Rebuilding Liverpool: Exhaustion, Fatigue, Resetting and Renewing (A Series)
Rebuilding Liverpool, In Three Parts - Part One
I wrote this detailed three-part series over the past couple of weeks, but things seemed to deteriorate further after the defeat at Wolves (which I think fit a pattern I’d already covered in Part One, which you’ll read below).
I thought that, unlike at Brighton in that 3-0 defeat that was grim from start to finish, the Reds actually offered a lot at Wolves, especially after the break, but only after a terrible start, and the shaky end; both of which can be explained in some way.
As noted in all three parts (now that I’m adding it here in this Preface), Klopp had only just said he’s in it for the long haul. Speaking on the ‘Mike Calvin’s Football People’ podcast, Klopp spoke of the need to rebuild his team:
“It was one of the main reasons why I signed a new contract because I knew it’s necessary. It will not go overnight. I know the majority of the outside world is just interested in the short term but we have to be long-term focused as well, and that’s what we are.”
But there’s sale of the club, which is still unclear (investment would be far more stabilising than a sale); the exits or impending exits of Julian Ward (director of football), Mike Gordon (FSG’s most football savvy member) and Ian Graham (Director of Research) – with some of those apparently unhappy with the additional say Pep Lijnders has on transfer issues, as the analysts are ‘sidelined’; the discord and disagreement about medical/physio/conditioning/fitness algorithm; and now Klopp getting angry with local reporters.
As such, it feels like the situation – which had settled down since I noted a lot of the tensions in November (and when I was briefly panicking) – could unravel in an instant.
Holding it all together is Jürgen Klopp, even if he is also at the heart of some of the discord, as the man in the middle of it all, and whose staff are reportedly to blame for some issues.
But he’s the manager, and one of the best the game has ever seen.
He simply has to stay, but he may feel that this is a season too far, if it drains him further. But I wrote this series on the basis of what he’s doing and what I think he plans to do with the team and the squad. (The fans need to get behind Klopp, but not at the expense of taking it out on others at the club.)
I loved the old director of football/analytics/management model of Klopp, Michael Edwards, Ian Graham and Mike Gordon, all good people who got along great.
But that started to fracture around the time of Covid, and as the injury chaos of that particular season that led to other issues; transfer strategy shifting (Klopp had more say after the massive on-field successes of 2019 and 2020); along with Klopp’s personal bereavement, and the impersonal way everyone had to work remotely, which let distance seep into interpersonal relationships; and then a difficulty in spending money for a year or so due to £100m losses via the pandemic, and instability making it harder to commit players to new contracts.
(In the end, Liverpool gave out overly long contracts to older players, who are all currently struggling, but the alternative – losing them, mostly on the cheap – might not have gone well either.)
It would be ideal if Liverpool could get back to that model, but it was perhaps a magical confluence, as all the right people aligned.
Relationships fracture over time, and I don’t know of anywhere where a manager has been in charge for the best part of a decade at a high-profile, high-pressure club and the same Director of Football has been in place; almost always, one or other of them goes within a year or two. There will always be that tension between the two disciplines. Klopp and Michael Zorc at Dortmund were a rare example, but that lasted seven years; Klopp is now in year eight at Liverpool, but not with the same DoF.
And managers (and coaches) will always want their own players, as they are the ones at the coalface: the ones who face the media, the ones who deal with the players on a daily basis, and the ones who know what tactics they want and therefore what exact player they feel they need. They are the ones who face up to the media scrum and TV cameras when it goes wrong, and the ones who take the blame.
The issue is that they can also be too close to things, and they can’t scout the wide world of football. Data and analytics can help see things at different scales.
All the other people were very important in the success, but I still think Klopp was the unifying factor. Meanwhile, whether or not he’s upsetting people, Lijnders is an elite coach, and Klopp will back his assistants to the hilt, unless they betray him. As long as the players can work with Klopp, Lijnders and the other coaches, that’s the main thing.
