Jurgen Klopp's substitution pattern
Jurgen Klopp is the best thing to happen to Liverpool Football Club for a long long time and certainly in my lifetime. The transformation of the club under the German is nothing short of incredible and has gotten him a demigod status for the Reds’ faithful. During his Anfield reign Klopp has shown tactical flexibility by altering the way the team plays through the years, he is the best man manager we’ve seen in recent history and really one article will not be enough to list all of the great qualities and skills of our manager. With that being said there is one aspect of Jurgen’s management which annoys me (and judging by the internet I’m not alone) – his substitutions. When watching a game I often find my self begging the German to change something when the team is going through a rough patch but he rarely answers. So with the world in lockdown I decided to see if the numbers will back up my frustration.
Jurgen Klopp does not like substitutions
I went back and looked at every substitution in Premier League, Champions League and Europe League games since Klopp first sat on the bench at White Hart Lane. I excluded domestic cup games because the lineups in most of them are… let’s say experimental. I looked at the substation time and what the score was when it occurred.
There are several numbers, which jump at you from the graphs. During the 16/17 season players came off the bench significantly later than in all other season. The main reason for that is the lack of European football, which meant the manager did not need to rotate as much. In fact through the 38 PL games in that season Klopp did not use a substitute 14 times (12% of available substitutions) and on top of that made 24 substitutions after the 88th minute. This means that in a season without midweek fixtures Jurgen essentially used an average of two substitutions per game. The median time of the third substitution throughout the German’s reign hovers around the 88th minute. One can’t really expect a player to consistently make an impact with such insignificant game time. For the purposes of the article all substitutions in extra time are counted as if they happened in the 90th minute, so it’s quite possible the third sub happens even later in games. Interestingly the earliest average and median substitution times happened during Klopp’s first season. A possible reason for that is that the manager is still getting to know the squad at that point. After his first two seasons in charge the median sub time is a constant, which signals that as Jurgen got comfortable with the team he tends to put a lot of faith in the players starting the game. Of course after the last two seasons one can’t really argue with results, but it also makes you wonder – would the pattern change if the drop off in quality between the starters and the bench players wasn’t as big – in attack specifically.
To see how Klopp manages games I looked at the result of the game when the substitution happened. To lower the impact of forced first half subs I only considered the median time of subs. And before you see the table a little trivia for you. In his five seasons at Anfield Jurgen Klopp has only made one non forced substitution in the first half of games – who was the player subbed off and in which game? And now back to the numbers:
As expected the better the result for the Reds the later the substitutions occur. When LFC is loosing Klopp goes to the bench relatively early for his standards – consistently around the 60th minute, compared to much around the 70th minute when we are leading. This is a significant difference though easily explainable – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The “lag” between substitution times is smaller for the second and third sub but the patter is the same. The median times for the third substation confirm the thesis, that Jurgen uses it mainly for time wasting – in his first two season the median time is the 90th minute. The player, who is the third one to come on rarely gets over 10 minutes, including extra time to impact the game.
To further breakdown how Klopp tries to change games (or keep them same) let’s look into who are the players coming on and off over the last two season, since the squad did not change significantly between the summer of 2018 and the spring of 2020:
All of the players in the top six are midfielders and attackers, which is as expected. Center backs rarely fail to finish games unless an injury occurs and we have no full backs on the bench. Roberto Firmino is by far the most subbed off player. Klopp’s tendency is to give Bobby a brief breather at the end of games – the Brazilian forward is used to coming off around the 80 minute mark. The other members of the front three are also given a bit of rest quite often with their substitutions coming a bit later in game. The numbers are quite similar for Naby Keita, Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Klopp likes to tweak the midfield in game and that change usually happens around the 70th minute. Keita is an interesting one – he has not started a lot of games for Reds and has completed the full 90 minutes in only a handful. This illustrates his struggle with fitness and possibly Klopp’s lack of trust in the the midfielder. Over the last two season Naby has started 27 PL and CL games and only finished 8 of them. The Guinean’s bad injury luck has been a source of frustration since he came to Anfield and hopefully with the current break he is able to get healthy and stay on the field more.
