How Jürgen Klopp Utilized His Squad to Achieve the Unbeaten Streak
What have we learned so far in the 63-game unbeaten home run in the league? Give Klopp a starting XI and he might well give you points
A total of 40 players took the field at Anfield for Liverpool in the Premier League since the seventh of May 2017 — when the currently-active unbeaten run began with an uninspiring 0-0 draw against Southampton. Of the total list, 32 of these players featured for over 100 minutes (playing at least a game, minutes-wise), and 18 of them put in over 1,000 minutes.
Let’s take a closer look on how the Liverpool squad has achieved so much over this time.
While Virgil Van Dijk’s impressive record of league starts before his injury in the Merseyside Derby is remarkable, it’s worth remembering that he came in 15 games into the present run, featuring for the first time at home in the Premier League on the fourth of February in 2018 (in the 2-2 draw against Tottenham — which means he narrowly missed out on the exhilarating 4-3 vs Manchester City in mid-January). Overall, Van Dijk has the sixth-most minutes played in the home unbeaten run with 4,466, the second-most for a defender (Robertson edges him with 4,949, third overall).
Who has put in the most minutes so far during this run?
Well, the answer to that question might be surprising — particularly since the winner edges his competitors by 470 minutes. Have a guess:
Mohamed Salah has played in 60 of the 63 matches racking up 5,442 total minutes. He’s scored 51 (xG 41.4), assisted 20 (xA 20.83), playing 53 accurate key passes (note: key passes simply refers to passes that lead to shots by another player).
The player who put in the second-most minutes? None other than Roberto Firmino, who has played just one match fewer (59) and sits on 4,972 total minutes. Sadio Mané isn’t too far behind his partners either, with the fifth-most overall minutes (4,746 of them). The front three’s numbers are bolstered by how often they have played together in the run so far, with all three starting for 36 of the 63 matches (though not always as a front three — there were 4-2-3-1s in there, and once a formation eerily like a 4-4-2 to try to stump Manchester United).
That’s an impressive amount of stability, and the front three’s ability to put in so many minutes in a sustained stretch of games (leaving aside all the other competitions, and away Premier League matches) is an incredible accomplishment. That said, after the Van Dijk injury cut short his own long run of consecutive league minutes, the addition of Diogo Jota (and his ability to score seemingly when he wants) will help further plug gaps when the front three are not available to start together.
The midfield, as one might expect given the work involved in a Klopp side, has rotated a lot, with Gini Wijnaldum being the only midfield player to rank in the top five for overall minutes played (he is currently in fourth on 4,789 minutes, just narrowly beating out Mané).
The midfield isn’t the only position group that has been rotated often, though. Ignoring changes in goalkeeper (Alisson’s injury niggles and suspension makes this look more in flux than it would otherwise be, so looking at the back five isn’t as helpful as one would think), Klopp fielded 23 different combinations in his back four.
The back four wasn’t as in flux as that number makes it seem, however, as only three combinations featured more than five times together (and these three combinations played 37 of the 63 games, collectively).
What was the most common back four?
This one might surprise you.
The back four is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of fan expectations. The most common back four to start at home during the current run has been Robertson, Van Dijk, Dejan Lovren, and Alexander-Arnold — but the most common centerback pairing is Van Dijk and Gomez, who played together 18 times (three more starts than Lovren had with the Dutchman). Perhaps the most notable element here is the progression.
Joe Gomez broke into his centerback role quite a bit later than we might recall, first featuring there in December 2018 against West Ham United, but not making more than two consecutive appearances at home as centerback until a year later, on the 14th of December 2019 against Watford. From that period through to Van Dijk’s injury earlier this season, Gomez played alongside the Dutchman for 13 consecutive home games. There’s a clear split between Gomez playing as a right back and Gomez playing as a centerback, as well, since after breaking in as a centerback option he only played one further game at right back — and this was the tactical replacement of Trent Alexander-Arnold against Manchester City match in October 2018.
Why is this important? Well, it suggests a sort of recency bias, where we as fans forget the long period where Gomez was not the preferred centerback partner (indeed, he played 10 of the first 20 matches of this run as right back, sharing time there with Nathaniel Clyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and through the first two thirds of the run one of Dejan Lovren or Joël Matip found themselves preferred to partner Van Dijk).
Recency bias in this case doesn’t really create a false narrative, though: Gomez’s sustained good form means that a settled Van Dijk-Gomez partnership was, as we all would guess, likely the plan for 2020/21. As such, the injuries to these two key players are frankly devastating for the club.
