Sergio Aguero’s number was up. It was the 71st minute of the last game at Anfield. Off went Manchester City’s record goalscorer. On came Gabriel Jesus. And that, it transpired, was Pep Guardiola’s substitutions done. There was no David Silva. No Phil Foden. No Riyad Mahrez. All remained on the bench.
In contrast, Jurgen Klopp made his full complement of changes. James Milner had already come on for Jordan Henderson. Then Roberto Firmino, who rarely completes the 90 minutes, made way for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Finally, Klopp acted to halt Raheem Sterling by bringing on Joe Gomez and shifting Trent Alexander-Arnold forward into midfield.
Yet the notable element would have come if Klopp had not made all three substitutions. He has made 75 out of a possible 75 in the Premier League since February’s draw with West Ham, when he brought on Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi but left it there. Perhaps that reflected the reality it was a depleted group, shorn of Gini Wijnaldum, Henderson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexander-Arnold and Gomez. He had fewer appealing options.
Since then, Klopp has been so interventionist in his changes that Gary Lineker’s old aphorism needs updating. “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win,” the former England captain said. As the Premier League table testifies, the German manager always wins, but up to 28 men are involved in chasing the ball and many of them do not have to do it for 90 minutes. His is a 14-man game.
In many ways, it is unsurprising. Klopp’s frequent mentions of intensity and the pace of Liverpool’s game can make them exhausting to watch. Sustaining their relentlessness can require fresh legs, even when the gameplan does not change. Consider the all-action approach of Firmino and it is unsurprising he is often among the early departures. Henderson, another player defined by his running power, has nevertheless only completed 90 minutes in the Premier League twice since August. There are times when Klopp’s most trusted lieutenants have run themselves into the ground, so he sends for the cavalry.
That Klopp’s most-used replacements this season are the eager runners Milner, Origi and Oxlade-Chamberlain indicates that an injection of energy is his first requirement of a replacement. It also reflects the reality that 24 of those 36 substitute appearances have been made by men who, if you include Shaqiri in that definition, are midfielders by trade: Klopp’s No. 8s can knacker themselves out with incessant industry, the gap between the best and the rest in his squad is smaller in that department than in the forward line or the defence and his midfielders are so versatile that some can come on in attack and others at the back. Yet it is not simply a case of swapping workhorses. If the success of Klopp’s substitutions in the last 15 months is remarkable, so are the variety of changes; it has shown a capacity to recognise what a game needed.
If perhaps Liverpool’s best change of the campaign was enforced by injury, when Origi limped off against Newcastle and the catalytic Firmino came on to set up two goals, they have owed their unbeaten record to a latecomer; Adam Lallana equalised against Manchester United. Sometimes the influence is indirect; Liverpool’s late goals at Aston Villa came from the starters Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mane, but Oxlade-Chamberlain had come off the bench to add thrust and wear the promoted side down, just as Naby Keita had been terrific in his cameo at Old Trafford. Significantly, Liverpool have got late goals against United, Leicester and Villa without Mohamed Salah on the pitch.
As the United game illustrated, changes have not been limited to personnel. There are times when 4-3-3 has become 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, as it did in the second half against City, or 4-4-2.
Gomez has become the resident defensive change, coming on as a right-back against Sterling in the City game and a third centre-back in the closing stages against Tottenham and Chelsea. In keeping with his ultra-versatile persona, Milner is the multi-purpose substitute, sent on in a variety of scenarios. Perhaps a footballer who was a reluctant but still excellent and willing left-back has another unwanted distinction now, as the specialist substitute. A man whose predictability has been parodied may not seem the definition of an impact substitute but Klopp explained his decision to bench Milner for the Champions League final by saying he wanted experience in reserve. Adaptability, an ability to follow instructions and a coolness under pressure equip Milner for the role of Klopp’s unchanging game-changer.
Milner, of course, was not Klopp’s most famous substitution at the Wanda Metropolitano in May. Origi’s late goal capped a golden season in terms of substitutions, interrupted only by the draws in early 2019 when it was tempting to wonder if Klopp had made the right changes. Yet the first half of 2018-19 was marked by telling contributions by substitutes: Daniel Sturridge at Chelsea, Origi in the Merseyside derby, Shaqiri against Manchester United.
The closing stages of the campaign became still more famous for the contributions made in cameos: Fabinho against Tottenham, Henderson at Southampton, Shaqiri and Origi at Newcastle, and, earning Anfield immortality, Wijnaldum against Barcelona.
Last season was also when Pep Lijnders returned to Anfield to take his place by Klopp’s side, replacing Zeljko Buvac. Their subsequent fortunes suggests his in-game advice often works. There was a point when Klopp stood accused of making his changes too late; indeed, at one point in the 2016-17 campaign, the average time when he made his second substitution was the 81st minute.
Perhaps he had too much faith in his starting 11. Perhaps Liverpool lacked strength in depth. Perhaps the irony now is that the time he delayed the longest this season was justified. Liverpool trailed Tottenham for 51 minutes and then were level with them for a further 23. Klopp only sent for his first substitute, Milner, after Salah had belatedly put them ahead. He had been right to wait, rationalising his side were battering Tottenham and that something had to give.
But to rewind to 2016-17, when Klopp seemed more inflexible in his belief in the starting 11, and two things stand out. Firstly, that Liverpool were not in Europe, which rendered them fresher. And secondly, that the champions Chelsea made 114 out of a possible 114 substitutions in the Premier League. Klopp made only 90, which rose to 111 in 2017-18 and slipped slightly to 109 last year.
Antonio Conte’s was a 14-man game. The 12th, 13th and 14th men were Michy Batshuayi, only trusted to start once but brought on 19 times, Willian, who had 19 games off the bench as part of his job-share with Pedro, and Cesc Fabregas, introduced on 16 occasions in the search for a killer pass. Fabregas feels too slow for Klopp’s brand of football but it is possible to see Origi as the Anfield Batshuayi and Oxlade-Chamberlain as the Merseyside Willian, reserves of energy and reserves with energy. Three years on, Liverpool have more alternatives than that Chelsea team and more strength in depth than is sometimes acknowledged.
Yet selecting the right options is the real skill and thus far Klopp, as he plays every available card in each game, has done that. The Anfield tinkerman has got his thinking right.