The £90 million midfield duo put in strong displays in a comfortable 7-0 win for the Reds at Chester on SaturdayJurgen Klopp’s smile said it all, his demeanour gave it away. The spring in his step told its own story.
Exactly six weeks after their Champions League final defeat in Kiev, Liverpool were ready to put it all behind them, ready to believe once more The surroundings were a little more austere, the opposition a little less storied, the game much more serene. Chester, the National League North outfit, proved accommodating hosts as Jurgen Klopp’s men began their pre-season friendly programme with a 7-0 win in the sunshine.
While England were busy booking their place in the World Cup semi-final, the Reds were getting back down to business in fine style.
Liverpool had refused a request from Chester to move the kick-off time so that fans could watch the game in Samara, the result being a number of empty seats dotted around the ground. The official attendance announced in the stadium – 4,396 – looked a little on the optimistic side if truth be told. “If I’m 100 per cent honest, I’d have watched the England game too!” Klopp joked afterwards.
Those that did attend, however, were given plenty to enjoy. They were kept abreast of England’s progress in Russia, and in the meantime they got their first glimpse of Liverpool’s new £90 million ($120m) midfield duo. First impressions last longest, and the Reds’ new-boys made a good one.
Klopp opted not to start with both Fabinho and Naby Keita, with the Brazilian playing the first 45 minutes and the Guinean the second. But both will have enjoyed their first run-out in a red shirt, for sure.
Fabinho, wearing the No.3 jersey, started in midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation, alongside the promising teenager Ben Woodburn. Tall and rangy, the £39m ($44m) signing from Monaco kept things short and simple for the most part, but looked an assured presence in a game Liverpool bossed without ever truly pleasing their manager.
With Chester opting for a high line – ridiculously so at times – Liverpool were able to play through them almost at will, though they were a little wasteful in the final third for Klopp’s liking.
Fabinho saw plenty of the ball, his passing crisp and accurate – save for one complete miscue, which sailed over his manager’s head and into the stand behind him.
Midway through the first half came his sight of goal, the ball falling kindly to him on the edge of the box after Dominic Solanke had been snuffed out. Fabinho’s strike was low and true, but clubbed the inside of the goalkeeper’s right-hand post and rebounded to safety. It would have been a perfect start.
Still, it was a good enough one. There is a robustness about the Brazilian which helps explain why Klopp was so keen to bring him to Anfield. Liverpool tracked Fabinho for more than a year, and saw off strong interest from across Europe to land their man. With size, energy and versatility to offer, as well as calmness in possession, he should prove a stellar addition.
“He’s a fantastic football player,” Klopp pointed out. “A good passer, his challenges are good, a proper defensive midfielder with the option of being a No.8 as well, his heading is good. He brings quality.”
Keita, perhaps, is one to capture the imagination even more. Liverpool had to wait 12 months to get their man, agreeing a deal with RB Leipzig last summer which came into effect on July 1. Klopp, it is fair to say, is very excited to have the 23-year-old joining his squad.
Fans too are eager to see what he has got, and they were treated to an all-action cameo here. Keita describes himself as a midfielder who “defends first, then attacks.” Liverpool know all about them, of course, and here, wearing the famous No.8 shirt, we saw both sides of their new recruit.
Like Fabinho, he might have capped his debut with a goal, working his way into the box but shanking off target on his left foot. Again though, there were enough flashes here to suggest the Keita era at Anfield will be very enjoyable indeed. Though arriving into a game against beaten opponents – Chester made numerous changes and fielded a series of trialists after the break, while retaining that super-bold high line – there was a quality and an intensity to his play which suggests he will be £53m ($70m) well spent.
We already knew he liked a tackle, and we saw him happy to put his foot in when required here. His closing down, high and aggressive, led to Daniel Sturridge’s goal for 4-0. In a Klopp side, such things are both necessary and, by the manager at least, hugely appreciated.
We saw the odd dribble – one in particular stood out as he flicked the ball over the head of a couple of opponents to manoeuvre space – and a string of short, simple forward passes. Liverpool’s midfield is, in this correspondent’s opinion, a tad over-criticised at times, but an injection of dynamism and genuine attacking class will be most welcome. Keita, make no mistake, will be one of the first names on Klopp’s teamsheet.
“Naby comes from Leipzig and knows the football philosophy that’s a similar one to ours,” Klopp said. “[He’s] very sharp in the challenges, very quick in mind in these situations of counter-pressing, [his] impulses look kind of natural, which is good.
“Monaco played a completely different style, so Fabinho probably needs a few more days. But if you want to be in a part of our squad you need to be good. These two boys are.”
Elsewhere, there were pleasing signs from others as Liverpool gave all 22 squad members a 45-minute game.
Harry Wilson, back from a loan spell at Hull and desperate to seize any chance that comes his way, lit up the first half with two goals and bags of quality, while the sight of 17-year-old Scouser Curtis Jones on the left of the attack is one to note. We’ll be seeing a lot more of this lad in the coming years.
After the break, Sturridge cut a sharp, hungry figure. The striker, who is expected to leave the club this summer, finished coolly for 4-0 and then, in the dying minutes, produced the coup de grace with a beautiful whipped finish for number seven. His future may lie elsewhere, but the England international still has more class in front of goal than most – including Dominic Solanke and Divock Origi, who were wasteful during the first half.
In the end, then, a comfortable afternoon in the Cheshire sun for Klopp and his side. Next up is a trip to Tranmere on Tuesday, another chance to see how Klopp’s new-look side is shaping up. On this evidence, pretty nicely.