Age, Freshness, Fatigue: How To Make A Future-proof LFC XI From the Current Squad
In-Depth Piece, Including How The Squad Might Look in 2024
To distil it into basics, originally under Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool were a running side.
Then they peaked when a running-passing side.
Now they feel like a purely passing side.
To get back to their best, the straddling of both passing and physicality has to be reached.
The good news is that all the first-team signings, made since the acquisition of Thiago (with the exception of loanee Arthur and some of the teenagers) all fit the mould for a running-passing side.
To me, the future revolves around Ibrahima Konaté, Luis Díaz, Darwin Núñez, Diogo Jota (if he can get back to his old levels after injury) and Cody Gakpo, who are all fast, strong and physical, whilst being talented on the ball.
Núñez less so in terms of silky touch, but his holdup play is improving, and he can take the ball from one end of the pitch to the other in no time at all, past opponents in the blink of an eye, which is a special on-the-ball skill. And he has all the hallmarks of a goal machine who just needs a goal to relax; the way he plays – the runs, the movement into space, the attempts with both feet and his head – guarantees chances will always come his way, and he'll convert chances again, as he was before the World Cup (and as he did last season for Benfica in the league and the Champions League). I feel he's actually been better overall since the World Cup, bar the confidence in front of goal, and bar some luck.
Núñez and Díaz are terriers; maybe not warriors, but they fight and battle and run. Jota has a bit of that spirit, too.
These are the players aged from low to mid-20s. Konaté has had injury issues this season and then an emotional World Cup experience; Jota has a serious calf injury; and Díaz, despite some reports to the contrary, apparently had the situation where his knee was not operated on to heal naturally (as is often a normal option), and then it went again, and so the operation was granted. He's been missed for months now.
Núñez is still adjusting to the team and the league (but clearly defenders can't handle him), and Gakpo – 6’4”, fast, skilful, powerful, good in the air – has obviously yet to play. (Just having him for set-pieces at Brentford would have helped.)
But some of the runner-passers of old have become mere passers with age. That’s the issue.
Pep Lijnders has spoken about how important the older players are at setting the tone at the club including every training session, and I agree. But too many ended up in the team at once.
Jordan Henderson was once always running. To the eye, both Mo Salah and Virgil van Dijk don't look quite as quick, albeit you see moments of pace from them – but maybe not as often during games. A few season ago, Salah out-sprinted the next-highest Premier League player by over 100 sprints. It doesn’t feel the case now. He’s super-fit, but not as destructively fast (plus, teams are now buying smaller, quicker full-backs, which is in part why I like the idea of Gakpo’s size).
James Milner retains insane stamina, but obviously is now slower than in his prime. Thiago was never the fastest, albeit his use of the ball could move the team up the pitch quickly. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta were supreme athletes, who now, after years of injuries and broken comebacks, look more mid-paced. They were the midfield dynamism, and now that’s gone; and both will gone for good in the summer anyway.
And while I thought Fabinho displayed more running in his last two starts than at any other point of the season, his season overall has been one of looking alarmingly off the pace. Maybe he has his mojo back (along with a new baby), but he's 29 now. I’m not sure he can catch any runners from deep who go beyond the Reds’ high line, and to me, that’s what’s required, if the high line is to be maintained.
In better news, prior to the World Cup, Trent Alexander-Arnold looked incapable of running; since the World Cup he's looked strong and refreshed. He was woefully off form and leggy prior to Qatar; but the month in the sun, warming the bench, did him good.
Remember, so many of these players played an insane amount of football last season; and it was an intense, stressful season, with huge disappointments at the end, then a shorter summer, after the longest season. The physical, emotional and mental toll must have been huge.
(Plus, Mo Salah lost the AFCON final, after various periods of extra-time to get there; now Konaté has the same disappointment, to add to the near-misses of last season. At least Konaté hasn't been overplayed this season.)
And also remember, for all the issues this season, this is still mostly the same team that nearly won the quadruple back in May/June – close to being the best achievement in club football history (having a chance of winning the league on the final day, and outplaying Real Madrid in the Champions League final but losing due to a world-class display of goalkeeping).
But injuries and fatigue, much carried over from that Herculean effort, have exposed several problems.
The table below covers all club and World Cup minutes since the start of 2021/22 (but doesn't yet include the post-World Cup minutes, or other international minutes).
From it, the biggest red flags would be for Liverpool and Spurs; because even though Manchester City had a ton of players at the World Cup, their minutes can be more easily managed with their club having the most expensive squad, with more quality to rotate with. (Phil Foden is also being managed, with a £100m sub standing in.)
Of the three at the top, van Dijk has finally suffered a muscle injury, and João Cancelo was dropped at the World Cup and like Foden is not playing as much again for City yet. (And let’s be clear: Man City haven’t been as good this season, even with Erling Haaland: far more goals from the striker, fewer points per game.)
Spurs make the hardly any changes, and Arsenal have kept much the same XI all season.
Those things could change in the second half of the season, and we’re not even at the halfway point. Obviously Newcastle don’t play in Europe, while Arsenal and Man United can rest key players in the Europa League.
I prepared the above data during the World Cup, and was going to point out that van Dijk is surely due an injury, and that at his age, he should retire from international football if he wants to remain elite at club level; I never quite finished the piece, albeit I have noted in recent weeks about van Dijk being overplayed.
I just think players aged 31+ should quit their countries, to prolong their careers, albeit I see why they wouldn’t (and would grant an exception if it’s a World Cup year).
For Spurs, Son Heung-min has not scored in 23 of his last 25 club games. Had Mo Salah gone to the World Cup he'd probably be in the top five for minutes played, and Andy Robertson needed the break, too.