It is no surprise that the most subbed on players over the last two seasons are also attackers and midfielders:
Divock Origi is Klopp’s go to option from the bench. The Belgian is given about 10-15 on average to impact games and has delivered. Even though he has not played for the club this season Daniel Sturridge manages to get on the list and with incredible efficiency. Xherdan Shaqiri’s struggles in 19/20 do not bring goal contribution down. His absence from the bench is one of the reason for the overall low numbers this season. It can be argued that Milner, Fabinho and Henderson are not attacking substitutions and any offensive output from them is a bonus. All three of them have done very well. Milner’s goals are penalties but he still needs to convert them, so the Englishman deserves credit. And that leaves us with Adam Lallana – he has only managed a single goal coming off the bench over the last two season – at Old Trafford. The former Southampton captain is in a lot of cases coming on as a creative/attacking option in midfield and his output is way below par. His contract expires in a couple of months and whoever is considered to replace him needs to do better.
There are a lot of ways, in which players can impact the game after coming on. Thankfully under Klopp most of the time we are not looking to turn a game around, so the vast majority of substitutes are either like for like or with with aim to close out the game. Statistically such substitution are hard quantify – is Lovren coming on for Mo in the 92nd minute really impacting the end result of the match if no goal is scored in the last minute? We only remember such subs if they go wrong. Turning games, which are not going will, around on the other hand is much easier to be put to numbers:
The graph includes PL and CL games only. Liverpool’s bench had a legendary season in 18/19. So mange great moments, which will be remembered for decades – the Origi goal against Everton, Gini’s two goals against Barcelona, Shaq giving Mourinho the sack. But that campaign seems to be an outlier. In Klopp’s first season Christian Benteke scored six goals from the bench in the PL, a tally that has not been matched since. It’s amazing, that the Reds have managed to do so well this season with only three goals for the substitutes – the Lallana equalizer against United, Mane scoring against Norwich and a Milner penalty in the 4-0 trashing of Leicester. Not a single goal came from the bench in this season Champions League campaign.
The lack of production from the substitutes this season can be attributed mainly to injuries. Xherdan Shaqiri only managed 9 bench minutes before the season stopped. At different points in the season Mo Salah and Sadio Mane were also injured, which left Klopp with little to no attacking options in sitting next to him. This highlights the need for additional back up for the front free whenever football is resumed.
Klopp compared to the rest of the league
To put some context to the numbers let’s compare Klopp to his peers. Of course each manager has a different level of depth in squad. The managers of teams, which tend to lead more will naturally got their bench later than ones of team, which are chasing a result. I’ve only taken into account managers with more than 30 games over the last two season, so Arteta and Lampard do not make the cut, while Mourinho is in even though his matches are split between two teams:
What immediately jumps out is how different Emery’s numbers are compared to everyone else. The median time of his first substitution is halftime – the former Arsenal manager made 26 changes at halftime in 51 league games. If a manager has to change the team so early so often that signals that he doesn’t know his best 11 and is getting the starting lineup wrong more often than not. Everyone else on the list is pretty close together. Guardiola tends to make changes a bit earlier than other manager but he also has the deepest squad. It’s interesting to examine Mourinho’s pattern with Spurs and United. The former pundit is going to his bench much later in London than he used to in Manchester – the median time of his first sub was 60 with last season and 69 this season after leaving Sky Sports. That can possibly be explained by the absolute lack of options he has at Tottenham after injuries left him without most of the starting attackers.
Even compared to the rest of the top 6 managers Klopp’s substitutions are late. Of course that doesn’t mean his game management is bad – the results speak for themselves but perhaps there are situations in which the German should allow the bench players more time to change games. Michael Edwards can also help here by improving the depth of the squad – specially in attack. Daniel Sturridge was never replaced and Shaq has not been around a lot over the last couple of months. Minamino seems to be getting the Ox/Robbo/Fabinho treatment, so adding another option is crucial for the long term success of the team.
The only non forced first half sub in Klopp’s Liverpool career is Dejan Lovren in the 4-1 defeat against Spurs in 2017.
He was replaced by Ox in the 31st minute with the Reds down 2-0.