For a while I was concerned that both Lijnders and Klopp were not seeing the ageing issues, with the team and the sluggish midfield, but I feel that the elevation of Stefan Bajcetic and the purchase of Cody Gakpo, two of the best players at Wolves, is a sign of the rebuild. After being baffled, I also came to understand why Gakpo was playing as a centre-forward, as he could press and link like the old Bobby Firmino.
Ditto Naby Keïta, who has no future at the club, but is being utilised while he’s here (and fit, albeit as I keep noting, he still can’t strike a ball properly anymore, maybe since the groin issues; the original Brazilian Ronaldo noted that when he had a groin injury at a World Cup he had to toe-punt the ball to score).
And so, if Klopp now acts a bit more like a later years Alex Ferguson, with Lijnders the kind of coach Ferguson let drive things but where he fronted up at press conferences and at matches, and as such, Klopp almost becomes a quasi Director of Football (but still attends training instead of playing golf), I have no problem with that; as opposed to recruitment and footballing departments being at loggerheads, or just failing to agree.
I’m not sure if this situation is viable, longer term, but few, if anyone, in the football world has as much knowledge as Klopp. And he’d still be manager. Ideally there’d be a world-class Director of Football arriving in the summer, but it needs to be someone Klopp can be on the same page with. It doesn’t matter how good each individual is if they don’t have the same vision. At the moment, we have no idea who that might be.
If the buys Klopp and Lijnders have driven (as guesses) have been Thiago, Luis Díaz, Darwin Núñez and Gakpo, I’m more than okay with that; and I’ll let them off for young Ozan Kabak.
Núñez and Gakpo, both 23, have tons of potential, but unlike a lot of previous signings (Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Gini Wijnaldum, et al), have no Premier League experience, so it can take a year to settle into the increasingly crazy pace and physicality – and quality – of the league, let alone into a new team in transition.
Fabinho was shellshocked when he arrived from France, but after a difficult six months was then elite for a few seasons (but has, alas, had a shocking season). Ibrahima Konaté also took half a season to settle in. Some Premier League players are only thriving now after two, three or four seasons in England; while Salah and Wijnaldum were not big hits at their previous Premier League clubs, but the experience served them well.
There will also be a lot of tension when there are so many departments and personnel dealing with fitness issues, when things go wrong: medical, physio, rehab, conditioning and fitness, now with the algorithms of Zone7 involved (which worked great last season, it has to be noted).
There are so many things going wrong at once that, as in 2020/21, it’s quite hard to diagnose the problem and find a solution.
Add more energy to the midfield, but lose some height, heft and experience. Add more energy to the midfield, but lose both first-choice centre-backs to injury at the same time. Try and score goals, but have two new strikers under a lot of scrutiny, who clearly have the ability to score a lot of goals (see their previous records), but who are trying too hard, as new, younger strikers sometimes do. Try and change the game with subs, but the bench is bare because three top attackers are injured along with various others.
I excepted an improvement after the World Cup, but the injury issues are causing a negative feedback loop; with the addition of league table pressure, and a general confidence crisis. I doubted a revival in 2021 and yet the team revived; I doubted a revival a year ago, but the team revived. This is perhaps more complicated, due to off-field factors and the transition of the team, but most of this team and squad can get back to their best next season, if not this season. (It just depends on how bad this season gets as to who’s still at the club.)
Anyway, the first part of the series that follows takes at the impact of last season and just how much such a slog can take out of a team, but Part Two looks at the age-balance of the squad and when footballers reach their physical, mental and emotional peaks (and how Liverpool will surely improve as a result of time).
Part Three is a look at a whole clutch of special youth players, and how to develop and integrate them.
Transfers will obviously be another area, but it’s hard to know what money will be available given the ownership uncertainty (investment would help with spending, even if it would need 3-4 players at most and not a crazy shopping spree like Michael Jackson in Harrods), and how I feel that Liverpool were favourites for Jude Bellingham, even if not in the Champions League next season – but obviously it would rely on Klopp’s position being as strong as ever, as I think he’s the key to the deal, along with Bellingham’s very close friends in the Liverpool team. It would need things to stabilise before the end of the season.
