The last time Liverpool dropped points in a Premier League game – some 231 days ago – Jurgen Klopp was forced to face some questions he did not particularly like. While searching for a breakthrough in a goalless Merseyside derby at Goodison Park in March, he had introduced James Milner, Adam Lallana and a half-fit Roberto Firmino from the substitutes’ bench. He left Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri seated.
When the first question in the post-match press conference suggested he could have been more adventurous with his changes, Klopp was not happy. “I’m really disappointed with your question,” he began. “It’s football, we don’t play PlayStation. Do you think we didn’t take enough risks today? Is that what you want to ask? It’s a really disappointing question. That means it’s so easy, I tell the boys we take more risks. Come on boys, go for it!
“An extra attacker? Just to go wild, nine matchdays [to go],” he continued. “I see a lot of reasons why in Liverpool you are not experienced [in a title race]. You think it’s PlayStation? Bring on an attacker and the football will change? It’s not like that. We are offensive enough. Football doesn’t work like that. Come on! There are nine games to go. We don’t lose our nerves, not like you obviously.”
It was one of the angrier exchanges between Klopp and the press over the past few years and nearly eight months later, after a subsequent 17-game winning streak ended in a draw at Old Trafford, it is worth revisiting. And not only because ‘take more risks’ – too simple a slogan for Klopp – is practically Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s mantra. The Manchester United manager is constantly telling his players those precise words. He said them verbatim in his post-match press conference on Sunday.
But though that provides an interesting contrast between the two managers, Klopp’s comments back in March are mainly worth revisiting because this time, his substitutions were not blamed for the two points dropped. Instead, they were the reason for the point Liverpool gained and it is a point which could prove to be vital come the end of this long Premier League title race.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the first to be introduced, with Divock Origi replaced and Klopp changing shape on the hour mark. Liverpool rely heavily on their full-backs for creating chances and up until that point, neither Andy Robertson nor Trent Alexander-Arnold had been able to make much of an impact in the final third. They had managed just five crosses between them in the first hour of play.
Robertson and Alexander-Arnold had both been pressed heavily by Ashley Young and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but Klopp now counter-acted this by moving Jordan Henderson wide right and having him and Oxlade-Chamberlain give each of United’s lone wide men an extra body to worry about. In the remaining half hour plus stoppage time, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were much more influential, playing 12 crosses. One proved crucial.
Lallana’s introduction followed 11 minutes after Oxlade-Chamberlain’s. He replaced Henderson who was not only now in an unfamiliar position but who had not had the best of afternoons regardless. Lallana offered a more natural foil for Alexander-Arnold when doubling up on Young down the right-hand side. But his major contribution is of course the goal – his first in the Premier League for two-and-a-half years – converted after a cross from the left by Robertson that Klopp’s change of shape and personnel was designed to encourage. But that equaliser may not have arrived if not for the third and final change, made only minutes earlier.
Klopp’s final throw of the dice was Keita. He replaced Georginio Wijnaldum in central midfield and played more final third passes in his 14-minute cameo than Wijnaldum managed all afternoon. He played more passes than Mané, who played from start to finish. Keita immediately got to work on the ball on the edge of United’s penalty area, looking to spring the pass that could release his team-mates in behind after their rather insipid efforts. After only two minutes, he has already played eight passes, the last of which finds Robertson on the left. The equaliser follows.
Whenever Liverpool are struggling to create through their full-backs or front three, Klopp’s midfield comes under the microscope. The usual suspects – Fabinho, Henderson, Wijnaldum and James Milner – are often said to lack the guile necessary to break down opponents. Certainly, none of them have the ability to move the ball and construct attacks as Keita, who built his reputation on ball progression at RB Leipzig. He has so far failed to live up to that reputation during a injury-hit year-and-a-bit on Merseyside, but his influential spell on Sunday showed promise. He, Oxlade-Chamberlain and maybe even Lallana can help Liverpool create when the usual routes to goal are cut off.
The problem with assessing a manager’s substitutions is that we see outcomes without knowing intentions. The best laid plans can go to waste and be left looking like poorly calculated missteps. Others might come off without much thought involved and still hailed as ‘inspired’. Ironically, the three players Klopp introduced were the three most offensively-minded substitutes available to him. Perhaps Sunday was simply a case of throwing another attacking player on until something stuck. Maybe this was PlayStation football after all.
It is more likely though that this was an example of good in-game management by a coach whose decision-making in the heat of the moment has been questioned in the past, particularly when it comes to substitutions. It can feel as if draws are the new defeats and defeats are full-scale disasters in the Premier League title race nowadays. That was certainly the sense in the Goodison press room back in March. But thanks to Klopp’s second-half tweaks at Old Trafford on Sunday, Liverpool came away with one point that felt a bit like three. It could prove valuable come May.