Liverpool 4 Carroll 43', Agger 83' 88'
A moving ceremony and a Vålerenga side made up of reserves plus three players airlifted in from an affiliated 3rd division club set the stage for an unsurprisingly friendly and low-key start. The pace was hardly frenetic, but Liverpool started strong in possession, playing a lopsided 4222 to start the game before moving to a fairly orthodox 4231 in the second half. Still, it was a game that began like a glorified training session, though one where Liverpool failed to turn their possession into any kind of meaningful attack.
And with Vålerenga soon coming to realise they weren't facing a side intent on playing like a Premier League juggernaut, the Norwegian club began to grow into the match. It's only preseason, of course, but it's hard for opposition to get much weaker than the 218th ranked side in Europe playing their reserves, and with a number of open questions raised by previous poor Liverpool performances this preseason, what transpired was unprofessional at the very best—and a hugely concerning continuation of worrying trends at worst.
Liverpool's defensive woes began in midfield with Charlie Adam, partnered as he was with Jay Spearing and often barely willing to even jog back in defense. Spearing meanwhile looked out of place trying to operate as the disciplined, deepest-lying midfielder, losing runners and struggling with the urge to wander after the ball. Then there was Glen Johnson, on his first game back at right back, looking tentative and lost on an island while to the inside Jamie Carragher frequently looked a step off the pace.
Or course, it's only preseason. But it's not as though preseason exists in a bubble, and especially in defence it seems as though each passing game only further highlights Liverpool's problems, no matter the personnel or opponent. And all of those concerns were pushed to the fore again when Lars Iver Strand slotted home a low cross to put the hosts up. It was a well worked break, but it existed because Spearing didn't properly track the goalscorer's run, Johnson was tentative closing down the wide-man, and then Carragher didn't step up to cover the player Spearing had lost when there was nobody else in the penalty area for him to worry about. Any of the three making the right decision would have meant no goal.
Even worse, that first was soon followed by a clumsy Adam challenge that gave Fegor Ogude the chance to cooly tuck away a penalty and put Vålerenga up 2-0. It wouldn't be Adam's last poor challenge of the day, though at least it would be his only penalty conceded. Together with a series of wild efforts from range and a tendency to dwell on the ball, it was hardly the sort of performance from Liverpool's new midfielder to convert any remaining doubters, and next to Spearing's display—positive on the ball but indisciplined off it—it provided yet more proof of just how much Liverpool needs Lucas, the club's only viable defensive midfielder, to stay fit.
Late in the first, Carroll would finally give Liverpool fans something to cheer about, volleying home from a well worked corner. It appeared as though he may have used his arm to help bring down the cross at the far post, but with how frustrated he has looked at times in the preseason, one expects both he and anybody watching with a rooting interest will eagerly take it. On the other hand, though the aerial delivery to Carroll—especially from a lively Stewart Downing in the first half—was the best it's been so far, there was an at times worrying insistence on looping crosses into the box at the expensive of passing football, as players sought out Carroll's head dogmatically. Despite talk of him being more than just a big, lumbering target for headers, it often seems as though when he's on the pitch those around him become locked into one mode of attack, which wasn't supposed to be the case six months on from his transfer.
The second half saw things head back to where they began: Liverpool possession without a great deal of conviction in the final third. Downing, a bright spot on the right in the first, surprisingly looked less effective on the whole in the second half when he was moved to the left of an attacking three behind the striker. Meanwhile the combination of Adam and Henderson in the middle appeared a work in progress, while on the whole Vålerenga themselves showed little ability to turn their occasionally slick triangles into anything meaningful.
It all seemed set to wind its way to a depressingly sleepy finish after a once again sloppy start. It may have been preseason, but this was something not too far off Liverpool's best eleven—especially with the growing concerns over Steven Gerrard's long-term fitness—and it all appeared just a touch apathetic. But Alberto Aquilani coming on with around twenty minutes left would change everything, as the Italian midfielder who by varying reports either wants away or is wanted away made an instant impact. Looking lively from his first touch, a pair of cracking efforts from range were both followed by setting up Daniel Agger goals from corners. And just like that it was 3-2 Liverpool, with everybody reminded of just how good a player Aquilani is.
Which of course now means that his agent will be out in the press talking about his impending move that may or may not in fact be impending. Blame Christian Purlsow's antics last summer, or blame Aquilani's agent's antics this year, but no matter the specifics behind the scenes it's depressing that a player who has so positively impacted every match he's been involved in this preseason appears to have an irreparable relationship with the club.
A late screamer would draw Vålerenga level in stoppage time, giving the hosts something tangible to take home with them, and while Liverpool looked a lot better at times in the second—especially after Aquilani came on—it would be hard to look at the performance from start to finish and see a great deal of good in it.
When it comes to the defence, there will be talk of it being preseason, and of Liverpool playing down to an opponent that at least on paper was at a much lower level. And there will be some truth to both of those things. But preseason has hardly been smooth sailing for Liverpool, especially defensively, and it would be foolhardy to expect the club and players to suddenly flip a switch and begin performing like title challengers against Sunderland on the 13th. It's only the preseason, but it's getting to the point where the obvious problems that remain unfixed are cause for real concern when it comes to what can be expected once the games do start to matter.
So despite a smattering of good performances, once again Liverpool walks away with a pile of questions, chanting the mantra "It's only preseason." Hoping that the problems on display yet again can be cleared up before the start of the Premier League season.