Liverpool is on top of the table on Christmas – it’s the third time this has happened over the last decade and hopefully, the third time will be the charm. There are a lot of reasons behind the Reds dominant domestic campaign so far – the best defence in the land, Mo Salah continuing his heroics from last season, the improved midfield (lately) and so on. One that gets overlooked perhaps is the newly found attacking depth that Jurgen Klopp has at his disposal.
Last season the Reds had trouble closing out games, particularly when Salah was subbed off (or any of the attacking three for that matter). With Daniel Sturridge out on loan, the quality of the attackers on the bench was sub-par. As much as I like Danny Ings and Dom Solanke, they each only managed to score a single goal last season. Both English strikers found the net as starters. Klopp acknowledged that weakness and didn’t trust his reserve strikers to come in and help turn matches around – they made a combined 21 appearances off the bench totalling just 170 minutes. The average time they were given to make an impact was just 8 minutes.
A key goal is considered to be result-altering (go ahead or equalizer).
The table clearly shows the lack of production from the bench last season. Only three goals were scored by subs for the whole campaign, and none of them lead to any points gained. Sturridge scored the fourth in the early season thrashing of Arsenal and Mo scored the second and third in the 3-0 victory against Stoke. The bench scored just 3.6% of all goals last season. Creativity was also an issue with just two assists throughout the season. Assists aren’t a good stat for creativity but the xG Chain numbers for the players with over 100 minutes from the bench are not better. The only exception being Solanke (xG Chain per 90 – 1.73) but that was due to missed chances. The numbers are shockingly underwhelming and when coupled with Jurgen Klopp’s tendency to wait quite a bit before making a change lead to the Reds being vulnerable at the end of games.
As a side note – the German made the infuriating centre back for attacking player substitution ten times last season. The Reds had a one-goal lead in 8 of those occasions and lost it two times. So, yes, the numbers support your frustration.
It’s closing time
This weakness in the squad was noticed, and the club attempted to fix it in the summer. Of course, the Fekir deal fell through, and we ended up with Xherdan Shaqiri, who has so far made all Reds forget about that Friday. But the spark hasn’t only come from the Cube:
Comparing to last season bench production is one of the biggest improvements so far. Seven goals already scored by subs, five of those goals were either equalizers or go ahead goals. The Reds have gained 7 points so far thanks to substitute players. Klopp trusts Shaq way more than any of the options he had last season – the Swiss international has been used off the bench six times so far and logged in 103 minutes – 17 minutes per sub appearances. That’s more than double compared to Ings and Solanke last season. Divock Origi’s goal of the century against Everton will be remembered for a long, long time, Sturridge scored a banger against Chelsea, and Boby Firmino came on to give us the lead against Burnley. 18% of our goals this season have been scored by a player, who didn’t start the game.
Creativity wise, Klopp’s substitutions have already matched the assist tally from last season. The xG Chain numbers look similar to the previous campaign, which indicates a vast improvement in finishing. The only negative, which the numbers confirm is that Naby Keita is still struggling to get going in the Premier League. He has been in and out of the squad with various injuries, and we can only expect improvement.
Klopp’s substitution pattern
One of the main criticism most LFC supporters have for the German is that he overtrusts his starters and waits too much time to make a change. I commonly find my self begging the manager for a change around the 65th minute. But in reality, Klopp didn’t have much to work within his first three seasons at Anfield. This is the first time we have dependable attacking players ready to come on and make a difference. And to his credit, the gaffer has acknowledged that:
The bulk of substitutions in 2017/2018 came in the last 10 minutes of games – 51%, compared to 40% this season. Overall the average number of minutes given to a player from the bench is increased from 12 to 15. The linear trend lines on the graph show that Klopp is distributing his changes more evenly. Very few players are now used exclusively as a late sub – of the seven players with three or more appearances from the bench, only Sturridge and Matip average less than 10 minutes per showing. With the Reds’ newly found depth maintaining the threat from the bench will be key to the title challenge, especially with rotations coming up in the next few games.