No, this is not my ode to the staple of parks nationwide, nor is it my stance on my preferred position when playing football as a kid. This is more to do with how Jurgen Klopp has finally, FINALLY, got decent backups to call upon when things aren’t coming up Milhouse on the pitch.
For years, Liverpool have been accused of not having enough on the bench to win games and turn the tide. This is an issue that has gone back as far as Rafa’s reign when the lack of strength in depth is widely regarding as being to blame for costing us the league in 2009. Even during Brendan Rodgers time at the club we were considered too ‘samey’ with the players we replaced on the pitch and the quality of the players called into action was questioned. Fair enough, we’re talking about the likes of Iago Aspas and Aly Cissokho but this is a problem that persisted until very recently. Well, a problem it no longer seems to be.
It seemed that we couldn’t solve this lack of depth issue no matter what we did. We always seem to have a very good starting XI but nothing beyond that. To be fair, who wants to come to a club knowing they’re going to sit on the bench? Not many players. Klopp took a novel approach to solving this issue though. What if he took it slow, gradually upgraded on his playing squad season after season, until he had a goliath of a team? What if he didn’t sell to make room for better players, but kept lads and simply made them second choice? That way there would be healthy competition in the squad and everyone would know the standard they had to reach. He would give them a fair crack at retaining their place, but if they weren’t up to the job they knew the score – shape up or ship out.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Keep a core of players who have been here for a long time, the players who control the dressing room, and drag them to the standard you want to be at. You make them feel valued while also warning them they aren’t safe. And it’s worked. Just look at the careers Adam Lallana and James Milner have had under Klopp. Lallana was a slow, immobile number ten being played out of position when the manager arrived. Then followed probably the best twelve months of his career. Injuries have since curtailed his progression but it could be argued he had reached his peak anyway. While it looks likely now that Lallana isn’t long for Anfield, you can’t argue that things haven’t been all bad for him.
When James Milner arrived at the club a lot of people thought he was too similar to Jordan Henderson to be anything more than a back up to the captain. At 30 years of age, how much longer would we get out of Milner at the top level? The answer is plenty. Milner is now not just an important cog in this team pushing for the title, is nigh on indispensable. He ultimately replaced Steven Gerrard but has certainly been an upgrade at least on another player who wasn’t happy on the bench, Joe Allen.
Whomever Klopp brings in is always an upgrade on the players around him. The perfect example is at centre-half. In his first summer in charge, Klopp signed Joel Matip on a free transfer from Schalke. For that first season, it looked like Matip was the answer to all our problems. The touch of class we had missed since Daniel Agger had been sold. It soon became apparent that we needed to upgrade further though and that’s when we signed Virgil Van Dijk. Now look at our defence – it is unrecognisable from even just a year ago. Matip was an upgrade on Mamadou Sakho, Van Dijk was an upgrade on Matip.
Over the past two games, it has been our depth that has won us the three points. On Sunday against Everton Divock Origi didn’t just come on and score the winner, but he actually played well in the short time he was afforded.
He ran at Sheamus Coleman, provided pace out wide and caused a general nuisance to Everton’s back line. The goal was an added bonus to his all-around play (to say the least). Against Burnley last night we were able to rest ALL of our front three because the strength in depth we have now allows us to do so. Shaqiri, Sturridge, Origi – any other season there is no way they would have been left on the bench. Neither would Naby Keita, a £60 million midfielder, who got only his second full 90 minutes under his belt last night.
Look at rewards for having such a strong squad. In 15 league games this season we have 12 wins, three draws and 0 – yes, 0 – losses. In that time we have scored 30 goals and conceded just six, currently topping the Premier League clean sheet charts with nine. Apart from being at the summit of the table, what more could you ask for?
A couple of months ago I preached to you about the evolution of Liverpool. About how we couldn’t stand still and expect the world to not click onto what we were about. About how we needed to keep changing, only slightly, so that we could progress and move forward. It has been the ethos of Jurgen Klopp since he walked through the doors of Melwood in October 2016 and is evident in everything he does – his tactics, his backroom staff, his playing staff, and his starting XI. The past few days have typified why evolution is so important.
If you take nothing else away from reading this article, then take this – Joel Matip was the best defender at the club when we signed him. Now he’s fourth choice.