IT’S a topic that has been discussed in the past on a Tuesday Review and further by Andrew Beasley after there was a lack of early subs in the 0-0 at Southampton earlier this season. And it’s reared its head again after Jürgen Klopp’s decision to bring on Joel Matip and go to a back three/five prior to conceding a late goal in the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth.
The manager’s reasoning behind that change would be very interesting. In all fairness, if the manager knows his team are going to face a barrage late on in the game the temptation is there to put that extra bit of height on, particularly given that Liverpool haven’t defended set-pieces well at all. Even with that, it seemed very out of character for Klopp to make that big a move that early on in the game.
He could have made a similar change to the derby on Saturday and brought Trent Alexander-Arnold on and moved Roberto Firmino over to the left. One of the problems he faced was that Bournemouth absolutely raided the left-hand side of Liverpool’s defence. It would have made sense in that respect to bring Alberto Moreno on to plug that gap in front of James Milner, but it looks as though Moreno has been completely left out in the cold now.
Going instead with that change in formation sent out the message to the players that it was time to shut up shop. The sensible thing on the face of it would have been to go for the third, especially that early on in the game, and in the last 10 minutes if it still seems you’re going to face that barrage of crosses, corners and long throws, make the change then.
That substitution didn’t necessarily cause Bournemouth to score though, the reason they scored was because of a long throw which Ragnar Klavan defended appallingly and the fact that the ball wasn’t cleared to safety despite several attempts to do so. The goal doesn’t go in because of the change but it did affect how the last 25 minutes of the game went.
The problem is as a manager it’s difficult to quantify the impact of substitutions. You can judge it by goals and assists, but really what is of more interest is to see how many points you were getting out of the game before you started making the changes and then what points total did you have after.
For example, you could be winning games 2-0, the subs come on, it’s a cake walk, they add a third and a fourth, and all of a sudden the minutes per goal ratio looks better than it is in context. Then on other occasions you could be winning games 1-0, bring on Divock Origi to see the game out and his job isn’t really to contribute goals, it’s just to try and help you get a result. If you’re chasing a game though, it’s going to be even harder for subs to come on and make a positive impact.
Because of how intense Liverpool are as a team and because of the amount of running that Klopp wants his teams to do, it’s quite amazing that earlier this year he was second bottom of the table for minutes used with his subs. While it does often look like he makes substitutions, he gives them very little time on the pitch — so he’s obviously got a lot of faith in the 11 that he’s selected.
On the one hand you could look at that and think he’s got a lot of faith in his starting 11 and take into account the fact that by playing the majority of the 90 minutes, the players are maintaining their match fitness — that means that their intensity and their pressing is there, because you can never really replicate that on the training ground. Or do you think if you were to sub at least one if not two players with a good 25-30 minutes to go, you’re injecting fresh legs into a team that is normally at its best when it is doing a lot of running and pressing, and is really sharp and hungry.
In Klopp’s defence he could say ‘look at my bench’, ‘look at the injuries we’ve had post-Christmas’. But even then you could counter that by saying ‘look at the amount of injuries you’ve had in training, maybe you should be subbing players and utilising a bit more rotation to build up that sharpness’. It’s a little bit chicken and the egg. If you’ve not got the squad strength to make the subs or to rotate then you’re going to accumulate injuries at some point. It’s not like you get an injury every eight weeks, it’s Sod’s law — you could go however long without injuries and then get a cluster, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve fallen off a cliff or it’s a training ground issue. However, you could make the case that rotation and more substitutes would help across the course of the season, to limit the miles on the clock.
Klopp does seem more keen to make changes when we’re looking to see a game out — bringing on Matip or Lucas Leiva, for example — than when we’re chasing the game. It’s not that often you see a mad three at the back or a number of forwards thrown on. Leicester was probably one of the only times this season prior to Wednesday, and that was an emergency break glass moment. But again, that could be down to the fact that Origi and Daniel Sturridge haven’t really hit form this season, when you look at how strong they were at the back end of last season. It’s a shame really that they’ve not done more, and Danny Ings hasn’t been available either.
Fourteen substitute goals were scored by Liverpool last season, six of those were scored by Christian Benteke. It’s interesting that late on in the games you’re bringing on a guy who can either have space in behind to go and counter attack as the opposition chase the game, or you come up against Chelsea for example who are defending deep and therefore you’re able to put crosses in the box and he can help you nick an equaliser.
Liverpool could do with having a big man in the squad, at the very least. It needs to be somebody that can play a bit and would suit the model, someone like a Fernando Llorente would be ideal. There is a time and a place for those players in games, especially when you’re playing a side in the bottom 10. Teams know how dangerous Liverpool are in between the lines and Sadio Mane is in behind, but they know they can allow crosses into the box and they won’t have much of a threat. In an ideal world, to have a different option would be beneficial, but it’s difficult without compromising the system if he can’t trap a ball, he doesn’t run and he doesn’t work very hard, he’s not going to fit in very well. You need a combination and for somebody who’s not going to play very often, he needs to be willing to do that as well.