Beyond that on transfers, I have no idea, other than there will be a lot of good players out there, with new ones emerging all the time. And as I keep saying, Bellingham will not make-or-break Liverpool’s future, and there’s no point losing sleep about it now.
My main focus is on the current peak-age players to build around, and the dozen-or-more special players aged 17-20 – and how to predict just how good they can become.
Anyway, onto the three-part series, which starts below.
(Note: I’ll make them all free reads initially, but I try to keep more content paywalled these days, as without subscription income – having been doing this since 2009 – the site won’t survive. Paying subscribers get to be part of the excellent commenting community and access to all content on the TTT Main Hub, and they keep TTT viable.)
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I wanted to look at how Liverpool rejuvenate, refresh and re-emerge from what is proving to be a difficult transitional season.
A lot of my focus will be on the special players aged 17-20, but also, how important the current ones aged 22-26 are; and if the former group develop as hoped, and the latter group return to fitness, then a few of the older guys will be perfectly fine to keep (some in the team, some on the bench). And, of course, the signings that will be needed in the summer.
Before looking at the future, and in particular using science and data to try and foretell how a cluster of elite young players can be expected to develop in the next 12-24 months (and then beyond), it’s worth a quick look at how Liverpool ended up so exhausted this season, and the physical issues at the heart of the slump.
This chart, from Anfield Index earlier in the season but reproduced in The Times a month ago shows the astronomical cliff-face fall from the Reds in physical output terms (while the Reds have also been below the Premier League average on height as well, as another physical trait that certainly correlates with set-piece success, and set-piece success is a key component of overall success).
While it’s incredibly worrying, it does offer a confirmation for what we were seeing with our eyes: lethargy. Covering less distance wasn’t a problem last season; but the drop in sprints and high-speed runs has been the killer.
But also, it clearly wasn’t deliberate, and in recent weeks the team has seen a bit more youthful vigour added, as perhaps the first clear marker that this is a new team that will take shape.
Liverpool’s XIs got too old in 2022/23, but in this three part series I will look at the importance of peak-age performers, and the issue with the injuries has been that, while all areas of the team has been affected (midfield especially decimated earlier in the season, wide attackers later on, centre-backs right now), it’s been the age of the players who have been injured (as well as the pace they have) that has been the killer.
Liverpool don’t necessarily have any more older players than the Man City team of just a few years ago – the one that pipped the Reds by a point, 98 to 97 in 2019 – that boasted Sergio Agüero (30), Fernandinho (34), David Silva (33), Nicolás Otamendi (31) and Vincent Kompany (33, whose return to the team in 2019 got them over the line). Many others were aged 28 and 29.
In this series I’ll also take a quick look at Alex Ferguson’s painful transition of Man United in the mid-2000s, which saw calls for his resignation in 2006, before his best-ever team emerged from the chrysalis. They too had plenty of 30-somethings. I think it’s the best example of what Liverpool now face, and how even the best managers and best teams can take two years to fully reform.
There’s also the example of Arsenal’s recent rise, which is worth a look, as evidence of how a group of young players can get better as individuals, and get better together, in the past of 1-2 years; whether or not they win the league, they’ve come from nowhere to be a much better side. (Since I wrote this, they went and lost at Everton, but remain league leaders.)
The issue for Liverpool this season has also been one of mental meltdown, an overly long 2021/22 followed by an extra early 2022/23, and then the reliance on older players mostly due to injury.
(My only selection gripe remains not playing Ibrahima Konaté in the preseason team that was going to start the season; and then someone absolutely smashed into his knee in the ‘B-team’ friendly just before the season started. I love Joël Matip, but while I don’t second-guess managers’ selections, I think Konaté should have been playing in the A-team, and obviously then would have avoided the injury, unless someone – maybe BA Baracus – smash his knee in that game instead. I then had increasing issues with the midfield of all three of Henderson, Thiago and Fabinho, but that has also been resolved.)
Pushed Beyond the Limits
Liverpool need a reboot, a reset, a rebuild.
