Sunday, August 7, 2022

Liverpool prioritize long-haul as Klopp oversees changing of the guard

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It was, said Jürgen Klopp at the time, one of the best halves his Liverpool team had ever played. Sadio Mane was arguably the best player in it too. He was the scorer of two goals, one in pressing, the second with a crisp volley. In the FA Cup semifinals, they took a 3-0 lead at half-time against Manchester City. That victory is one reason they meet again with the Premier League champions in Saturday’s Community Shield.

Mane will not be there. It will be Liverpool’s first competitive game without the Senegalese on their books; He was on the pitch in most of those games. Life after Mane begins now and City, against whom he scored four goals last season, may have celebrated his move to Bayern Munich more than most outside of Bavaria. That Zack Steffen, the goalkeeper whose Pocket Mane picked for his first Wembley goal, is also gone – relegated to Middlesbrough on loan – is no coincidence, but for Liverpool a dynamic will be different.

An era has come to an end and the focus on the arrival of Darwin Nunez should not obscure Mane’s colossal contribution.

Klopp can be sentimental, but he stressed the benefits of evolution. “Obviously we had to make a small change in our team,” he said. “We lost Sadio, who was a regular in the line-up for six years, but we can’t just stick together forever; we need to make changes. And when Sadio told us that he wanted to take on a new challenge because it was soon enough, we accepted it so we had time to prepare for that situation and we did. Now we have to come together again, with the difference a fixed point is gone.”

Minus Mane, Liverpool offers a mix of the new and the old. Klopp is excited about the potential of Fabio Carvalho, the 19-year-old plucked from Fulham. “We’ll definitely have a lot of fun with him,” he grinned. But Roberto Firmino, who preceded Mane, remains. “Bobby is crucial for us, the heart and soul of this team,” said Klopp. Mane has left but Juventus interest notwithstanding, Firmino is not going anywhere this summer.

But Mane may not be the only prominent absentee, and not just because neither Alisson nor Diogo Jota are fit. Liverpool’s trademark intensity might be missing. They were arguably their most devastating in April, beating City three days before a 4-0 demolition of Manchester United.

They may not have the same eviscerating sharpness now. “We have to extend our pre-season into our season,” said Klopp. Indeed, and in apparent contradiction, they will play a pre-season friendly once their season has started, with one scheduled after the Premier League opener against Fulham.

Perhaps not for the first time they suffered for their success. They played 64 games last year. The Community Shield has disrupted their pre-season and although they’ve often started campaigns with a barrage of goals under Klopp, this can start with the search for peak condition.

“I like the competition but I think it would be possible to find another date,” said Klopp. “We had a longer season than other teams and now we have a shorter pre-season.” As a possible solution, he cited the example from his home country, where finalists in the German Super Cup are spared participation in the first round of the cup.

It’s a competition Klopp won in his Dortmund days, although he also suffered two defeats. He has two more in the Community Shield with Liverpool, both on penalties. “We play this final a few times and it would be nice if we could win it once,” he said. “It’s the last national competition we didn’t win, so let’s try.”

He has won six major awards during his time at Anfield, be it the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup, European Super Cup or Club World Cup, and Klopp lifted the odd Community Shield status out. “If you win it, it’s a very important competition and if you lose it, it becomes less important,” he said. And usually when Liverpool meets City, when Klopp meets Pep Guardiola, there’s no doubt about the importance.

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