“Don’t change a winning team.” An old adage that today tends to be ignored by football managers as they look to tinker their teams to avoid stagnation. However, is the saying coming back into fashion at Liverpool?
Last season, Liverpool made the most changes to their starting 11 of all the Premier League teams, with their total number of changes amounting to 135. However, after three games of this season, Jurgen Klopp has made no alterations to his side. Obviously, this pattern will be broken at some point, most likely in the next game away at Leicester, but which of Klopp’s stars should be looking over their shoulder? Who is going to remain in the team? And who will be looking to start soon?
Nobody in a football team is really undroppable, a sequence of shocking games would see anyone dropped from their side. However, it is often the case that the best teams have a core group of players who will play over 30 league games provided they avoid injuries.
The obvious names in this group for Liverpool are Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Naby Keita, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, all of whom are amongst the best in the league for their positions. No Liverpool fan would expect or want Klopp to drop any of these seven for an extended period and would expect at least four of them to be on the pitch at any one time.
However, after three games, there are a handful of fans who want to see Firmino taken out of the starting 11 for the next match or two. This is despite the brilliant Brazilian already registering 2 assists this season.
The reason some are calling for Firmino to be dropped is a combination of him being overshadowed by Salah and Mane and the demand for Daniel Sturridge to be given a chance to show what he can bring to the team.
At the end of last season, it looked as though Sturridge’s Liverpool career was over, however, a superb summer has seen the striker re-establish himself as Firmino’s understudy. Sturridge’s raw talent has never been questioned with the striker hitting 50 goals in 100 league appearances for the club. It has always been a question about whether his body would stop letting him down, having never played 30 league games in one campaign for the Reds. However, following a full pre-season and making appearances from the bench in the first three games of the season, including a goalscoring appearance against West Ham, fans want to see more of Sturridge’s ability on the pitch than see a fit for once Sturridge sat on the bench.
At the beginning of the season, there were four places in Liverpool’s side that were not absolutely nailed on. These places have been taken by Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner. All four have come in and given very strong performances, with Trent and Gomez playing in a defence that is yet to concede.
Playing at right-back, Trent offers an attacking outlet with him whipping in 24 crosses in the opening 3 games, in comparison to Robertson’s 7 from left-back. As well as this, Trent has a very high level of technique already as showcased in his cross-field passing against Brighton, which is a real asset to the team and has seen his ability to strike a ball sweetly recognised by him being given set-piece duties, all at the tender age of 19. Trent is now firmly ahead of Nathaniel Clyne in the pecking order, but once Liverpool start playing multiple times a week, it is likely that Klopp will protect the youngster in a similar way to last season by rotating him regularly with Clyne.
In Gomez, Liverpool do appear to have found Van Dijk’s long-term partner. Yet to put a foot wrong this season, Gomez has made the most of the opportunity given to him so far through injuries to Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip. Being in possession of a shirt in the Liverpool team is vital as Klopp has previously shown willingness to keep players in the team if they are continuing to perform.
If you were to be asked to pick the two players who would have been most likely to be rotated out of Klopp’s starting 11 at the beginning of the season, you would likely have picked James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum. However, both have raised their games this season, with Milner being awarded Man of the Match against Brighton and Wijnaldum impressing in an unfamiliar deeper role.
However, Klopp’s post-match comments following the Brighton game about Liverpool “losing the plot” highlights the sloppiness that crept into Liverpool’s play in the second half against Brighton with misplaced passes being more common than the boss would have wanted, putting both Milner and Wijnaldum under threat along with other midfielder Keita.
If you were to be dropped from a team that has a 100% record in the Premier League, you would understandably feel hard done by. While rotation is not necessarily going to take place against Leicester, the general feeling is that it will. Alongside Sturridge, there are three other players who will feel that they can’t be far from their first starts of the season.
The first of these three is Jordan Henderson. The consensus is that the club captain hasn’t had a start in the league yet because of his exertions at the World Cup but having played about 20 minutes in each game so far, he is not far from fitness. This clearly puts Wijnaldum’s position anchoring the midfield under threat, however, the good form that he has shown in this role will perhaps see Klopp shift Wijnaldum further forward and see Henderson come in to rest Milner’s ageing legs or to give Keita a break before international duty.
Summer signing Xherdan Shaqiri has had little game time so far, despite being a star of pre-season, and is the second player that will be hoping to be brought in. For Shaqiri to get a start, he will likely need one of Keita, Mane or Salah to be rested, as he was only signed on the premise of providing quality back-up to the stars of this Liverpool team. However, like a fit Sturridge, Shaqiri is the type of player that excites fans, as evidenced by his 8 goals and 7 assists in a relegated Stoke side last year. While Shaqiri is unlikely to become a regular starter for Liverpool, he will be keen to start making his mark on the team sooner rather than later.
The final player that will be expectant of a start, should Klopp rotate his side, is Fabinho. Both player and manager have spoken about how the new signing needs time to adapt to his surroundings, with the talent in the squad allowing him to do so on the training pitch rather than in the competitive arena. However, the longer it takes for Fabinho to make his debut for Liverpool, the more fans will begin to question how necessary an addition he was to the team, particularly if Liverpool continue to win games without him.
With the game away at Leicester falling just prior to an international break, the likelihood is that there won’t be many changes to the Liverpool side. However, I sense that Klopp will change one or two things, with no one really being dropped but just rested so they are as fresh as possible for when Liverpool’s the Champions League and Carabao Cup campaigns start following the international break, in the hope of allowing the Reds to compete on all three fronts.