As Liverpool’s fixture list becomes increasingly congested with the Reds facing the prospect of a game every three days or so, the time is right to ask whether Liverpool can compete on both domestic and European fronts. With Man City over 10 points ahead of Liverpool it is unrealistic to suggest we can win the league but there is no reason why we can’t be aiming to finish as high as second. A finish outside of the top 4 would, of course, be deemed a failure and a disastrous season after having two transfer windows whilst in the Champions league to improve the areas we were weakest in. In order to compete in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, Klopp will need to ensure he plans ahead and recognises which games he needs to rest key players in. Although the boss has previously said he only takes one game at a time it’s naive to think he can do this for the rest of the season should we remain in all three competitions.
Although the FA cup should not be seen as a priority, the advantage finishing in the top 4 compared with winning a domestic competition is obvious in the players you can attract to the club. Klopp should see the competition as a great way to test new combinations out, giving game time to players who are on the fringes of the squad. A team containing the likes of Trent, Klavan, Lovren, Robertson, Henderson, Milner, Ox, Lallana, Sturridge and Solanke is more than good enough to beat any side outside of the top six in the Premier League. However, the key to being successful in the FA cup by making this many changes is to ensure the players selected are playing in their best position. In the team mentioned above, it would be pointless playing a 4-3-3 as you’d end up with both Ox and Solanke/Sturridge out-wide, although this may only seem like a minor detail when teams make lots of changes they lose that bit of fluidity their pattern of play develops through playing together regularly. As a result, to get the best out of a team who aren’t playing together on a consistent basis, you have to ensure your players play in their best positions. In the team mentioned above, a diamond formation would work best as you’ve got two strikers on the pitch as well as four players who are very good in midfield. Klopp has far too often chosen to play a 4-3-3 system and selected his players around that, rather than changing his tactics to suit his players. This approach should not only apply to the FA cup but is relevant in the league as well if Klopp has to rest both Mane and Salah because he hasn’t planned ahead and they are at risk of injury then playing 4-3-3 doesn’t really make sense. Although Oxlade-Chamberlain can play on the wing he isn’t particularly productive in terms of goals and assists, therefore, sticking him and Coutinho on the wings could cause problems. In this scenario, Klopp could look to play two-up front such as Firmino & Sturridge, with the latter very effective when it comes to creating and scoring goals. This again could allow Klopp to revert to a diamond which would suit the players he would have available much better, with the Reds hardly lacking midfield options. It may only seem like a small observation but playing players in their best positions when you make numerous changes to the team really does help to reduce the impact on the overall performance.
If we return to the idea of fixture planning then the games against Sevilla and Chelsea provide us with a perfect example of how not to rotate players. In the game against Sevilla we saw Klopp play his first choice eleven with the players he had available, Emre Can may have played had he been fully fit. However, against Chelsea we saw Klopp make numerous changes to his first choice team resting, Firmino, Mane and Wijnaldum (this is again assuming Can wasn’t fully fit.) Although this may seem like I’m nitpicking a bit, the question has to be raised as to why Klopp didn’t split his rotation across the two games. This is particularly relevant to the Reds frontline which saw Klopp change 2/3 of his first choices which against a team like Chelsea you can’t afford to be doing as it’s clearly going to impact on the fluidity of the team. If Klopp would’ve planned it better he could have rested Mane & Wijnaldum against Sevilla and then just rested Firmino against Chelsea. This, of course, is all very hypothetical, should Willian’s cross not gone in the Reds would’ve won and Klopp may have been congratulated on his successful rotation. Having said this, people need to look at the bigger picture, rotating players all at once rarely work and with Liverpool facing three games a week Klopp must rest one or two players in each game rather than making sweeping changes in one game. Should the Reds wish to navigate through the crucial Christmas period successfully and challenge on both European and domestic fronts Klopp needs to manage his players game time much more effectively.
The game at the weekend, however, suggests Klopp is beginning to get to the balance right between rotation and results. Although Klopp played a different formation to the one the team is used to, where he could have played players in their favoured position. Of course, because of the absentees at the heart of defence both Wijnaldum and Can were forced to play as part of a back three but playing both Trent and Robertson at wingback took a lot of pressure of the two players whose defensive performances, in particular, were going to come under a lot of scrutiny. Both full-backs are very good at getting forward but there are still question-marks around the defensive side of their games which is why this wingback position was perfect for them. Had Klopp thrown these two fullbacks into a makeshift back four the outcome could and probably would’ve been very different. Furthermore, playing both Coutinho and Salah behind Firmino meant that our front three were always very close to each other which allowed us to counter attack to devastating effect on a number of occasions. At the end of the day whether you successfully rotate your squad is nearly always going to come down to the result of the game but it seems as though the boss is being a lot more practical and effective when thinking about how he wants his team to line-up when he’s forced to make changes.
There is no doubting how good of a manager Klopp is, he’s completely changed the atmosphere around the club and the Reds are slowly but surely building something pretty special – it’s a long-term process made even longer by Klopp’s stubbornness. However, even the greatest managers in the world have their weaknesses and areas of their management which they need to improve, rotation of his squad is something the German still needs to work on. Klopp should already be looking ahead to a group of fixtures, thinking about which players he can rest in certain games rather than picking his first choice eleven then all of a sudden realising five or six of his first-team members need resting and doing it all in one game. The boss’ handling of the fixture congestion over the next couple of months will go a long way in determining how successful of a season Liverpool have. The most important game is always the next but it’s time we became a bit smarter about how we manage our players’ workloads.