But not a total reboot, reset or rebuild.
I remember writing 15 years ago that were the Reds ever to win the title, such as it came close to doing in 2009 or 2014, it would likely collapse afterwards, as the effort required against richer rivals with deeper squads would be immense. In the end, that happened without winning the title.
The emotional punch was hard too.
One of the greatest achievements of Jürgen Klopp was keeping his team on the boil for five years. That’s remarkable.
Any disappointment was met with a rebounding effort. Three Champions League finals; three league points tallies between 92-99; one quadruple challenge that went to the wire; and one sensational late rally to finish top four after running out of centre-backs (which serves as a reminder that a team that looks broken need not necessarily be permanently broken, as that same team rebounded again, with just two notable additions the following season, one in the summer and one in January; but obviously time is running out on the some of the key men now).
I would argue that injuries at the start of the season, had they been for Matip, Henderson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino – who, at 31, admittedly had just had his best start to the season – would have been less damaging than those to Luis Díaz, Konaté, Diogo Jota, Curtis Jones and Naby Keïta (even if Keïta cannot be relied on).
Just to bring the average age down, and give more running power. But you don’t get to choose who gets injured.
Older players are often good, sometimes essential; but they need legs. Liverpool mostly lost legs in the injury crisis.
(Note: no actual legs were lost, albeit bits of Virgil van Dijk’s knee are still missing since 2020).
Wise old heads are handy, but the running stats fell off that cliff as a tired team was too old.
Yet it was arguably a season too soon for Stefan Bajcetic – who expected him to be involved so soon? – Ben Doak, Bobby Clark, Tyler Morton (who has shone on loan) and others.
So what we have now, in adversity, is the ‘bonus’ of those players developing ahead of schedule, even if it won’t make them the finished article at 18, 17, 17 and 20.
Calvin Ramsay would ideally have more minutes, but having turned 19, has had growing issues. Still, Ramsay is bedding in, as is Fabio Carvalho. They need time.
Harvey Elliott, still only 19, has played a lot of minutes, in various positions, and come through the kind of difficult phase all young players have one or twice in their fledgeling careers. In form or struggling, he always wants the ball, and he’s miles ahead of where many successful players were at the same stage.
But let’s look at how draining last season was. To show that this is not some fancy foreign weakness for players who can’t handle ‘our game’, let’s look at two hardened, English ‘war horses’, not known for much else but being busy, indefatigable midfielders.
Beginning back in 1995, the durable Michael Brown played 650 career games, spanning Man City, Sheffield United, Spurs, Portsmouth, Fulham, Wigan, Leeds and others, spread mostly across the Premier League and Championship, which would mark him down as a slightly less talented James Milner – an enduring English journeyman, used to the rigours of the game. He was no fancy-Dan aesthete, that’s clear.
“How can I be playing football again today? You’ve got no chance,” he was quoted in the Times earlier this season, when recalling Sheffield United’s 2002/03 season, where his 2nd-tier team played 61 games (two less than Liverpool in 2022/23, and certainly in easier fixtures, albeit still tough for them).
Now, this is the key point below. Hence, it’s bold and in italics:
Brown recalls, it wasn’t the end of each 90 minutes the next season that was hard – it was the first half-hour, because “when you first go out, you’re still fatigued”.
I’ll add it again in the fancy Substack quote format:
Brown recalls, it wasn’t the end of each 90 minutes the next season that was hard – it was the first half-hour, because “when you first go out, you’re still fatigued”.
This struck a chord re-reading the piece, given that Liverpool’s problem has often been starting games.
(As someone who has suffered from a fatigue-related chronic illness for 20+ years, I can relate to the difficult in getting going, albeit I don’t get fitter from exercise, as my body tries to put me into a kind of hibernation as a result: “The dauer state involves a massive slowdown of the metabolism”, and muscles go into a kind of crisis mode, as the body produces weird chemical reactions.)
That seems to be a sign of exhaustion for players, before a kind of second-wind kicks into gear.
