After more than two months of being limited to online sessions and message-sending, table-toppers Liverpool, like the rest of the Premier League, returned to the training ground this week as part of Project Restart.
Manager Jurgen Klopp described it feeling "like the first day of school", but phase one of training comes amid strict protocols and limitations in social interaction.
Telegraph Sport’s Merseyside Football Correspondent Chris Bascombe offers an insight into the weeks of planning that went into the Liverpool’s players going back to work, the inventiveness and compromise required to host training and exactly how the new guidelines have been implemented in their first few days.
How did Liverpool prepare for their players’ return?
The Melwood training facility into which Liverpool’s players and staff drove on Wednesday is unrecognisable to that which was locked down at the end of March. Several weeks ago, the team administration manager Ray Haughan began working in liaison with clubs doctor Jim Moxon and Sarah Lindsay to oversee a radical redesign which made social distancing a compulsion rather than choice, 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 carefully navigating their way through the scene of a recent industrial accident. This is a particularly persuasive idea because the club’s sports science staff will be seen patrolling the area in protective outfits, carrying spray bottles and decontaminating everything recently touched.
A more agreeable depiction would be to envision a summer festival site where only those with the correct accreditation are allowed access to certain zones, with crash barriers erected to restrict movement. That means a walk that might normally take a minute is diverted to take another 10.
“It’s all one-way roads. If you are in the wrong place and have to go to the toilet you need nearly half an hour,” Klopp explained to Liverpool’s website earlier this week.
Klopp has naturally deferred entirely to his medical team on all health advice, their work integral to ensuring there will be no safer working environment in the city of Liverpool than Melwood.
What happens to the players upon arrival?
With only five players 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 soon before their designated starting point, they are told they must stay in their car until permitted to head to their training pitch. Before that, there are other rigorous protocols which must be followed.
Each player and staff member is given a temperature and health check by club doctors 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 last 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. The players have been informed they must arrive in their training gear, and bring their own drinks and nutritional snacks. They do not spend longer than 75 minutes on site.
Each set of players has been grouped with a tactical and practical purpose. In the main, the defenders, midfielders and strikers will work together, but there are exceptions. Those players 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 training sessions like?
With so few players working together, many of them presumed training would be limited to running, general conditioning work and a few tactical discussions. Although there are certain 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 is all about football. It’s little things, getting used to the pitch, boots and ball, turns, passes, half-passes, softer passes, running, little accelerations and stuff like that,” explained Klopp.
“Little finishes, not proper shooting but little finishes, all this stuff. It looked really, really good.”
Klopp’s assistants Pep Lijnders and Peter Krawitz are credited with formulating the training plans and making them about enjoyment rather than endurance. Although the guidelines demand the players stay two metres apart, Liverpool are endeavouring to keep players further away from each other, with the use of training mannequins facilitating small-sided games.
Even this equipment needs disinfecting before the next training group arrives 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 suit, ready to administer any treatment required.
How can the club be sure Covid-19 will not penetrate the training ground?
The only guarantee from Liverpool is they are doing everything possible with preventative measures. The onus is on the players, who have been given a blunt message: “Either abide by the rules, or you cannot play football.”
So far, there has only been enthusiasm, understanding and a willingness to embrace a situation which has given modern players a hint of the old world of apprentices cleaning their own boots and kit. With good reason, elite players are often perceived as being mollycoddled, their pristine gear neatly folded awaiting their arrival every morning, while kitchen staff prepare a nutrient-appropriate breakfast and lunch.
There are no post-training massages available at the moment, and even a simple request for an ankle strap which may have been used by a team-mate must be declined. Players must take greater responsibility, which is hardly the greatest sacrifice but it is not something to which many are accustomed since their academy days.
Nine weeks away from the training pitch has demanded a level of self-discipline, with tests showing the squad has impressively maintained. Liverpool’s nutritionist Mona Nemmer has issued instructions to make sure they follow their usual diets, although Klopp revealed earlier this week how kitchen staff have continued to work during lockdown to deliver meals to players.
Can the players and staff really enjoy all this, or is it too much of a compromise?
For obvious reasons 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 Mainz manager. Back then it was his responsibility for carrying and setting up the training equipment, and everyone had to muck in as one to clean up behind them rather than delegate the most mundane tasks. The general sense is one of relief the game will go on, especially given how much Liverpool have to play. The major talking point when the players returned on Wednesday was not so much the practicalities of training, but the state of team-mates’ hair.
Roberto Firmino’s inability to see his favourite barber is a particular talking point among the squad, with the dressing room divided between those willing to allow their partners to test hairdressing skills and those more prepared to, or forced to, bide their time regardless of the fashion consequences.
Klopp has been able to bring his Zoom meetings to an end given he can now speak directly to his players, albeit from a safe distance. The sports analysts and technical staff are also playing a central role in re-tuning the players towards the task at hand, whenever the next phase might be.
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,” said Klopp. “The boys are in good shape.”