DID you listen to The Pink — TAW’s post-match reaction show — immediately after the Borussia Dortmund match at Anfield? If you did, you probably remember hearing that John Gibbons took his top off and started whirling it over his head (if you didn’t it’s below…). That might be one of the only things that you do remember, which is fair enough. What you might not remember is *why* John decided to strip.
The reason Mr Gibbons decided to take his top off was because I’d reminded him that he’d tweeted before the match, “Feels like a fourteen man game tonight.” John’s point was that the bench was likely to be as important as the starting 11 and that people tend to obsess over who starts a game, and who doesn’t.
That attitude seems to have resurfaced this season, with Daniel Sturridge’s presence — or absence — from the starting XI a constant topic of conversation. He proved on Saturday against Leicester City that he’s able to be part of a quick-thinking, constantly inter-changing front three and that he’s got the intelligence and movement to cause defenders problems.
If Klopp decides for tactical reasons to drop him back to the bench on Friday night, therefore, people will once again discuss whether the manager “trusts him” and so on.
Many people, myself included, feel that this is the most balanced Liverpool squad for years. Think back to 2013-2014 when Brendan Rodgers had to turn to the likes of Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas and Aly Cissokho.
Or even back to 2008-2009 when Rafa Benitez had put together an amazing spine of a team but had a bench featuring the faces of Nabil El Zhar, Andrea Dossena and David Ngog.
There’s a reason I’ve picked those two seasons, of course. If this campaign develops into a title-challenging one like them then are we in a better position than we were in either of those two seasons? Is our bench and, by inference, our squad significantly better than back then? Almost as importantly, how does our bench compare to our rivals?
One thing to bear in mind, of course, is that injuries will always change who is available at any given moment. It’s also tricky to identify who can be classed as our starting 11, given that you could ask 10 different supporters what our strongest team is and you’d get 10 different answers.
For the sake of ease let’s just say that the team we played against Leicester is our strongest team, replacing Simon Mignolet with Loris Karius and Lucas Leiva with Dejan Lovren. After all, we took the champions apart to the tune of 4-1 so the team couldn’t have been that bad.
Allowing for the changes that would mean that our bench at the weekend would have featured Mignolet, two of Lucas/England’s Kev Stewart/Klavan, Moreno, Coutinho, Grujic and Origi. There’s no room in there for Joe Gomez once he gets back to fitness and Mamadou Sakho once he stops being naughty, as well as no space for Emre Can (who many people would probably swap for Jordan Henderson or Georginio Wijnaldum anyway).
It also excludes the mercurial if youthful talent of Sheyi Ojo and the excellent work ethic and good finishing ability of Danny Ings.
As much as Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané are a terrifying trio and Adam Lallana never stops working and running, you could replace any of them with the likes of Coutinho, Origi and Ings and still maintain the ‘team ethic’ that Jürgen Klopp believes is vital to the club’s success moving forward.
If matches throughout the season are, like the Dortmund game, ‘14-man’ games then we have one of the best squads we’ve had in some time to compete across the course of a season. It contains some solo performers, yes, but “the group”, as Brendan Rodgers might have called it, is what matters most to Klopp’s style of play.
But what of Liverpool’s chief rivals for the top four or, if all goes exceptionally to plan, the title?
We know that Arsenal’s first-choice 11 features the likes of Ozil, Sanchez and Petr Cech in goal, but how does their bench look when everyone is fit? (That’s a little in-joke. Arsenal’s squad is never fully fit).
Once more that depends on what you see as Arsene Wenger’s best team, but let’s say it’s Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Xhaka, Cazorla, Ramsey; Sanchez, Ozil, Perez. What does that leave the Frenchman to choose from the bench?
Again, this takes a leap of imagination to assume that they’re all fit, but defensively he can turn to the likes of Debuchy, Gibbs, Holding, Mertersacker Gabriel and Jenkinson.
In goal David Ospina is still second choice, while in the middle Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott offer pace with Coquelin and Elneny offer a touch more steel.
In the forward positions Olvier Giroud is hardly world-class but is not a bad option, with Danny Welbeck gives a different option, Alex Iwobi and Yaya Sanogo offer youthful willingness and Chuba Akpom is currently something of an unknown quantity.
Are there many players that aren’t immediate starters in the Arsenal squad that you’re desperate to have in the Liverpool team?
I’ve always been impressed by Walcott and Chamberlain, but are either of them good enough to mean that I’d rather they were in the side then an emerging Ojo? Is Danny Welbeck as good as Divock Origi?
What about Giroud compared to Ings? Maybe that’s one of the better options they’ve got, but none of them jump out at me as being exceptional options. That’s not to say that Arsenal are significantly worse than us, just that perhaps our squad isn’t as bad as some make out.
All of the talk this summer was on José Mourinho demonstrating his usual managerial brilliance by spending a billion quid on “coaching” his squad. The arrival of Paul Pogba caught everyone’s attention, but might it be elsewhere that he’s actually improved Manchester United?
Eric Bailly looks a decent signing, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan will likely turn out to be an excellent arrival if he can hit the ground running at the same level that he demonstrated in the Bundesliga.