But the Reds then end games badly too, in part due to the lack of quality on the bench when 5-10 players are out injured, and also the tiredness of the players who start too many games, and fatigue kicks in again near the end.
(I wrote this piece before the Wolves game, but the paragraph above shows the exact pattern from the game. And as much as I still love Matip, when he’s bad he’s a gangly mess, but that’s another story.)
At the moment, Bajcetic is too young to last 90 minutes, and Keïta too broken. When they tire and go off, the tempo drops.
Two of those games for Michael Brown were League Cup semi-finals against Liverpool, when the Reds had a run of just four wins in 18 games, slipping from 1st to 7th in the league and losing to Sheffield United in the first leg; before the 2nd leg victory began a mini revival for Gérard Houllier’s men.
(But within those 18 games, the Reds went thirteen domestic games in a row without tasting victory. Try imagining that, kids! And this was off the back of a season finishing 2nd and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals in the club’s first campaign in the old European Cup since 1985.)
But of course, Brown played ‘only’ 54 of Sheffield United’s games 61. And in his mid-20s, he was in his physical peak, and not playing international football. It was not like Liverpool’s players (some in their 30s) facing a 63-game seasons, with a ludicrously increasingly litany of internationals before, during and after; and for some, an AFCON right in the middle.
It was also not quite the same massive, high-profile emotional rollercoaster ride for Sheffield United, of fighting for the league title every game from January onwards, and fighting for the Champions League, every game from January onwards, and carrying talk of The Quadruple – with the Reds having already played 30-odd games to be in contention by the turn of the year.
It wasn’t the rollercoaster ride of runs to both domestic cup finals, and the nail-biting extra-time wins.
And there wasn’t the same media scrutiny, the social media bile, vitriol and “banter”, and the inability to escape football 20 years ago.
Then there’s West Ham United captain and England harrier, Declan Rice, who described the number of games he played last season as “obscene”, and that he was “knackered”.
In a piece in the Times earlier in the season:
“The 23-year-old England midfielder, speaking before the first of two Europa Conference League group-stage matches against Anderlecht, calculated that between June 2021 and June 2022 he played 68 games for club and country. West Ham will play 12 matches before the mid-season World Cup begins in 45 days.
There were so many games last season, and so many now leading up to the World Cup, I need to pace myself and not get injured or break down,” Rice said.
“I worked out last year from June  to June  I played 68 games. That is an obscene amount of games.
“You’ve got to stay fit, eat the right things, be spot on throughout the whole year. Of course at some point it might take its toll, but it is down to the player to find that balance and get back on track.
“I can’t go into a game and not give 100 per cent. Every game I walk off and I’m knackered. There are big games for West Ham and England. I don’t want to get injured or do anything silly. Of course, there’s a big World Cup coming up but the focus right now is West Ham.”
David Moyes, the West Ham manager, understands Rice’s desire for success with club and country but believes the workload is too intense.
“It’s not sustainable and actually it’s something I hope the authorities in football are going to look into,” Moyes said. “We might be on the back of the pandemic, we might be in the first year with a World Cup [in the middle of the season], but I hope that once we get over the World Cup the levelling out for football players is a bit better.”
Brown and Rice (not to be confused with brown rice) were/are athletes, box-to-box midfielders, used to the rigours of the English game.
They give a rich insight into how it feels to have to go again the season after monumental effort, and a reminder that these are humans, not machines.
(Albeit tests on James Milner suggest he’s 87% cyborg, 11% human and 2% Ribena.)
As of early May 2022, these were the most games played by footballers on the planet according to an official report, with Liverpool’s players playing a few more afterwards, and Luis Díaz featuring heavily:
Michael Ngadeu (Gent & Cameroon) – 60 matches
Sadio Mané (Liverpool & Senegal) – 60 matches
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool & Egypt) – 60 matches
Joe Aribo (Rangers & Nigeria) – 63 matches
Luis Díaz (Liverpool, FC Porto & Colombia) – 64 matches
Mo Salah also played five periods of extra time in the first few months of 2022, and more followed. All of those players were travelling to different continents for their international games, too, unlike Declan Rice.
