One of the things that Jürgen Klopp is often criticised for is his substitutions. Klopp sometimes leaves his substitutions quite late in games and indeed often only makes one change, even when his team is losing. Whilst this has been the case throughout Klopp’s career, his decision to only make one change against Bournemouth has put this back into the forefront of people’s minds, especially given that Daniel Sturridge was an unused sub.
Klopp’s rationality for this is twofold: he believes that he has sent out a team good enough to do the job without substitutes, but arguably more importantly he doesn’t want his teams to panic and throwing strikers on with half an hour to go when a team is losing can instil that worried mentality, indeed that is a mentality that has cost Liverpool before, most notably against Chelsea in 2014.
However, against Stoke, with Liverpool losing 1-0 at half time, Klopp took a huge gamble, and threw on both Roberto Firmino and Phillipe Coutinho. This was an incredibly risky strategy, but one that paid off in spades.
The first half against Stoke was a disaster. Klopp’s tactical switch to a 3-5-2 was predicated by having five of his first choice front six unavailable, as alongside the injured Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson, Klopp also left both Coutinho and Firmino on the bench. Coutinho had been feeling ill, which meant that he missed training all week, and Firmino was rested because of fatigue, having started all five matches for club and country since returning from injury on the 19th March, and having clocked 2630 minutes in the league this season for Liverpool despite being one of their hardest workers.
But with so many first choice options unavailable, and Daniel Sturridge not quite ready to start a game, Klopp was forced to tinker, utilising Trent Alexander-Arnold as a right-wing back and giving Ben Woodburn a chance to partner Divock Origi up front. And the team clearly looked uncomfortable in their new formation, with the defence all over the place, giant holes in the middle of midfield, a lack of width coming forwards and a dire lack of intelligent link-up play.
Whilst it was clear that the new system wasn’t working, and more quality was needed, Klopp’s decision to give both Firmino and Coutinho the entirety of the second half to change the game was an incredibly bold decision. Having not trained with the team, there was no guarantee that either would be able to simply turn on their best at will and more importantly, the medical staff had told Klopp that neither player would definitely be able to play the whole of the half.
“Then, half-time, it was a difficult decision to make because it was not clear that Roberto and Phil would be ready for 45 minutes.” Klopp said. “We knew he [Coutinho] would have a low energy level, full enough for 30 minutes.”
But Klopp recognised that the risk of playing both was worth the reward. Whilst it was possible that one of them would pick up an injury or simply not have the legs to compete in the game, this was a game that simply needed to be won and although both young starlets had performed admirably, Liverpool needed their big names. Defeat against Stoke would have sunk all of Liverpool’s momentum and let them fall back into the jaws of Arsenal and Man United, whilst victory keeps the top four charge going, both in terms of points on the board and in terms of belief and impetus.
This was a gamble, but more than that it was bold, for a manager who has a reputation of not liking substitutes, to make two attacking changes, followed by a third midway through the second half as Daniel Sturridge replaced Divock Origi is very much a case of going for the jugular.
This caused Klopp to make another tactical shift too, from the struggling 3-5-2 to the 3-4-3. This enabled both James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne to play on their own flanks, markedly improving the performance of both, as well as creating more natural link-up play through the midfield as both Coutinho and Firmino dropped in to help out.
But the key difference was in terms of quality, as the attacking triumvirate of Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge simply looked more dangerous. Coutinho was the star of the show with 20/21 passes, 3 key passes and of course, his clinical goal that levelled the game for Liverpool, but Firmino was the match-winner with a simply sublime volley.
Overall, Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Stoke was a game in which Klopp was forced to make a lot of gambles. Starting both Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold was a gamble, and that one largely paid off. The shift to a 3-5-2 was a huge gamble and that one did not work at all. But the biggest gamble came in bringing on both Coutinho and Firmino when it was clear that both were running on empty by full time. But boy, oh boy, did that risk pay off. And how.