How did Liverpool prepare for their players’ return?
he Melwood training base into which players and staff drove on Wednesday was unrecognisable from pre-lockdown. Ray Haughan, the team administration manager, has worked with club doctors Jim Moxon and Sarah Lindsay on a radical redesign that enforces social distancing, limiting where players and staff can go while making it as easy as possible to follow instructions.
An extreme way of imagining it is to consider employees navigating through the scene of an industrial accident. Sports science staff patrol in protective outfits, carrying spray bottles and decontaminating everything recently touched. Crash barriers restrict movement, which means a walk that might normally take a minute now takes 10.
“It’s all one-way roads. If you are in the wrong place and have to go to the lavatory you need nearly half an hour,” Jurgen Klopp explained to Liverpool’s website. There will be no safer working environment in the city than Melwood.
What happens when players arrive?
With only five allowed to train on a pitch at the same time, Liverpool have arranged three sessions per day, groups divided between those arriving at 10.30am, 1pm and 3.30pm. So far, no more than eight players have been on site at once. Should anyone arrive too early, they are told to wait in their car.
Each player and staff member is given a temperature and health check upon arrival in the car park, and must answer a questionnaire, describing in detail where they have been and who they have been in contact with since their previous visit.
Liverpool have three training pitches, but are using only two at one time, each group of players accompanied by no more than three coaches. Players must arrive in their training gear and bring their own drinks and snacks.
They do not spend longer than 75 minutes on site and are put into groups on tactical and practical grounds. In the main, defenders, midfielders and strikers will work together, but there are exceptions. Those observing Ramadan, for example, such as Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, have been given the most appropriate time later in the day.
What are the sessions like?
With so few players working together, many presumed training would be limited to general conditioning work and tactical discussions. Although there are similarities with pre-season, such as a milder lactate test in which James Milner’s endurance running usually makes him the undisputed champion, the players have been pleasantly surprised by how much football they have been able to play.
“The sessions were perfectly organised. It’s little things, getting used to the pitch, boots and ball, turns, passes, half-passes, softer passes, running, little accelerations,” Klopp said. “It looked really good.”
Klopp’s assistants, Pep Lijnders and Peter Krawitz, are credited with making the training plans about enjoyment rather than endurance.
Liverpool want to keep players further away from each other than the prescribed two metres. Training mannequins facilitate small-sided games, yet this equipment needs disinfecting before the next group arrive and the entire site is cleaned again. Should any player pick up an injury and require treatment, physiotherapy staff are on standby in their hazmat suits.
How can Covid-19 be kept out?
The only guarantee from Liverpool is they are doing everything possible. The onus is on the players, who have been given a blunt message: “Either abide by the rules, or you cannot play.”
They have been happy to embrace a situation which has given them a hint of the old world of apprentices cleaning their own boots and kit. There are no post-training massages, and even a simple request for an ankle strap which may have been used by a team-mate must be declined.
Nine weeks away from the training pitch has demanded self-discipline, although they have been helped by kitchen staff continuing to work during lockdown to deliver meals.
Can all this be enjoyed, or is it too much of a compromise?
As they close in on a Premier League title, Liverpool may seem more enthusiastic than others. Nevertheless, there is a palpable sense of an already unified group of players and staff coming together even more.
Klopp has confided that this week has taken him back to the start of his coaching career when he became the Mainz manager, when it was his responsibility to carry and set up the training equipment, and everyone had to muck in to clean up.
The major talking point when the players returned was not so much the practicalities of training, but the state of team-mates’ hair.
Roberto Firmino’s inability to see his favourite barber was a particular talking point, with dressing-room divided between those willing to allow partners to test hairdressing skills, and those biding their time regardless of the fashion consequences.
The sports analysts and technical staff are playing a central role in retuning the players.
Those close to Klopp say he has never felt so close to his staff as they have responded to the crisis. “If any of our fans were worried, they don’t have to be,” Klopp said. “The boys are in good shape.”