This season, and the three we know well – all high-energy attackers – Salah has been off form, Díaz suffered a serious knee injury, and the never-ever-injured Mané, now at Bayern, missed the World Cup as surgeons needed to “refix a tendon in the head of his right fibula”, which will eventually keep him out for up to three months.
(You can’t blame the Liverpool medical staff for what looks a possible hangover from the efforts of last season. And an injured Mané, nearly 31, wouldn’t solve Liverpool’s long-term issues, and had also been the one to instigate the move to Germany, on the eve of the Champions League final. So we can move on from Mané, thank you very much.)
Muscle injuries are more likely after over-exertion, but even ligament injuries can occur due to fatigue.
Tons of research also shows that the more injuries a team has, the worse it will do; while successful teams often have the fewest injuries. You can mitigate against injuries up to a point, but then it becomes about luck (Konaté and Díaz’s knee injuries were from bad impacts/falls, albeit Díaz’s body may have been susceptible to start with), and relying on the only fit players who cannot be rested due to all the other injuries.
Andrew Beasley has shown that Liverpool are elite with under six injuries per game, poor with more than six (the right-hand axis is inverted, so the blue line being low is better).
And that makes sense, as no squad players will be as good as a team’s best players. Squad players are often sticking plasters; anyone too good to be a squad player but who can’t get in the team when everyone is fit will be unhappy on the bench, or off to another club.
In other words, you get into a negative spiral, unless you’re in a virtuous circle.
ESPN also published something on the issue in late January (emphasis is mine):
“Over the past two years, Chelsea have played 122 competitive games -- more than any other team in Europe. (Liverpool are third with 117.) And since the start of last season, Liverpool lead the way with 92. Chelsea are second with 90, and then there’s Manchester City (87), who haven’t quite hit the same heights as previous seasons, followed by West Ham (85), the only Premier League team that might be having a more disappointing season than Liverpool or Chelsea. The other two English sides with 80-plus competitive matches on the ledger since the start of last season: Leicester City, who are two points clear of the relegation zone, and Tottenham, who have a worse goal differential than Liverpool despite having played two more matches.”
Read that again, even if you read it properly the first time.
Again, we think a season ends and a new one starts 100% afresh, but clearly there’s a cumulative effect beyond the summer; and the summer of 2022 saw Liverpool finish with the biggest game of the season in June, and resume competitive action in what felt like … June.
The Michael Brown anecdotes come from the aforementioned article by Owen Slot in the Times, and the following passages are worth quoting:
“For teams such as Liverpool this unique season presents two key differences: you are essentially starting it twice, and it’s been relentless from the start, when normally you would have until after the September international window before Europe kicks in and you are on the conveyor belt of two games a week.
“The language used by Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, in recent seasons is that the schedule is ‘going to kill’ the players. And that was before it got even harder.
"This war of attrition is documented in detail by Ben Dinnery, of Premier Injuries. His analysis for last season shows that Liverpool did a decent job of managing their way through those 63 games. He has a league table for the number of injuries for each side and days missed because of them; last season Liverpool were slightly above average for both. This season, though, they have shot to the top.
“Vast is the extent and quality of science that is now invested in protecting players’ fitness. Call me naive, but only recently did I learn that clubs measure the ground hardness of each pitch they play on and factor that into their understanding of each player’s physical conditioning.
“When Liverpool were thriving last season, they attributed part of their success to their tie-up with Zone7, a Californian artificial intelligence business that has created a kind of sensitivity dial to forecast injury risk. It believes that it can foresee about 70 per cent of injuries before they occur. That hasn’t helped Liverpool much recently, given that Zone7 cannot influence the fixture list. Zone7 is definitive about the relationship between injury and game load and stipulates that more than six games in a month is where injury risk rises significantly. Liverpool have nine games next month, so let’s see how they look by the end of that.
“The point, of course, is the downward spiral. When you have injuries, extra workload falls on the players that are still fit. Yet that extra workload makes them more vulnerable in turn.”