But who will be on United’s bench? If we presume for the sake of simplicity that the starting line-up against Manchester City at the weekend is the side that Mourinho considers to be his strongest, that leaves a reserve goalkeeper of Romero, Smalling at the back, Herrera and Schneiderlin as midfield options and Mata, Martial and Rashford in the final third.
Now I think Mata is a class act, and I believe both Martial and Rashford have real potential, but I’m not sure either of them are light years ahead of Origi, for example.
United’s squad is certainly much deeper than ours, however. We haven’t even mentioned Rojo, Phil Jones, Memphis Depay or Ashley Young. There are also other youth prospects like Fosu-Mensah, but then there’s not much point as Mourinho is no lover of youthful players.
United’s options are numerous and there can be no question that Mourinho will do what he always does and make his team eye-gougingly bad to watch but good at picking up the wins. I’m just not convinced that they have the same degree of *balance* as we do.
Arguably the closest squad to ours in terms of personnel and what the manager is trying to do is Tottenham. Lloris is a solid if unspectacular goalkeeper, whilst Vorm is a decent replacement as we saw when we came up against him at White Hart Lane.
Defensively they’re solid, and the Spurs midfield is full of hard workers. The most surprising thing that happened this summer was Mauricio Pochettino’s decision not to being in some more support for Kane. Janssen notched up the numbers in Holland but will that translate to the Premier League?
The Spurs bench against Stoke at the weekend featured Janssen as well as Lamela, Trippier and Sissoko in the ‘I’ve definitely heard of them’ bracket. It also had everyone’s favourite ludicrously Cockney-named lad Harry Winks and a young centre-back named Carter-Vickers. Obviously
Dembélé walks back into the side when he gets back from his injury but, again, there’s not heaps to be scared of in that side. Unlike Manchester United, I would say it definitely has got balance, with the exception of that strike force that looks a bit light if Kane picks up an injury.
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Chelsea are an interesting side. Seemingly content with relying on the 47-year-old John Terry up until the last day of the transfer window when they bizarrely brought back David Luiz, Anotonio Conte’s side is a mix of the old and the new-ish.
Ivanovic, Cahill and Azpilicueta feel like they’ve been around forever, but now Luiz and Marcos Alonso have been brought in to offer some fresh blood at the back. Likewise Fàbregas, Matic and Willian seem like they’re dead old but have been given licence to relax a little thanks to the non-stop running of N’Golo Kante. In attack Diego Costa has been lucky to stay on the pitch in…well…every game so far this season.
With that in mind, is Batshuayi any good? I haven’t got the foggiest. He could be amazing and with a £30million-plus price tag you would hope he’s at least got something special about him. He was on the bench against Swansea at the weekend, as were Marcos Alonso, Fabregas, Pedro, Moses, Luiz and Asmir Begovic.
You wouldn’t mind seeing pretty much any of them on the Liverpool bench (well, maybe not Moses…) yet considering the money that Roman Abramovich has spent over the years you’d think the squad would look significantly stronger than that.
It would be churlish of me to only point out how much money José’s spent and not give a shout out to Pep also pulling out the cheque book. It would be ludicrous for these managers not to spend money if it’s available to them, of course, but even so the money spent verges on the ludicrous.
Will the decision to bomb out Joe Hart in favour of Bravo pay off? Will John Stones develop into the player everyone suspects him to be capable of being? Can Raheem Sterling carry on the good form he’s shown at the start of the season? Most importantly of all, will Manchester City get distracted by the Champions League now that is underway? Time will tell on all of those fronts.
Presuming that the Manchester United match was Manchester City’s strongest side as Pep Guardiola sees it, the bench there featured Caballero, who’s rubbish, Zabaleta and Clichy, who are maybe past their best, Jesús Navas, who hasn’t ever really demonstrated his best and Leroy Sané who is a prospect full of talent and could well become something special. There was also García Serrano, who is a young defensive midfielder and Fernando, who might be an amazing player but I keep getting him mixed up with Fernandinho and can’t remember which one is boss.
Vincent Kompany is an excellent player but does he walk back into this side? Maybe, but then he probably hobbles back out of it about five minutes later. Fabian Delph is unlikely to cause much trouble to City’s first-choice midfielders, though he still made an excellent decision to abandon the sinking ship that was Aston Villa. Likewise, Yaya Toure doesn’t seem to have anywhere near the work-rate that will impress Guardiola and his omission from City’s Champions League squad suggests the writing is on the wall as far as his future is concerned.
Let’s be honest, most pundits would probably say that our squad is the weakest out of all of the ones I’ve mentioned. But Jürgen Klopp believes in a system above all else, and he’ll have more time on the training pitch than anyone else other than Chelsea to drill that system into his players.
If he’s got several cogs that fit into his machine will that be enough to counteract the so-called ‘better squads’?
I’ll answer that question with hindsight in May but it certainly seems that focus has switched from talk about problems, to talk about options.
Can, Grujic, Origi, Ings, Ojo, the good version of Sakho, all can influence games, all can play a part for Liverpool. The bench feels like it has improved with those not good enough shipped out, and those that can make a contribution sticking around to wait for their chance.
Klopp has spoken about players showing hunger. Who right now feels like they won’t do that? Meanwhile, can the same be said for the beefed-out squads discussed above? Time will tell.