Just before the Merseyside derby on April 1st, it looked as though Liverpool would end up looking over their shoulders as Everton came up on the rails in search of gatecrashing the top six, a grouping that had seemed like a closed shop for most of the season.
Instead, the Toffees never put up much of a fight; apart, that is, from some overly robust tackles. They took the fight more literally than metaphorically, but dealing more in bluff and bluster than anything else.
The night before the game, Ronald Koeman shifted the focus from the football to injury concerns and player welfare by sending a late-night tweet in order to respond to Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill. The aggressive facade used on Twitter was a prelude to his side’s own aggressive performance. Both were lacking in substance.
There have been, however, some serious injury concerns for Everton this season, beyond just the niggling annoyances of James McCarthy’s muscles. With Muhamed Besic injured before the season started, Yannick Bolasie injured in December and Ramiro Funes Mori in March, Everton have had to deal with three long-term injuries to useful first team players, whilst Seamus Coleman’s broken leg has sidelined a nailed-on starter for months.
And yet, despite serious bad luck with serious injuries, the Toffees have almost seemed lucky with injuries this season when compared with others. Taking data from PhysioRoom.com, since August 1st 2016 – just before the start of the season – Ronald Koeman’s side have registered 35 injuries, whilst their rivals across Stanley Park have registered more than double, with 74. For reference, Arsenal have had 56, and Manchester United, 66.
Clearly 35 is incredibly low: 74 is pretty high.
The reason for pointing this out is not to try and excuse Liverpool’s collapse from January onwards, nor is it to attempt to somehow diminish the job that Ronald Koeman is doing by pointing out that he’s been lucky with injuries. He hasn’t. The long-term nature of Everton’s biggest injuries is what stops their list being so long: Yannick Bolasie, for example, has posted only one injury this season, mostly because he hasn’t had much of a chance to get more. Clearly ruptured knee ligaments or a broken leg is far worse than anything else.
But there is a pertinent reason for pointing it out. And it’s this: Liverpool’s niggling injuries have plagued their progress for a number of seasons now, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
There are numerous reasons for it. For one thing, the most common (and perhaps the laziest) criticism of Jurgen Klopp since his arrival is that his high intensity style wears his players down. In perhaps the most competitive Premier League season in a long time, and one which doesn’t allow for a winter break, maybe that has become a factor. It could well be down to training methods, too: and given the rotten luck that Everton have had with long-term injuries which aren’t down to overwork or training, Koeman probably deserves a lot of praise for keeping the other injuries so low.
But maybe this isn’t a tactical issue. Instead, you might well have to come back to the same topic from which most of Liverpool’s recent problems have grown: player recruitment.
This season, not only have Liverpool suffered double the injuries that Everton have, but they’ve also had key players out at crucial times. But given the lack of depth in the squad, there is a visible over reliance on certain members of the squad, forcing Klopp to play tired players or rush others back from injury. As a result, the likes of Adam Lallana, Emre Can, Joel Matip and – to a lesser extent – Daniel Sturridge have all missed multiple different periods of games through injury. That is, they’ve been out, come back, and then been injured again.
With Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson now both out for potentially the rest of the season, Liverpool will have to make do with the back-up players who haven’t filled the injured shoes of their teammates at other points this season.
And when you compare all of that to Everton, one team on Merseyside has had terrible luck with horrific injuries, and another has suffered massively with smaller, niggly injuries to players their squad wasn’t good enough to replace. And yet one team has limited their losses on smaller injuries, whilst the other has seen a title charge hamstrung by possibly preventable absences.