Brendan Rodgers was quizzed on a wide variety of subjects during his pre-match press conference in Helskini on Friday evening, which came ahead of today’s fifth pre-season friendly match of our new campaign.
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Having now signed seven new players to his squad this summer, much of the focus of the questioning was on our transfer policy. The boss has now signed 31 players over the course of three years – and seven transfer windows – and was asked how close he was to having a desirable set-up.
“In terms of the squad and the changes, there are obviously natural changes that take place each season and when you lose some players, they have to be replaced,” he said, in quotes taken by our official website.
“The idea is to try to hopefully have a settled group of players over the next number of seasons, but that’s also dependent on the player as well – sometimes, if he’s not playing so much, the player feels the need to move.
“That begins a movement that sometimes leads to the player leaving and another one coming in. It’s a fairly young squad; there are young players – some outstanding young players – and some senior players. We hope for that stability going forward.”
There’s certainly been an incredible turnover of players under the Northern Irishman’s leadership. Of the first-team players that he had when he came in, only Jose Enrique, Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva and Martin Skrtel remain contracted.
However, Rodgers expects the new players that have come in this summer to inspire a new wave of confidence following a difficult season.
He continued: “There’s no doubt the beginning of the end of [last] season isn’t how we’d want to perform consistently. There were some big decisions that had to be made in the summer, both in terms of the direction I wanted to work in and for players.
“I’ve been delighted with the contribution of the new players and staff since they came in. There’s a real commitment to how we’re working and I’ve seen that on the training field – we’re working very, very hard on and off the training field with the players.
“The new guys have adapted really well and it gives us great confidence with a week to go that we can hopefully push on again this season and put last year behind us.”
Many of our new arrivals contributed heavily during a successful tour of the Far East, which saw us win three and draw one of the four games we played. James Milner, Danny Ings and Divock Origi all scored their first goals for the club, while Joe Gomez was arguably the stand-out player after coming in at left-back.
“I think firstly, the trip was a great success for us in every aspect of the club,” Rodgers agreed. “From my aspect, it was about the football, the preparation, and the players coping with the demands of the heat and the winter in Australia. In the games we had, we were able to gain the objectives we wanted from them.
“All of the players have settled in, that’s the key – making them feel a part of the spirit. A player like James Milner is experienced, but he’s still coming into a huge club and has settled in really well, showing great leadership in the small time he’s been at the club.
“Young players like Joe Gomez, who has settled in very, very well also. I’ve been pleased with the collective – I think they’re bonding very well together, working very, very hard and looking very focused in order to achieve this season.”
Our two most prominent signings of the summer, Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke, are yet to feature and unfortunately didn’t make the trip to Finland this weekend. However, Rodgers is hopeful that we’ll be seeing them in Liverpool shirts in the very near future.
“They won’t be 100 per cent, that will be clear having come back so late,” he admitted. “We made the decision to keep them at home to give them those extra few days of training and work, and less travel, because they’ve come back so late.
“We’ve still brought a very strong squad of players here – players who have mostly been with us throughout [pre-season], apart from young Coutinho who has got a real natural fitness level and has come back in real, real good condition.
“All of the other players have been with us virtually from the beginning. We’ll see, there’s still over a week to go and we’ll see how those players are. If they are not ready for next week, they’re certainly going to play a huge part for us in the remaining weeks.”
Asked whether he would rush them back in time for tomorrow’s friendly game, against Swindon Town, he continued: “No, not at all. I think it’s important – the season is a long season with many competitions and we want to be as successful as we can, and for that we need the availability of players.
“I have a great belief in the players and if they [Benteke and Firmino] weren’t available or fit enough, then the players that have been working certainly will be.”
Our opponents later today, HJK, are certainly likely to provide tougher opponents than some of the other teams we’ve faced so far. Asked what he knows of the six-time reigning Finnish champions, Rodgers replied: “I believe they’re the most successful team in Finland. We know how they work – they’ve been playing 4-2-3-1.
“They’re leading the league here nationally and are a gifted group of players. We’ve done our homework on our opponents, like we would if we were preparing for a Premier League game. We know they play good football, are very organised and good defensively.
“They’re in the middle of Champions League qualification and drew during the week. But for us, the last game of pre-season is always about trying to get a strong game and that hopefully allows you to take that final preparation game into your first game of the season.
“We know coming to here, it will be a very good opponent and gives us a chance to be tested to the maximum.”
Rodgers was also asked – again – about what went wrong last season and how the new signings that he’s made will help better us as a team. The boss highlighted the need to score more goals and to maintain stronger defensive stability over the next twelve months – a balance that has so far alluded us under his management.
“There’s no doubt the level of player we missed made it difficult for us,” he admitted, alluding to the loss of Luis Suarez to Barcelona last summer. “I think we scored just about half the goals. But we’ve been looking at every aspect of our game over the course of pre-season and firstly and always, how we work is to ensure our defensive organisation is strong and compact.
“We’ve been reinforcing a lot of that work in terms of pressing and defensive organisation. Once you have that, it gives you the foundation to go and be creative. You only need to look at the market and the players we’ve brought in to see that we wanted to improve our goals.
“We’ve looked to bring in players that can create and score goals – but the foundation will always be our defensive organisation, and that’s something that’s been worked very hard on.”
Asked specifically what Benteke will bring to the club this season, he responded with great enthusiasm, waxing lyrical about the qualities that the intimidating Belgian forward has in his armoury.
“For me, I think he’ll prove to be a bargain for the club. I really do,” he said. “I’ve read and seen things about his game, but in the short period of time he’s been in, I’ve been even more impressed.
“I’ve seen him up close now for three years, stood at the side of the field and watching this guy – not just his power and strength, but also his footballing ability. One of the goals I remember he scored against us at Anfield, he ran halfway through the field. This isn’t someone who lacks pace, movement and intelligence. He’s not just a guy who you chuck the ball up to.
“Of course, his strength allows you to keep the ball, but he’ll really help the unpredictability of our game this season. We know he can play football, we know he can play counter-attack, but we also know when we cross the ball, we’ve got a real presence in the box that is going to allow us to keep the ball in the box for periods of time and for others to get goals from.
“Obviously he doesn’t set the price and I’m thankful the club have brought him in because I really think at 24 years of age, he’s going to be a huge asset for us. He’s surprised people in the early stages of life at Liverpool with that mobility and the quickness of his feet – and his natural power and strength is there to see.”
The press conference concluded with Rodgers being asked how Benteke compares with the other signings he’s made during his time at Anfield – and whether he considers this to be his best or most important buy.
“We’ve obviously made a number of signings and a lot them have been young players and you can never tell,” he responded tactfully. “The players we’ve brought into Liverpool Football Club are all really good players – they’re all fantastic players, otherwise they wouldn’t be at the club.
“But it’s how players cope with the pressure of playing for one of the leading clubs in the world. That can always differ and be difficult. For the likes of Christian, he’s coming in and is one I’m excited about because of what he offers and what’s he’s been as an opponent against us.
“Coming in to a club like Liverpool, he can be a real hero for the supporters. I look at the likes of him and the boys we’ve signed, we’ve also got Daniel Sturridge to come back – we mustn’t forget about him and once he gets back fit, we’re going to have an array of talent that can score and create goals – I am excited to work with them all. With Christian, I am really looking forward to his presence at the club.”