Since Jurgen Klopp’s arrival over two years ago, Liverpool have improved as a football team: they are now a solidly top six side who will challenge for a Champions League spot this season and they’ll probably hold position for the foreseeable future, too. Despite having probably the weakest squad among the top six rivals.
The German coach has also taken his side back into the Champions League, and all-but qualified them for the knockout stage of the competition for the first time in nine years. The 2008/09 season, when Rafael Benitez’s side were knocked out by Chelsea at the quarter final stage in a thrilling second-leg which ended 4-4 at Stamford Bridge, was the last time the five-time European champions made it past the group stage. But just a point will do it this year.
Klopp can also boast having taken Liverpool to two cup finals and a semi-final in his short time at the club, their only final appearances in any competition since 2012. And in that time, he has overseen a side who, for all of their flaws, can still be classed as one of the most exciting in the league on their day. They may only be a couple of competent defenders away from being one of the very best. Though after two years at the helm, their absence from Liverpool’s armoury may well be the former Borussia Dortmund manager’s own fault.
That’s the context, though. In an era of instant results, perhaps that’s not good enough for one of English football’s most famous clubs, but Klopp surely hasn’t failed when you put it into perspective. He’s still clearly one of the world’s super-managers at the helm of one of the world’s super-clubs.
And yet, if that’s true, you have to wonder just how he manages to stay at such a level despite having one huge flaw that reveals itself time after time without ever getting any better: for all his abilities as a football manager, Jurgen Klopp does not seem to know how to change a game with a substitution.
Last weekend’s draw with Chelsea was yet another example, though perhaps one of the more unfair examples. With his side leading for just 20 minutes, from the 65th minute up until the 85th, substitutions are quite hard to get right. After taking the lead through Mohamed Salah, Liverpool had about half an hour including stoppage time to hang on, but it’s the age-old dilemma: do you go for a second and try to dominate the game that way? Or do you sit deep and try to hold out?
Immediately after scoring, though, Klopp made what looked like a practical substitution, bringing Georginio Wijnaldum on in place of Daniel Sturridge, who’d been fairly ineffective. And yet, that wasn’t so much a substitution that shored up the defence or the midfield as much as it was a sub that changed the dynamic of the team, breaking his side’s shape and losing a focal point up front.
When Chelsea finally did score – thanks to a fairly fortunate Willian lob – Klopp then brought on Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana to attempt to nick a late winner. None of the three substitutions managed to change the game in Liverpool’s favour, though. In fact, there’s an argument to suggest that his first substitution made things worse.
In fact, in the Premier League this season, Klopp’s substitutions haven’t yielded much fruit. Daniel Sturridge is the only Liverpool player to have provided either a goal or an assist after coming off the bench. The out-of-favour striker scored after coming on as a substitute in the 4-0 win over Arsenal at Anfield when the game was already all but over, though he did lay on an assist for Jordan Henderson against Leicester in a 3-2 victory at the King Power stadium in late September. That turned out to be a crucial goal as Klopp’s side held out for the three points. But it also remains the only important direct contribution to a goal that any of Klopp’s substitutions have made this season.
Still, that Sturridge remains the only Liverpool player this season to score or assist from the bench in the league is really quite a shocking stat. Having drawn five games already this season, Liverpool have been in a position plenty of times already where they’ve needed to find an extra spark from the bench, but their manager seems unable to provide it. Even turning two of those draws into wins would put Liverpool into third place, jumping above Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Perhaps that’s an argument for greater attacking options either in January or next summer, but given Liverpool’s defence is clearly the worst area of their team, any transfer policy that prioritises attacking bench options over defensive starters would seem short-sighted.
Then again, maybe after two years at the helm, Klopp needs to look to his own tactical awareness and reading of the game. There’s no doubt that he’s improved Liverpool since his arrival, but too many draws are a problem, and that stems from his side’s lack of ability to switch to plan B.
Draws against Burnley and Newcastle, where Liverpool had the lion’s share of the possession and the chances, won’t turn out to be wasteful by themselves. But you get the feeling that unless Jurgen Klopp is able to make substitutions that change these sorts of games in his favour, Liverpool will keep dropping those sorts of points.