Elliott's mission, Carvalho's first steps and Darwin's integration: Notes from Liverpool's Asia tour
A deeper look at Liverpool's pre-season friendlies in Bangkok and Singapore.
As ever, drawing any grand conclusions from pre-season friendlies is a largely futile exercise – both in terms of results and individual performances. Above all, the purpose of these games is for players to build up match fitness and regain their sharpness ahead of the start of the competitive season, while giving the club’s global fan base a rare chance to watch the team in the flesh.
That said, there were still some interesting things to take away from the two matches of Liverpool’s Asia tour, in which they somehow lost 4-0 to Man United in Bangkok (while hitting the post three times and using 32 players across the 90 minutes) before comfortably beating Crystal Palace 2-0 in Singapore, with goals from Jordan Henderson and Mohamed Salah.
Here are a few observations I made…
Harvey Elliott is determined to regain a starting spot
If I had to pick a standout performer of the two pre-season games so far, I’d go with Harvey Elliott. Entirely understandably, he wasn’t quite able to get fully back up to speed after returning from his dislocated ankle last season, but against both United and Palace, he looked the sharpest of the lot, much more like the player who’d nailed down a starting place in the early weeks of last season. It’s his ability to take opponents out of the game by receiving the ball at speed and swivelling away into space that’s so impressive, and although he might not be a particularly rapid sprinter, his acceleration over the first few yards allows him to ghost away from players with ease.
His deft touch and agility in tight spaces is such an asset in that advanced, right-sided midfield role, and the possibility of him rekindling that triangular relationship with Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold is a tantalizing one. Off the ball, the intensity and intelligence of his pressing is exceptional, too. If he carries on in this manner, there’s no reason why he can’t earn himself a place in Liverpool’s starting XI for the Community Shield against Man City and, most importantly, the opening day fixture against his former team at Craven Cottage.
Don’t worry about Darwin
Honestly, some of the hyperbole online around Darwin Nunez’s first two very brief outings for Liverpool has been bizarre beyond belief. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the tendency of Twitter to amplify the most extreme opinions, no matter how ludicrous they may be, but the sheer desperation of rival supporters to see Nunez struggle is as laughable as it is pathetic. It’s almost as if they’ve already decided he’s going to be a major flop, and therefore they’ll pounce on any piece of evidence (i.e. missing a shot that would’ve been blocked by a defender anyway had it been on target) to back up that nonsensical agenda for as long as they can, even if it means pulling apart 50 minutes’ worth of action in a pre-season friendly.
Putting those lunatics to one side, the reality is that the Uruguayan has done just fine so far. As we saw last season in his performances for Benfica against Liverpool, his movement in and around the box is exceptional, and he’s shown it numerous times in his two cameos so far, displaying a mixture of intelligence and speed to peel off the back of opposition defenders with darting runs in behind. It’s very different to the way Roberto Firmino has played the centre forward role for so many years, because it’s not Nunez’s game to drop back into midfield and initiate attacks from a deeper position.
Still, he’s played some nice one-touch passes around the corner to Salah, and as he gets more used to playing in Liverpool’s system, he’ll become increasingly familiar with the movements of his teammates – and vice versa. On more than one occasion against United and Palace, Nunez made an excellent run in a central position and the weight of pass to pick him out wasn’t quite right. It won't happen overnight, but these relationships will grow with time. Just as Nunez is learning how to lead the line for Liverpool, the likes of Salah and Luis Diaz are learning how to play with and get the most out of him. Like any striker, it’ll help him relax a little more once he scores his first goal, too.
As we know, Liverpool don’t invest that kind of money in a player unless they’re as certain as they can be that they have all the attributes needed to succeed, based on years of detailed scouting and analytics. Because of the price tag, he’s inevitably going to come under more scrutiny than most, but internally, Klopp and his teammates won’t be putting more pressure on Nunez than anyone else. They know how good he is and how good he can be – it’s just a case of creating the best environment for that to happen.