Is Klopp's squad rotation paying off?
As the final whistle drew the game to an end, Jurgen Klopp cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines. Sam Allardyce’s men had successfully kept free-scoring Liverpool at arm’s length. On another similar occasion, the headlines may have celebrated Allardyce, lambasted Lovren and lamented Liverpool’s profligacy in front of goal; but on this particular day, Klopp’s team selection hogged the limelight ahead of everything else.
Coutinho and Firmino on the bench against Everton, Firmino and Mane benched a few weeks earlier against Chelsea… Klopp’s squad rotation has been dominating headlines in recent weeks. In fact, according to Opta, Liverpool had already made 59 changes to their starting lineup in the league by December 12 – at least 20 more than any other side.
The big question, of course, is --- Is Klopp’s rotation paying off?
Debacle of January 2017
Anyone who finds Klopp’s policy confusing only needs to wind the clock back to December 31, 2016. Having beaten Manchester City 1-0 at Anfield, Liverpool had moved to within 6 points of leaders Chelsea, and it seemed 2017 could finally be the year for Liverpool to exorcise the demons of their previous title challenges.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. In the second half of the season, Mane’s departure for AFCON along with untimely injuries to Coutinho and Henderson (among others) slowed the Liverpool express down. Knocked out of 2 cup competitions, 3 draws and a home defeat in the league, it is safe to say January 2017 was a forgettable month for Liverpool Football Club.
Possessing a bigger and better-equipped squad, it makes no sense for Klopp to run the same risk in 2017-18. Borussia’s last season with Klopp at the helm is also a case in point – without sufficient rotation, Klopp’s brand of gegenpressing football simply cannot be sustained over the course of a season.
‘Fab Four’ isn’t always the answer
Any argument against squad rotation is inevitably based on whether the first 11 weakens as a result. In particular, the news of omission of anyone out of the ‘Fab Four’ – Coutinho, Mane, Salah, Firmino – can be guaranteed to cause headlines; with an occasional headline on the exclusion of Jordan Henderson as well.
In the context of the results, the broader story surrounding a game is often forgotten. Liverpool’s draws against Everton and West Brom were not similar narratives. The Everton game featured numerous chances and a decent Liverpool performance that lacked a cutting edge; in the West Brom game, where all four featured, a lacklustre Liverpool hardly deserved more than a point.
Last week’s rout of Bournemouth again came with Oxlade Chamberlain drafted into the 11 in place of Mane. Perhaps the Fab Four isn’t the answer in every single game in the first place – not every instance of a different lineup needs to be a forced hand.
Promising cameos from squad players
Unlike last season, James Milner does not find himself in Liverpool’s strongest 11 currently. When Liverpool visited Maribor in October, the team sheet revealed that Milner would start a game for only the 3rd time in all competitions this season. His contribution in the 7-0 rout, however, brought him firmly back into the first team fold.
Andy Robertson and Dominic Solanke are two other examples of players who have impressed when provided a chance. Robertson is currently enjoying an extended run in the team with Moreno’s injury; tellingly, he has kept Moreno’s absence away from the headlines. Though still in search of his first Liverpool goal, Solanke nearly changed the game off the bench against Everton.
Lallana and Clyne are returning from injury; Sturridge and Ings continue to be on the periphery; Ben Woodburn and Marko Grujic are being made to wait patiently for their chance. No player can afford to rest on his laurels. For the first time in years, Liverpool boast squad depth that is comparable to the other top four contenders.
As a footballer manager, the only place you can win is on the pitch. Have a victory to show for it, and a questionable squad rotation turns into an inspired selection. A fortunate 1-0 smash-and-grab turns into a well planned defensive masterclass. Precede a Mourinho press conference with a win or a loss, and you see a ruthless winner or a sore loser respectively.
Klopp described the plight of football managers accurately when he said after the Everton game, “That’s my job. I make decisions before I know they are right. And afterwards, it’s your job to say I’m not right. I’ve got no problem with that. I was sure it was the right decision.”
Is Klopp’s rotation paying off? We will have a different answer to that question at the end of each match depending on the result.
But does he need to do it? Yes, he does.