I’M a big fan of rotation.
It’s a causation of the modern game but as Rafa Benitez will testify sorely, an approach you need to get right or face your critics.
Benitez was pilloried for resting his key players occasionally. To do so at the time was a relatively new idea; one held up against the anachronistic “play your best team” ideology. Under Rafa, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard were sometimes left out. Often it worked and Liverpool would take three points and simultaneously rest those aching, highly-tuned football muscle fibres.
On other occasions when he got it wrong and The Reds dropped points against weaker opposition, Benitez courted justified complaint.
What the current Newcastle United manager never did was bench his best players for the biggest games — the derbies, the Manchester United spats, those knife-edged, two-legged European affairs. If Rafa had “an idea”, it was that his lesser lights were still capable of despatching the dross of the Premier League.
To some it was anathema, to others it was a clever policy allowing his squad to endure and compete for the biggest prizes. History dictates he got it right more frequently than not.
With the demons of last January in mind, when The Reds appeared to run out of steam after a barnstorming pre-Christmas run, this season Jürgen Klopp has embraced the notion of utilising the full array of talent at his disposal. He has begun resting key players a la Rafa.
On the face of it, he has enjoyed some success switching around his starting 11. Liverpool FC has qualified for the Champions League round of 16, and his team remains unbeaten since the Wembley calamity against Tottenham Hotspur in late October.
However, and I sense I’m in a minority for saying it, over the last few weeks, Klopp has got it badly wrong. No one is questioning the approach but I have to query the complex machinery inside his rotary watch.
Let’s rewind a bit. Let’s go back to beautiful Seville. Just before our return encounter with our current Spanish nemesis, Maribor steal a point in Moscow. A full-strength Liverpool lineup needs a win to secure qualification a game ahead of schedule.
We slaughter Sevilla in the first half hour – inspired by the “Fab Four”; Phil Coutinho, Mo Salah and goalscorers Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino — but then lose a three-goal lead. But, the outcome was more painful than catastrophic, with a sole point required at Anfield against Spartak to seal a Euro deal.
The following Saturday, against a bitter foe, Chelsea – a top four race rival — in a crucial league encounter, Firmino and Mane were left on the bench. The Brazilian remained rooted to his cushioned seat and Mane only surfaced on 89 minutes, after an 85th minute Willian equaliser finally decorated a second-half Blues’ onslaught.
It was like the Alamo at times but with no sign of a Red cavalry. Two vital points were dropped using a lineup that also included a pale imitation of last season’s James Milner and an ineffective, now permanently-hamstrung Daniel Sturridge.
Some vindication came for Klopp in the subsequent, facile despatching of Stoke City and Brighton on the travels that followed with Mane, Salah and Firmino to the fore. Play your best players and you play your best football. Surprise, surprise.
That said, Salah comes off the bench to clinch the Potteries win and Coutinho stays on the sidelines completely. Still, job done and some rest given to Phil and Mo. Well in Jürgs, legs protected for the big games coming up – when you need to pick your best team — amid an admittedly hectic schedule.
It is worth pointing out that this glut of fixtures is a sufferance for all Premier League teams in Europe. We’re not alone. Some of the other Prem lads are also in League Cup action in midweek; something we don’t have to concern ourselves with.
This is winter. This is England. Through the wind and rain? No mid-season break here, lads. Ich bin nicht ein Berliner.
At Brighton a fortnight ago, Sadio gets a rest but Salah runs amok and Firmino bags a brace. Job done again and we can afford to go strong against Spartak. The “Fab Four” start and the Ruskies are Put-in their place (sorry for the Kremlin-esque pun — blame my dad). After 19 minutes the scoreboard reads “Liverpool 3 Spartak Moscow 0”. These Eastern Europeans aren’t crack, they’re just fucking crap.
This is ideal with the derby ahead in four day’s time. Ease up lads, save yer legs. Come off at half time and let’s give the likes of Dom Solanke and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain some valuable minutes.
Both young bucks have their honed and toned little arses screwed to the subs’ bench, while Firmino puts in a further shift up to 71 unnecessary minutes and Salah and Mane do the full 90. Absolute madness! What would the sports scientists say about that?
Ah, “Fuck it” we say — there’s more to footie than the stats guys. “It’s what Klopp wants…” Klopp’s fans insist and those seven goals… Wow! Seven bloody nil – again. The lads in Red are now playing with Klopp’s fabled “rhythm”. Liverpool have momentum going into the derby.
And, then it goes awry in unfathomable circumstances.
The team for Everton comes out while we’re having a pint in town’s Lion Tavern. No Firmino, no Coutinho. Solanke – without a goal in senior football – starts. We’re aghast. Texts fly off. “Seen the fucking team?”
Aside from wiping out our taste of Brazil, the English yeoman, Milner starts ahead of big-match, Anfield specialist Gini Wijnaldum. The Ox (I can’t be arsed typing his full name again) also gets in; preferred to Emre Can who for all his faults loves a scrap – something in keeping with the flavour of the Merseyside family feud.
We struggle to make chances. It’s as if we’ve lost our rhythm. Six changes from the 11 that sauntered past Moscow in quarter of an hour. Who knew?
On half time, Salah curls in another worldie and suddenly all is right in a snowy Anfield world. Then, Mane – perhaps out of sync with some of his new colleagues – fails to square when clean through, but we go in one up.
We’re nervous. We need a second to clinch it. That’s sound. We have Phil and Bob, hitherto unoccupied save for building Linda Pizutti a snowman sat on the bench. Firmino appears on 67 as Liverpool vainly press for another goal. Thank Christ for that. But, who’s going off? That’s right the league’s leading scorer. Mo, Mo – off you go!
This all looks a bit shit when Dejan “name me five better in the world” Lovren fondles Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Wayne Rooney converts from the spot. My plans to chorus “He’s gone bald five times; he’s gone bald five times — for Man United, he’s gone bald five times,” chant is now stuck in my throat as Everton equalise.
So, 1-1 with 13 to go. Better get fucking Coutinho on. Too late The Blues are now resolute; emboldened from the start by our selection, boosted further by Salah’s stupid withdrawal and now bouncing round the Annie Road End with their cocks out; their fans doing likewise.
We’re deflated. We’re angry. We’re downright disappointed. The worst, most agricultural Everton side in living memory – up against some pretty stiff competition – has garnered an away point and robbed us of two. A share of the bragging rights, if not a share of the city’s best trabs. The bitter fucking pricks.
So, the Baggies are in town Wednesday. Kloppologists opine in their sanctimonious tone, “Well, with those rested legs, a couple wins over West Brom and Bournemouth will vindicate the derby lineup.”
What followed was a match and performance devoid of guile; a Liverpool of lost momentum, crashing against the buffers of missing creativity and lost confidence. A goalless stalemate; an increasingly desperate, anxious crowd still mindful of the derby travesty and hushed boos at the final whistle.
Four lost points down to our own making. A blip brought on ourselves. A selection over two games completely the wrong way round and compounded by poor substitutions.
No. But you need to get it right as old Rafa will testify.
“They were there for the taking and we couldn’t do it.” 😩
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 10 December 2017