And injury prevention is surely a complicated multi-dimensional issue, with Zone7 and their algorithms, a changing medical staff at Liverpool, and the high-intensity training that is crucial to the way a Klopp team plays; all crunched up by a shortened preseason, a World Cup midway through. How can you un-jumble the mess?
That’s why I think this season is unique, and as with 2020/21, a curtailed preseason led to more injuries, and injuries lead to more injuries (and more general confidence issues).
I wouldn’t judge the fitness staff based on this season’s nightmarish injury list, albeit I would expect a thorough investigation into it, and what could have been done better in very difficult circumstances; and how to get everyone on the same page again.
There’s the mental pressure too, which must make life far more draining. In an Athletic piece from October, Virgil van Dijk said:
“What I think is that if the players from 10, 20 years ago were under the microscope we are at the moment, there would also be a lot of players struggling”
“That is something we have to deal with. It’s part and parcel but it’s still not easy. You try to shut it out but other people call you and say, ‘Are you all right?’ and you think, ‘Why?’. It will always come to you and it’s not easy to just completely shut it out and keep your head down or you need to live under a rock and just turn up for training and then go back home.”
“I’ve been in the UK now for eight or nine years and everyone here is very good at praising a player very high up to the sky and letting them fall as hard as they can.”
“We forget about the well-being of players, we forget about that stuff and everyone is talking about how we should all accept it. For Trent to just carry on working, deal with it and show a reaction is what we need, all of us. No matter what the outside world say, we always back each other and we know that we are fighting our way back to the consistency we’ve shown over the last couple of years.”
[Klopp said] “If it had been active 20 years ago then life for all those guys (former players turned pundits) would have been completely different. Going out after a game certainly would have been more difficult.
“It’s one of the challenges all the boys face. In good moments, they are probably guilty of liking what everyone writes. It’s not important, to be honest. But in bad moments, when you don’t like it, it’s not important either. That’s something you have to learn over the years, and Trent is pretty good at that.”
Jeremy Snape, the former England international cricketer turned sports psychologist, then spoke about how much harder for elite sportspeople to shield themselves from negativity:
“Twenty years ago, the highest pressure environment was on the pitch for a couple of hours and the players could decompress through the week,” he says. “Now the rewards are higher but the scrutiny and judgment are relentless and with more fixtures crammed into the season, being able to find perspective and downtime are key skills.”
The treatment Darwin Núñez gets from opposing fans at games and online is pretty horrible, albeit he’s a fighter who I’ll back to overcome it, but who is naturally trying too hard at times. (Also, ponytails lead to increased criticism 90% of the time.)
This was also before van Dijk succumbed to a rare muscle injury, but where I felt one had to be due, given the number of games he plays for Liverpool and Holland; a lot of the time playing at 70%, to spread his energy evenly across a season, and only occasionally would you see him go into 100% mode.
Thiago Alcântara, who has spent the last 12 years playing for trophy after trophy with Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Spain – and thus seen it all – recently said:
“It is not just about physical stuff, it is something psychological because we were so close to winning everything and we just touched it but sadly it went away.
“I think the bad moments we have to be together as a team. Last season we had one of the greatest seasons I’ve ever had in my life. This season is not one of the best but it doesn’t matter. It is a challenge and I think we have great quality and great guys to sort it out and I am sure we will do that.
“We are in the reality to go game-by-game and get points to help us to be as high as possible. Our aim is the next game. Not to be in the top four or the Europa League, just the next game.”
Jordan Henderson recently spoke about how the World Cup had affected him, but it was of course a World Cup on the back of a gruelling season with Liverpool in 2021/22. Of the World Cup, he told BT Sport:
“I think I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been hard. Looking back, it probably took a lot more out of me than I thought.”
My hope would be that Henderson, van Dijk, Thiago, Salah, Firmino and others follow the leads of Paul Scholes, James Milner and – just this week – Raphaël Varane (aged only 29!) and retire from international duty.
Because football right now is too gruelling.
