Even before the international break much was being made of Liverpool's long injury list, yet they had thus far seemed to be relatively unaffected by it in terms of their performances, going into Sunday evening’s game against Leicester sitting in fourth place in the Premier League table.
However, when Joe Gomez injured a tendon in his left knee during England training earlier this month, Liverpool fans started to become even more fearful of their prospects in this title-defending season, as that meant they were now potentially without both of their starting centre-backs for the rest of the campaign.
That signalled the proverbial floodgates opening back up in terms of injuries as Jordan Henderson and Rhys Williams joined him in the physio room, while Trent Alexander-Arnold was already there having suffered a calf problem against Manchester City. Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah would miss the Leicester clash after contracting Covid-19 at his brother’s wedding in Egypt. At this point, had Liverpool’s squad been stretched one injury too far?
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If Sunday night’s performance against Leicester is anything to go by then apparently not. Fielding a starting XI that still featured multiple big-money signings, they romped home to a 3-0 victory. In fact, if you glanced at that same XI you would probably hardly even notice that an injury crisis is going on at the club, such is the extent of their depth in quality. Joel Matip and Fabinho may be a makeshift centre-back partnership for example, but the former has been at the club since 2016 and although he may not be a regular he has now played more than 100 games, while Fabinho is vastly experienced at defensive midfield and right-back and, much like James Milner, has the ability and maturity to slot in practically anywhere.
Diogo Jota celebrates against Leicester
Image credit: Getty Images
Moving over to the midfield, Curtis Jones’ name immediately draws attention. He may not have the hype surrounding him of other teenage starlets in world football but the England Under-21 international is clearly highly rated by club and country, with Jurgen Klopp giving him the number 17 shirt at the start of the season. A number previously worn by Steven Gerrard, Steve McManaman and Paul Ince. In spite of all that, Jones probably did not think he would be in line to start most games this season, yet he has seamlessly dealt with the pressure of doing so.
Their attack has been the least-affected area in terms of injuries, minus the current absence of Salah, while the signings of Diogo Jota and, to a certain extent, Takumi Minamino have eased the pressure on the frontline to the point at which a player or two in the attack are often rotated or rested anyway.
Even when you look to the bench there is also Kostas Tsimikas - a Greek international and £11.75m summer signing - Divock Origi, a relatively dependable backup striker for Liverpool since 2015, Neco Williams - played 11 times last season and is now a regular for Wales - and Nathaniel Phillips, who was awarded the man of the match trophy when thrown in at the deep end against West Ham late last month.
In theory, this should be a fairytale story of a depleted team gunning for the title against the odds while having to rely on underappreciated fringe and youth team players given a sudden opportunity to prove themselves. But that is not the case at all. If anything Liverpool’s continued success despite an this injury crisis is a damning indictment of the imbalance between the rich and the poor in English football. Outside of the Premier League’s so-called ‘top six’ it is highly doubtful any team would be able to be anywhere near this competitive with a similar amount of starting players out injured.
Of course that does not mean Liverpool are behaving immorally or do not deserve their success so far this season, but the fact that they are doing so well is evidence of a failing system that allows something like this to occur. A system in which the reigning Premier League champions sign a fifth and sixth attacker for £7.25m (Minamino) and £41m (Jota) respectively. That is what makes Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s calls for five substitutions in English football all the more distasteful.
In an interview with Jamie Redknapp for the Daily Mail, Klopp reiterated this desire:
Yes. Before the season, some people thought it would be an advantage for us, the people who said we should stick to five substitutions. But it was never — and I can promise you this, I’m a Christian — it was not for one second about having an advantage. All the other countries did it. Italy — Juventus, Inter Milan, they have the biggest squads, but still the other clubs said, ‘We need five subs.’ Yesterday six managers changed their minds. We need it. For the players, not the clubs. December and January in a normal season is brutal. We know that. But this year, for the Champions League and Europa League clubs, October is like December. November is like December. December is still December, then January, then February.
Liverpool Manager Jurgen Klopp and James Milner of Liverpool celebrate after the Premier League match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield on November 22, 2020 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
Image credit: Getty Images
With the compressed fixture list this season due to the late start, it is understandable why Klopp and other managers feel that change is necessary, but five substitutions is surely not the answer. Yes, players need to be protected but that could be solved by better fixture scheduling and would have been benefited by the League Cup being scrapped - something that was recently done in France.
Further to that, managers need to start taking more responsibility themselves for their own players’ welfare. That includes listening more to their medical staff and being more reluctant to risk players dealing with minor injuries or returning from injury. It also includes being prepared to rest and rotate players more instead of fielding certain players almost every game and complaining when they get injured. For example, Liverpool have played 15 matches this season and 12 of their players have appeared in at least 10 of those.
Liverpool are a fantastic club with a world-class manager, playing squad and recruitment team but they and the rest of the ‘top six’ have to realise that they cannot play the target in situations such as these when they are best-equipped to deal with said situations. Teams lower down the table may not have the added burden of European competition but then any small advantage that may give is balanced out by them having a much less expensive playing squad and much less strength-in-depth as a result.
As optimistic as it may be, ‘top six’ clubs need to realise that it benefits them for the entire league to be as competitive as possible and the whole competition will be much less watchable if the gulf between the richer and poorer clubs continues to grow. For that reason mainly, five substitutions has to be a no-go.