really promising pre-season for Liverpool. I think Jurgen Klopp has been able to get through a lot of good work on the training field.
It was unprecedented really because he took them away for four weeks - they had three weeks in Austria and one in France - I can’t think of a time when a manager has been able to take a Liverpool team away for so long.
During that period, they got Joel Matip, Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold back. They had the usual issues of players coming back from international duty at different times, especially with the Brazilians who went all the way to the final in the Copa America. Obviously, Jordan Henderson reached the EURO 2020 final with England as well.
It’s been a really good pre-season for Liverpool, loads of young players have stepped up and delivered. Fringe players have really staked a claim and then you’ve got star men like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane who look really fresh and hungry.
With the amount of football they’ve played for club and country, this was the first summer for a long time that they actually got a proper, long break and then a real pre-season.
canaries.co.uk: Which other players have stood out for you? Kostas Tsimikas has had to come in for Andrew Robertson, Takumi Minamino has looked good as well…
JP: I think the one real setback in pre-season was losing Robertson on Sunday when he limped off against Athletic Bilbao, but the fears about what that could do to Liverpool have been allayed a fair bit by just how well Tsimikas has done in pre-season. He had a really difficult first year at the club but he looks a different player this time around.
Naby Keita is someone who has had such a stop-start Liverpool career and has had a massively impressive pre-season.
People would have questioned whether Minamino, who you mentioned then, had a future at the club after being loaned out to Southampton, but he’s come in and done really well.
You’d have to mention Harvey Elliott as well - a young player who went out on loan to Blackburn in the Championship last season. Rewind a month and there was a fair bit of debate about what would happen with him this season and if he’d be loaned out again, but I think he’s been so good in pre-season that he’s made that debate completely irrelevant. The only real question going into the weekend is whether he starts or is on the bench, because he’s been that impressive.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is worth a mention as well, he’s someone who has had a tough few years but he looks really strong and certainly has benefitted from a full pre-season.
canaries.co.uk: In terms of the business that has been done in the summer, Ibrahima Konate joined while there have been new contracts for existing players. Georginio Wijnaldum left, so are you pleased with what has taken place or are there still areas to strengthen?
JP: I think there are probably still two areas that a lot of fans would still like to see addressed. The fact they haven’t replaced Wijnaldum is a bit of a nagging concern but I think there are reasons why.
Fabinho was used as a makeshift centre-half at times last season and he won’t be required there this time around.
They’re expecting a lot more from Thiago and they’ve got young Curtis Jones, as well as Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain, who have had injury problems.
The two areas of slight concern are a direct replacement for Wijnaldum and also whether there is too big a drop off in quality between Salah, Mane, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota and the backup options in that front line.
I think most people expected Divock Origi’s Liverpool career to reach a conclusion this summer and then they would look to upgrade in that area, but that hasn’t happened yet.
I think if he and Xherdan Shaqiri were both to leave before the deadline then that would certainly be an area that Liverpool would look to strengthen still in this window.
canaries.co.uk: You mentioned Fabinho dropping in at centre-back due to Van Dijk being out for a long time last season. With him and Gomez coming back, how big of a deal is that for Liverpool at the start of this season?
JP: Huge, it’s the difference between night and day really for the position that Klopp finds himself in. Liverpool got through 20 different centre-back combinations last season and effectively qualified for the Champions League with Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams playing centre-back together, who were pretty much sixth and seventh choice at the start of the season.
Now, it’s a headache of a very different kind. The fact that Konate looks really good since he arrived from RB Leipzig, obviously you’ve got Van Dijk and Gomez building their way back up to full fitness, and Joel Matip as well, so centre-back looks like being a real area of strength for Liverpool this season.
canaries.co.uk: It will be a big challenge for Norwich on the weekend, but are there any weaknesses you think we can look to exploit against Liverpool?
JP: I suppose if you’d say it will be a back four that probably won’t have played a huge amount of football together. Tsimikas will be at left-back for his full Premier League debut.
It’s going to be fascinating to see whether he goes with Konate and Matip, or Van Dijk and Matip. I think they’re the two most likely combinations.
If Konate does make his Premier League debut for Liverpool, he is still getting to know his teammates and they’re getting to know him so there could potentially be some degree of uncertainty there.
It will be not a particularly common midfield combination either, with Thiago and Henderson having only just got back in action Saturday will certainly come too soon for either of those two to start.
You’re probably looking at a midfield of Fabinho and Keita and then pretty much a toss up between James Milner or Harvey Elliott, who has done so well in pre-season.
Liverpool have looked very good in recent weeks but if you’re Norwich you’ll probably say that they will have some combinations out there that haven’t played much football together.