Jurgen Klopp might feel like he can’t win. In January 2016, Liverpool’s manager was lambasted by the Daily Mail for ‘gegen-pressing his team too hard’, while former manager Roy Evans criticised Klopp’s training methods despite freely admitting that he didn’t actually know those methods.
In a discussion over training and muscle injuries, Raymond Verheijen will not be far behind. The Dutchman has made no secret of his suspicion that Klopp overworks his players, causing the soft tissue injuries that can derail seasons.
Beneath it all is the mistrust that surrounded Klopp when he was appointed at Liverpool from those in the game who disputed that his intense style of football, this gegenpressing, was anything different to just running about and working hard.
Last season, Liverpool played 47 matches in all competitions. On Sunday, they played their 27th match of this season, will play another before Christmas and another three by the end of New Year’s Day. If Liverpool reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and Champions League, a reasonable expectation, this team will play at least 55 matches in 2017/18. They could play as many as 60, not including replays. And you thought they were tired last season.
The obvious answer, given that workload, is to rotate. And so Liverpool are the only team to make more than four changes per Premier League game this season. Since the below graph was created, Klopp made six changes against West Brom and another four to face Bournemouth.
LINE-UP CHANGES@BurnleyOfficial are still averaging under 1 line-up change per Premier League game this season, but surely the hectic Christmas period will test Sean Dyche's resolve!
— TSZ (@thestatszone) December 12, 2017
Before Sunday’s game, Jermaine Jenas was the latest to pour scorn on Klopp’s method:
“Why did Jurgen Klopp start messing around with squad rotation? When things are going well, leave it alone. Do you need to rotate three at a time? It upsets the balance and rhythm.
“It makes no sense to me. You’ve found a formula – run with it. If someone gets a knock, then you bring in a player to replace them.”
Those critics are always a little less hasty to admit that they got it wrong. One wonders what Jenas thought as Liverpool scored three first-half goals and added a fourth before Mohamed Salah was substituted after 70 minutes. As Liverpool’s front three (Sadio Mane was benched) dovetailed in majestic harmony, there were fewer doubts about consistency. Bournemouth were worryingly willing participants in their own downfall, but Liverpool were in punishing mood.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Against Everton, Liverpool’s much-changed team squandered enough chances to win two or three Merseyside derbies and were undone by their profligacy and a controversial penalty. Against West Brom, Liverpool were lethargic in attack, although they had five shots on target to their opponents’ one and had a late winner ruled out. These are fine margins.
Against Bournemouth, the margins were as wide as Klopp’s post-match smile. Liverpool scored four times, hit the woodwork and had chances to score at least two more. The hosts were restricted to two shots on target and the game was over as a contest before half-time. Taking the chance to play in second gear is vital whenever the opportunity arises.
Speaking of margins, rotating players certainly narrows them, as Jenas’ criticism reveals. It jars against our expectations for the best players not to start, and can also come across as arrogant to leave them out against supposedly weaker opposition. The critics form a queue. Pencils are sharpened, throats cleared.
“We have to make sure we have as fit as possible players for the specific game,” Klopp said prior to the Bournemouth game. “We thought and we still think the squad gives us that opportunity. I can understand after two draws at home there is criticism – but they were two completely different games. Against Everton we were unlucky and against West Brom it was not a good game.”
Klopp will continue to argue that rotation is not a choice, but necessity, and something that his squad will have to learn to deal with if they are to go deep into multiple competitions. The manager might also point out that his team are on a 12-game unbeaten run, and that since defeat against Tottenham on October 22 only two Premier League teams have taken more points. If rotation has caused issues, it has hardly derailed the season. The benefits will be felt further down the line in hamstrings and groins.
Liverpool’s best two recent league finishes (2013/14 and 2016/17) have come without the added workload of European football and this will be the busiest Premier League Christmas period in a decade. This isn’t a computer game world, where players can play and play and avoid the effects of fatigue.