Why Liverpool's Current Squad Is Not Enough To Challenge On All Fronts
Over the season 2016/17, Liverpool played 46 games, which amounts to around 4,140 minutes over the season. However, notably, some players struggled with their fitness, which raises questions of how individuals, the team, and the squad will perform in a season that will include a minimum of eight Champions League games (including and providing Liverpool go through the qualifying matches), and perhaps a longer FA Cup run.
The most recent edition of the AI Under Pressure podcast looked at the ‘fatigue index‘, which is calculated according to both the playing load and results.
The crux of this analysis is, over the course of the season, players – according to their career average of minutes played – only play a certain amount of minutes, as, naturally, they require rest and rotation, and may get injured. That means that for a position such as right-back, in a 46 game season, there are 4140 minutes that need to be accounted for. So if a right-back only played 34 games, that would only account for 3060 minutes, leaving a deficit of 1080 minutes, or 12 games to be played.
For Liverpool though, the demand placed on the players and squad in 2017/18 will be considerably greater than in 2016/17.
The average number of games played in a season, of a side in the Champions League is 54 games. Which is a minimum of 4860 minutes: an increase of 720 minutes, or 8 games, on 2016/17.
The very maximum number of games played would be 66, which would amount to a staggering 5940 minutes, in which case the Liverpool squad would need to be the size of Real Madrid’s. (The Financial Times ran a piece on how the demands of Premier League clubs and squads is actually greater than that of rival European clubs, detailed here, and I would urge readers to take a look into this matter, as a pretext to the discussion below.)
Nonetheless, whilst Liverpool will most likely not be playing 66 competitive games in 2017/18, even during 2016/17 the team and squad struggled considerably with a jam-packed festive period, which saw LFC’s points per game rate drop drastically as the team played 9 games within 28 days.
With more games in 2017/18, and a Premier League season that will end a week earlier than in 2016/17 because of the World Cup, there are clear issues within the squad that may well be exposed, in defence, midfield or upfront. We need only look at the infrequency in which Matip & Lovren played together or Henderson’s number of appearances in defensive midfield, or how Firmino was too tired and needed to be rested when it came to the Stoke away fixture in April, or how he picked up small injuries towards the end of the season, which Tite, the Brazil coach, noted that he played, despite them.
In terms of the full-backs, Liverpool appears set and comfortable. Clyne was available for 3819 minutes of a total 4370 for Liverpool (not accounting for international fixtures). His career average sees him available for around 74.4pc of the time. Trent Alexander-Arnold on the other hand only played 540 minutes in 16/17, but as a young player, who is fit, expecting him to increase his share of the workload is hardly concerning, but he will likely need to play around 1200-1300 minutes this season, providing Liverpool’s injury record stays as it is – near the average amongst the league.
On a separate note, Liverpool is often noted as a club with a record of large injuries. In fact, this is not true, what gives this impression is how it is often key Liverpool players that happen to be injured – Sturridge, Mané, Henderson and Coutinho were the four focussed upon the most in 2016/17.
At left-back though, Milner is expected to stay on, but now has Andy Robertson to compete and share the workload with. Extrapolating the minutes Milner played, and how actually 2016/17 is the first time since his Villa days that he has played more than 3000 minutes, Liverpool will likely need some rotation or cover for 36% of the time. Fortunately Robertson has a history of playing over 4000 minutes in past seasons, averaging 3400 minutes across his career. He may be expected to increase his intensity, in terms of covering more ground per game, but for a young player, who will be playing less frequently than in previous seasons, this should hardly be too much of a challenge for him.
For Lovren – who played 2981 minutes, an increase on his career average (despite a few injuries), approximately 2800 minutes per season – he is likely to be available to play around 49pc of games, as one of the two centre-backs.
Matip only played two fewer minutes than Lovren, and has played over 3000 minutes in 5 of his previous 7 seasons, including one 42 game season. It would appear his injury record this season was abnormal for him, and judging on his career average, and stacked up against a 54 game season, Matip would play 60% of minutes.