The problem as fans is that if it doesn’t look like it’s working or it’s 0-0 on 60 minutes at home against weaker opposition, the desperation for a result intensifies — you want to see the kitchen sink thrown at it to get that goal. Whereas, the manager in the technical area needs to be cold, calm and analytical, he shouldn’t react to the situation as a fan would. But Klopp has shown that when Liverpool need to see a game out, he’s making the necessary changes, the frustration is when things aren’t going the team’s way.
Giving team’s another problem is the key thing. If you look at Manchester City a few weeks back as an example, they moved Kevin De Bruyne to the right, Raheem Sterling moved closer to Sergio Aguero and all of a sudden Liverpool had a whole host of different problems to deal with, and they ended up getting the equaliser — and arguably Aguero will feel he should have got the winner at some point during that last 15-20 minutes.
For Liverpool, it’s all well and good having the 4-3-3 and various players but the key will be that, in games where it’s not quite going their way, not just from a fan’s point of view but for the benefit of the team, if we could make some changes it would help convert more games that are going away from us a little bit into positive results.
Rafa Benitez had a spell, as did Kenny Dalglish in the late ‘80s, where supporters would turn up to Anfield and know the team were going to win, especially against the bottom 13 teams. It’s not a secret they had great footballers, and that helps enormously, but it shouldn’t be ignored, and it’s not a coincidence either, that those teams had really good width to them. Kenny’s teams had better wide players than Rafa’s but both had the ability to stretch teams over the width of the pitch and that would give the central players that little bit more space in the middle.
With Liverpool at the moment it’s too easy for teams to have a narrow back four and to defend really narrow, safe in the knowledge that they don’t want to play out wide but if they do the opposition can force them to put a cross in and it won’t go anywhere. That’s a real big problem.
It’s interesting for Liverpool that the full-backs don’t start as high as what you might think. In a 4-3-3, you’d think that with the ball Emre Can might drop in and that the shape would be more like a 3-2-5. In that front five the front three have got that flexibility and it’s actually the full-backs that are really high and wide, and give all the width. You don’t see that with Jürgen’s teams, the full-backs are a bit withdrawn and play a bigger role in building the play. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona teams are an example of that sort of 3-2-5.
The onus is then on Mane and Philippe Coutinho to provide that width. Coutinho’s not best suited to that at all and Mane would probably argue that he’s not either, because he likes to make them diagonal runs into the central areas, and also because if he doesn’t get the ball for five or 10 minutes he wants to go searching for it and drifts infield anyway.
It’s going to be absolutely crucial that Liverpool make life as difficult as possible for the lesser teams in the run-in. The biggest problem in those games is that Liverpool haven’t gone 1-0/2-0 up often enough. Even if the Reds do get the first goal they’re not going on to get that second and more often than not they’re conceding the first goal in those fixtures.
Liverpool have got to find a way to pen the opposition in their half, have the width and be more threatening in the way they get behind teams out wide, and not necessarily by swinging crosses in, but by stretching teams out and allowing more room to open up in the middle.
Additionally against those teams, Coutinho has got to play more central. Can or Jordan Henderson alongside Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana is a waste against those bottom 13 sides, particularly at home. If one of those sits out Coutinho could come into the mix, and with his dribbling ability, his running ability and his eye for a pass, you can then add somebody into that front three who has better numbers from a goal scoring point of view and Coutinho can still occupy great areas of the pitch.
In the second half of the 3-1 defeat away to Leicester Coutinho was the big highlight. He showed good mental strength, his attitude, his will to win, he didn’t give up on that game at all and any moment of quality during that second half came from him. He does seem to have been carrying some form of injury problem though, because he’s been substituted far too regularly around the 70 minute mark — not including the illness which saw him hooked against Bournemouth.
Also his head may have burnt out slightly from being on the left, the opportunity is there to give him a new lease of life by letting him play where he wants to play. Paul Cope wrote an article about Milner and Sturridge recently and how they’ve been very honest about where they want to play. It’s right that they say ‘I’ll play in that position because I want to be in the team, but I’m not going to be excited about it because it’s not my preference’. That’s probably a similar situation with Coutinho, that would grate on him for a while. He’s been at Liverpool now for the best part of five seasons, for 90 per cent of that he’s not been able to play central. If Barcelona or any other side go and buy him he doesn’t play the position he’s playing now.
If he moved central somebody could play on the left that would provide more width and give teams more to worry about. Klopp has either got to push the full-backs on or he’s got to go out and get two wide men that will stretch the pitch.