As fans rejoiced at the sight of Virgil van Dijk’s return in front of the Anfield crowd, it was the Dutchman that showcased Liverpool’s latest tactical tweak against Athletic Bilbao.
Though his 40-yard raking passes may have caught the eye, it was further up the field that the defender highlighted the Reds’ pre-season plans.
Pep Lijnders revealed last week that the team had been working with Niklas Hausler and Patrick Hantschke from neuro11 , while at their training camp in Evian.
Co-founders of the initiative, the pair from the University of Bonn specialise in designing mental strength training programmes for professional sports and worked directly with Liverpool’s set-piece takers.
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Mohamed Salah, James Milner, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Harvey Elliott all received a crash-course as Jurgen Klopp and his staff looked to find marginal gains on free-kicks and penalties.
Van Dijk seemed to be the main beneficiary of this work on Sunday against Athletic Bilbao as he connected with two of Alexander-Arnold’s corners in quick succession.
For the first chance, the Reds centre-half towered over his marker and stretched for the ball as it sailed wide of the target; five minutes later, he arrived late at the back post, stooping low for a diving header that he couldn’t quite turn goalwards.
Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders believes exploring the new training method could make a difference in the upcoming season.
“One of our ideas was to improve the delivery in our set-pieces,” he said. “Direct free-kicks, wide free-kicks, penalties and corners”, he told the club website.
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“We met Niklas and Patrick from Neuro11 three years ago. We wanted to work together, everything was ready, but the pandemic made it impossible.
“Jurgen and I really believe in these two guys and their concept. We believe in the stimulus they give. Hopefully we can give consistency to this part.”
Having endured a three-year wait to get their expertise onboard, it is clear that the squad has been plotting how to use this to their advantage already.
The Reds’ set piece routines were less successful in their second game against Osasuna, but Rhys Williams still had two clear chances, in the final stages.
Most notably, from a second phase following a corner, Oxlade-Chamberlain swung the ball towards Williams at the far post, with the defender unmarked but only able to sweep the ball wide. Williams also saw a header loop over the roof of the net, after a well-worked Oxlade-Chamberlain corner routine.
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Lijnders further outlined why set pieces may have a growing importance within the modern game.
“With the away goal rule cancelled there will be, for example, many more penalty shoot-outs. We saw in the Euros, and indeed in the history of tournaments, that set-pieces decide.
“It was always like this, and will always stay like this. With Patrick and Niklas, we give a completely new impulse to accuracy training. Will it pay off? I’m hopeful it will.”
As the new Premier League season approaches, Liverpool supporters would be wise to pay keen attention to the team’s set-pieces as Jurgen Klopp seeks to add another dimension to his side’s attack.