Scholes and Milner (like Ryan Giggs, who just never really bothered to start with) extended their careers by focusing on club football and having those regular two-week breaks, to train but not to travel and exhaust themselves (and to not spend more time away from family and kids). The international breaks for those not on international duty can be the decompression periods, to train hard, but also refresh and reset. They can also do tactical work with the guys who remain.
You can’t force players to give up the international game, but as with cricket (which I started following again in 2019 but whose fixture lists make my head spin) it’s becoming more and more of a ludicrous milk-it-dry cash-cow for federations, and it’s perhaps trickier for a national icon like Salah to walk away.
But these guys have to decide if they can stick it at the top level; something has to give.
Because if their club form drops, as it will do if they overdo things into their 30s, then they won’t get picked for their countries anyway. Someone needs to tell them that. (Or, go and join a club that’s not in Europe, and please resist the cheap dig at saying that’ll be Liverpool in 2023/24…)
They need to prioritise club football, because it’s club fans who pay their hefty wages, but also, if you’re not in you club team, it’s less likely – unless playing for a smaller nation – that you’ll even play for your national team.
And if they don’t stay at the top of their games, the youngsters will just come through quicker.
So, by all means give Firmino a new contract (not sure I’d make it more than two years, unless on much reduced terms), as he’s so clever and not someone who ever relied on pace, and keep almost all the other old guys. I love Bobby. Keep him around, by all means.
But the next 1-2 years is when, if all goes well, they will gradually be forced to the periphery.
Liverpool also need to get the peak-age players fit again.
Two of them – Darwin Núñez and Cody Gakpo, as new guys – need to learn the Liverpool/Kloppian ways, fully adjust to the league, and to get on the same page as their teammates, which can easily take a season; especially when being added to a team that is not functioning properly for various reasons (so, more like Ozan Kabak being added to a clusterfuck than Luis Díaz joining a team mostly free of major injuries that he would help take up a notch).
The same applies to youngsters Carvalho and Ramsay, who won’t have the years of pattern-play and training with the first-team before this season that some other younger players have had; they won’t feel 100% settled yet as no one ever settles anywhere immediately. (Carvalho also needs to bulk up, but more on bulking up in Part Two.)
Roberto Firmino struggled in his first season, but he learnt how to press the way Klopp wanted.
A year later, Sadio Mané was added. He learnt how to press, and how to play with Firmino.
Another year later, Mo Salah was added; he learnt how to press as part of the unit, and how to play with Firmino and Mané. He missed tons of chances early on, but then had a great spell of scoring.
It wasn’t built overnight, that sensational front three.
Firmino’s first season was mixed, and Mané blew us all away with … 13 goals, as our expectations were that low for a goalscorer at that stage in 2016/17.
Salah burst onto the scene with 44 goals, but actually had his worst scoring season in 2019/20, when the Reds won the league; when the team was at its most metronomic, and full of super-hard sprinting and manic pressing.
(Plus, Mané and Salah had matured as players, and Salah had beefed up since his failure at Chelsea in his early 20s, but where he also gained experience that would later pay off.)
So, it’s time to turn to the youth, as seen with Stefan Bajcetic (and Harvey Elliott). The next seven months will be huge for all these players, as they can make quantum leaps in that time. Yet you’ll get moments where they’re caught out, as younger players often make more mistakes.
And then we will see how many of what I call Liverpool’s ‘Magic Dozen’ – players aged 17-20 who are all good enough to make the grade (but not all will, due to the law of averages and due to some playing in the very same position) – will really thrive.
I think half a dozen can, with a good wind, in the next 1-2 years.
The difficulty is giving them their chances to start with, but many have now got started; that’s half the battle.
You can never guarantee any youngster will escape injuries and make the grade, but Part Two of this series is about the developments of physical and mental attributes that teenagers just won’t yet possess, and Part Three is a look at the ‘Magic Dozen’, and how I think they can be a huge part of the solution to Klopp’s next great team (in addition to some transfers; and of course, ideally, Jude Bellingham, still only 19, without making him the be-all and end-all.)
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