This would mean 44.5% of games would require some cover, in one of the two centre-back positions: Klavan’s career averages suggests he would be available for 55% of games, but there is a likelihood that both Matip and Lovren may be unavailable simultaneously too, meaning Liverpool would require more cover, and this is without even accounting for the drop in quality and defensive cohesion that would come about from someone such as Joe Gomez, who averages 21% per season (but these are affected by his low number of total minutes as a young player), partnering Klavan.
Liverpool target Van Dijk, however, averages 3864 minutes per season (43 games), which when extrapolated to the average 54 games of an English side in the Champions League would mean he would be available/playing for 75% of the time.
The key to a strong Liverpool defence would be to bring in a new partner for Matip, such as Van Dijk, so that when players are rotated or injured, the drop in quality is lessened, and additionally, the physical burden on players, like Lovren, is reduced too.
In midfield, the lack in depth was clear, despite Liverpool not having to play in Europe. Lucas featured in midfield, whilst Can played for several weeks whilst carrying injuries. With the added pressures of more games, Lallana is likely to only be available for 52.9% of games, Henderson around 60pc (going on his career average, as his average based on 16/17 was only 48%), and Can 58%.
In which case the defensive midfield slot is covered, as Liverpool only use one. However, should Henderson’s injuries persist, and Can is forced to fill in, Can would, therefore, be unavailable to play in the two other centre-midfield positions – placing a greater burden upon Coutinho, Wijnaldum, Lallana, and perhaps Grujic. It suddenly becomes much clearer as to why Klopp has pursued Keïta, another midfielder: Coutinho would only account for 55.6% of games, and whilst those numbers can be covered by another midfielder, such as Lallana, the difference in quality and influence upon the game cannot. It is not just a matter of Klopp finding the right balance of rest and rotation to keep his players fit, he needs to be able to rotate without losing quality or intensity, and that’s where Liverpool may struggle in midfield – with Henderson’s injury record, and a midfield of Can, Wijnaldum and Coutinho, it’s foreseeable that 60 minutes into a Champions League fixture, Klopp may look to the bench only to see the inexperienced Grujic and Woodburn as midfield alternatives.
Nowhere is there a greater example of the importance of quality alternatives than in the forwards department. Sadio Mané, would account for 56% of gametime in 2017/18, according to his 2016/17 numbers, but 62% when looking at his career average. The issue is just not finding a player that can rotate or fill in for 38% of games in his position, rather it’s Liverpool being able to play to a similar standard without him, and unless he can get rotated, his propensity to get injured will be higher.
With Salah, according to his career numbers, he would play 56% of games, but on 40pc according to the 2016/17 season, meaning Liverpool need 3000 minutes or so of cover from alternate players, out wide – approximately 16.7 games on each wing.
Coutinho can fill in nicely on the left and has done well on the right for Brazil, but he lacks both Mané’s and Salah’s pace, and moving him into the forward line would reduce the depth of the midfield group. Hence Liverpool would still need another player to share the workload of the wingers, without a drop in quality, which often happens if Firmino, Lallana or Origi are asked to play out wide.
What these estimates do not account for are unexpected freak injuries though, for instance, if Liverpool were exceptionally unlucky with injuries, and had one centre-midfielder and a centre-back sidelined for a few months, the squad simply would not be able to cope – do remember back in January Liverpool fielded a youth side for the FA Cup match, and replay match against Wolves.
With Liverpool playing at least 8 games more, it would appear Liverpool are short on quality, depth and the propensity of the players to account for the total minutes to be played. The remedy to this quandary is simple – Liverpool need at least two more players, ideally flexible ones, who can fill in across all three midfield positions, for instance, but these players must also be good enough so that when Klopp rotates the team, or injuries happen, there is not a severe disparity between the quality of the team before/after the rotation/injury.