It would need a separate article about how clubs (and therefore club fans) pay the players but countries' FAs, UEFA and FIFA create more and more excuses to flog their countrymen, and make huge profits. Games, games, games, and more games.
I then started to try and work out all additional international football in that time, but it was proving complicated (competitions often had the wrong year listed due to Covid changing when the tournaments were held, and it wasn't clear where to split the data as of the summer of 2021 for qualifiers before and after the summer).
However, these are the minutes for van Dijk and Salah, and as you can see, it's nearing 100 games (in terms of minutes played) for club and country in just 18 months.
Both are in their 30s, and this seems very unsustainable. To play the increasing number of competitive international games, travelling the world in the process, and to start virtually every club game, will not end well. Like Jordan Henderson, they were given very long contracts into their 30s, but these players have to either play less for Liverpool or give up their national roles.
In addition, Díaz played more games last season than any other professional in world football, but Salah was in the top five, too. (As was Sadio Mané, also now in his 30s.)
Players can go on for longer now, but only if protected; or only if they stop running as hard in games to conserve energy (which peaks at 37 with Cristiano Ronaldo, walking about like an octogenarian unless the ball comes into the box). That could be okay, as long as others can more than compensate. In the best Klopp sides – 2018 to 2020 – there was no one who couldn’t run like a dervish.
But many of those guys are now in their 30s (Henderson, Bobby Firmino, Salah, van Dijk, Joël Matip, Alisson – albeit he’s not expected to run much), some other 30-somethings have left, and an older, slower ball-player (Thiago) is in the team.
The Best Liverpool For Now?
Whether the midfield is the problem due to personnel or to the tactics (changing both tactics and personnel has not helped thus far), there are the general trends that undermine the Reds and makes them vulnerable.
Some key issues Liverpool have (or have had this season), which in some cases are due to an excessive number of injuries, are as follows:
- Not enough pace
- Not enough physicality/height
- Too many older players
- Not enough sprinting ability (pace + stamina + energy)
Now, midfield purchases should help address this, whenever that may be. And a younger, more dynamic front-line should help with the pressing figures, too.
A version of the following graphic from Anfield Index Under Pressure was recreated in today's Times.
Meanwhile, the Telegraph writes about the increased influence of Pep Lijnders on recruitment, that has obviously led to some unhappy people in the analytics/scouting/director of football side of things, which I covered six weeks ago, albeit in some cases I was relying on educated guesses, as well as sources.
(I knew that Lijnders was causing unrest in the ‘back room’, I just didn’t realise it was because he had far more say, albeit I did hear that he now had veto power on transfers; not that he was driving them, as the Telegraph suggests.)
Now, I actually really like the specific purchases being made (as well as the younger players being fast-tracked), but don't like the process being so different from what worked in the past, or any one person having too much say.
That said, I very much get that the manager and coach may want very specific players to fit very specific ideas that they might have on how they want to play. This is the eternal tension between managers/coaches and directors of football and scouts.
It also gets harder to find players who will improve the team, and any successful project in any walk of life will start to lose ground because the efficacy of ideas will start to diminish (as others work them out, copy them, etc.), and in sport, as the team ages; but where it’s hard to be brutal and get rid of players at their peak, and they’ll almost always be ditched too late (otherwise you risk ditching them too early). I’ve only ever seen Bob Paisley consistently excel at this.
You could argue that Salah, van Dijk, Firmino, Thiago, Henderson and others are still good enough to play for Liverpool (some as starters), but also, that they may all be 10% (at a wild guess) down on what they were 2-3 years ago. Certainly, Firmino’s goals this season aside, you can’t say that any is better, or even at their best previous level.
The key is how the others improve to compensate (and barring injuries, players should be able to improve up to their late 20s), and if the big names do less running because they’re too old, who does the hard yards. It can yet still work, but it’s a difficult balancing act.
(Or, the way around it: Liverpool keep the ball even better, and score tons of goals, and opponents don’t get a chance to run through the porous midfield as often.)
For now, the main thing is having enough talented players who are also physical, and can run hard, and sprint hard.
(I like height too, with power. I’d want at least six tall players in a side, but they can’t be donkeys.)
A team can have 70% possession and not have to run (Liverpool in 2021/22, almost breaking all records for trophies won in a season), but when it loses the ball the other 30% of the time, hard runs are required.
This season, that’s fallen away alarmingly. We can see that with our eyes, but the data helps confirm it.
When the players do try to sprint (Virgil van Dijk at Brentford) then injuries occur.
Anyway, it’s not all doom and gloom, as I’ll show in Part Two of this piece below (paying subscribers only).
But Liverpool are currently in the difficult in-between phase; a transition, with all its awkwardness. The youngsters are getting experience, that will pay off later. New signings are settling in, and need a bit of luck. Further new signings are required, but the club is already adding pace, power and stamina. It’s just hard to get it into the team together.
I looked hard at the current squad to try and find a way of creating a team that has enough pace, enough physicality, enough height, enough energy, and a healthy average age (but with sufficient experience) – as a basis to build upon, going forward.
I think most of the elements are in place, as I will show, but the difficulty is getting them in the team together at the same time.
In addition, I think the Reds have no fewer than ten superb prospects with first team minutes, who are yet to fully blossom, but who are well ahead of the curve for their age.
These are the ones who are shining as subs, excelling out on loan, or maybe getting some stick right now during the first inevitable dips in their short careers, but gaining vital experience that all young players have to gain, before they can start to become key components.
The second half of this article is for paying subscribers only.
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