After a rocky start with Liverpool last year, I’m keen to get the new season off to a flying start. I also took the opportunity over the summer to assess how the squad were developing, and what I could do to tweak the development route for my youngsters, as I was struggling to give them enough game-time to ensure development.
In terms of reflections on last season, I think I did as well as could be hoped for a team trying to integrate a bunch of new players, and give opportunities to youth players. You’ll remember that I had a selection dilemma on the left wing after a rack of injuries – on reflection sticking with my process and promoting Adekanye might not have been the best solution, as he finished the season with 3 goals and 2 assists in 8 starts from the wing. Ben Woodburn, however, had a storming season in our youth ranks, scoring 51 in 75 appearances across both youth age groups. With our system changing ahead of the new season, Adekanye has seen himself moved back to the Under 23s, where he is retraining as a striker. Woodburn, however, is in line for some first-team football after impressing in pre-season, scoring 10 goals in 11 appearances (5 of them from the bench).
One area that we did struggle with last year was having enough depth to get through all competitions while remaining competitive. So, this summer, I delved into the transfer market to bring in some depth, while also improving the overall quality of our squad by shipping out some of the deadwood.
Naby Keita – RB Leipzig – £62m
This is a move which we all knew was coming: the club had already agreed the deal to bring in Baby Keith from Leipzig, and he brings some serious quality to our midfield. The Guinean scored 6 goals in 44 appearances for Leipzig last year, also contributing 10 assists across the season. In pre-season for us, he scored an absolute screamer, starting 4 games and notching an average rating of 7.08. Still only 23, I feel that Naby’s best years are still to come, and i’m hoping he reaches those with us.
Daniele Rugani – Juventus – £43.5m
With our new system using 3 centre-backs, It was a priority to bring in more defenders, and Daniele’s ability on the ball as well as his defensive abilities make him the ideal fit. The defender averaged 3.5 tackles a game last season, completing 86% of his attempted passes and averaging a rating of 7.19 in his 35 starts for his former club. Despite a relatively poor World Cup showing, Daniele has continued his good form in pre-season, starting twice and coming off the bench 4 times, averaging 2 tackles per game and an average pass completion rate of just over 70%. His average rating of 7.25 is an indicator that he could be in for a massive year with us if he can continue to settle into his new surroundings.
Geronimo Rulli – Real Sociedad – £31m
I had several reasons for bringing Rulli to the club. Firstly, I needed a rotational option for Loris Karius without losing any quality, and Simon Mingolet was not that man. Secondly, his release clause was significantly lower than the likes of Jan Oblak or Gigi Donnarumma, and I think his ceiling is around the same level. Thirdly, he’s a model professional, which means that he is an almost ideal tutor for some of my young goalkeepers. The 26 year old conceded under a goal a game last year, keeping 23 clean sheets in 53 games, and notching an average rating of 7.17. The new ‘keeper has kept 3 clean sheets in 4 games this pre-season, conceding just once, which is encouraging ahead of the new season.
Fiete Arp – Hamburg – £28.5m
A player who I almost always sign, Fiete joins us from Hamburg this year, and i’ve immediately moved him out to Aston Villa on loan, which breaks from my original blueprint, however with a talent like Fiete’s, I didn’t think Under 23 football was the best option. He scored 25 goals in 19 games for Hamburg’s youth teams last year, and netted for us on his debut in pre-season. I’m hoping he can really kick on for Aston Villa, and come back to us next season for some first-team action.
Kasper Dolberg – Ajax – £23.5m
With 21 goals in 43 games for Ajax last season, Dolberg established himself as one of Europe’s hottest young talents, and in my book, £23.5m is a bargain for him! A pretty well-rounded youngster, Dolberg could be a long-term partner for Ben Woodburn at the point of our attack, and announced himself in style this summer with 14 goals in 7 preseason appearances. I have been blown away by Dolberg’s play so far, and I hope it can continue for a long time.
Youth Signings and Free Transfers – £2m total
The bulk of these transfers are defenders, with a view to developing our depth and future prospects in defence. The one free transfer that i’m proud of is picking up Marcos Llorente on a free from Real Madrid; I think with some hard work in training, he could become an excellent Ball Playing Defender in the future as he adapts to a deeper role. I’m also quite excited about John Bah, despite his currently low attributes. He scored 3 goals in 15 games for his former club last season, but we’ve been unable to get a Work Permit for him so I have to figure out a way to push his development without seeing him stifled due to a lack of tutoring or game time.
Transfers Out – Cash Deals
Most of these deals were about moving on players who I didn’t see a future for at the club, and I think we’ve done really well to squeeze out as much value for some of these guys as we did. I’ve been able to shift some deadwood from the wage bill, which frees up some room for the youngsters who will be moving on to professional deals this summer.
We’re looking at quite an intense season this year, and i’ve put together three lineups which I think give us the best chance of balancing developing our best youngsters while remaining competitive. The plan is to rotate between two ‘full-strength’ sides throughout the season, while playing a younger team featuring the likes of Ben Woodburn, Kasper Dolberg, Marko Grujic and Kamil Grabara in cup ties and league matches against weaker opponents.
I’m looking for some big performances this season: we’re competing on 4 fronts, and it’ll be important to keep everyone fit for as much of the season as possible in order to maintain a challenge for all 4 competitions (League, Champions League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup), but I think it’s possible; I certainly think we can improve on last season.