So why does it matter that this is only a recent phenomenon? Well, it’s comforting, perhaps, to dispel any false ideas about Klopp playing a settled back four given that he’ll be unable to do so for a while at least — and it emphasizes how Gomez, like Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, had to earn the shirt over time. The most optimistic of Reds fans might view this injury crisis as an opportunity for other players to follow in their footsteps. Regardless, shifts in personnel are nothing new, even if they’re more forced than usual at the minute.
Rotation, forced or otherwise, was the rule, not the exception, for most of this period. Immediately prior to Gomez’s recent settled run at centerback, Lovren partnered the Dutchman for five straight, after a set of five games with some forced rotation as Lovren, Gomez, and Matip all had a go. Matip’s longest run in consecutive home fixtures during this period came between the 19th of January and the 14th of April 2019, where he played seven home matches in a stretch (a record he equalled at the start of the run).
This is not meant to argue against the clear quality of the Van Dijk-Gomez partnership: the two played together at the center of defense in 18 of the 63 games, and kept 11 clean sheets (three against the big six). Their formidable 11 clean sheets are almost double those achieved in the second- and third-most common centerback partnerships of Van Dijk-Lovren (15) and Van Dijk-Matip (13), who each tallied six clean sheets at home in the current run.
Taken as a whole, the stats at home during this unbeaten run aren’t all that surprising: the front three scored the most goals, fans’ favored centerback pairing featured most often and kept the most clean sheets, and Virgil Van Dijk has been the stalwart of the defense in this period, despite coming into the side after the run had already begun.
What is the “Best XI” to play during the current unbeaten run?
But what is important is the amount of rotation: how rarely we played our “first choice” XI to achieve these results.
Though there’s argument about the midfield during this period, we can mostly agree on the back five and the front three in a proposed Best XI: Alisson; Robertson, Van Dijk, Gomez, Alexander-Arnold; and Mané, Firmino, Salah (I’m swerving the Diogo Jota/Firmino argument here as Jota’s sample size is quite small). That’s fair, right?
That combination of players started just 10 times in the 63 unbeaten at home in the league, and no midfield combination played together more than three times with that “first choice” back five and front three. That midfield? Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and Naby Keïta — likely not what fans would have predicted!
What about against the big six? Well, in 15 total matches (three each against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham), this “best back five and best front three” combination I propose has featured only twice (once against Manchester United and once against Chelsea). A lot of the changes in these matches came in defense, with Adrián in for Alisson (or Mignolet and Karius starting — this run has been active for a while), Gomez at right back, or either Matip or Lovren pairing with Van Dijk.
The lineup possibilities get even more open once you add in the midfield.
I would argue that the “best” (in terms of consistent performance) midfield three given the aforementioned back five and front three would be Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and Jordan Henderson, who featured just three times together in this run, and just once as a part of this proposed “best XI” — though I do admit in my “best midfield” argument here that the additions of Thiago and Jota add tasty possibilities to that, albeit possibilities that are undercut by the centerback shortage.
What does all this mean?
In looking at the lineup variations at Anfield during this active unbeaten run I by no means suggest that Klopp has fielded “weak” teams, or even that he doesn’t have a “best XI” in mind — it’s likely fitness, availability, and European competitions have fundamentally impacted his selection in every single one of these matches.
Instead, I want to hammer home that a team doesn’t maintain such a run like ours by reliance on one starting XI, or even on one or two players, no matter how good they are.
This run began against Southampton in 2017 with Simon Mignolet in goal, a back four of James Milner, Lovren, Matip, and Nathaniel Clyne, a midfield of Wijnaldum, Lucas Leiva, and Phillipe Coutinho, and a front three of Divock Origi, Daniel Sturridge, and Adam Lallana. We didn’t score.
We also didn’t concede, though, and players we’re less likely to laud have helped get results from the very start of the run. In his 10 appearances early on, Mignolet contributed seven clean sheets to this unbeaten run, and Loris Karius matched him with seven in his 11 matches played. Alisson provided 17 in his 37 appearances. Clean sheets can be over-emphasized in commentary because we love their neatness and the suggestion they propose of a strong defense, but stats-usefulness aside they do provide a solid basis for an unbeaten run.
Who else was involved in the run? Well, Alberto Moreno at leftback contributed four wins and three draws (with five clean sheets) to the current run, and three of these results came against big six opposition. He played in front of Alisson just once in these seven games.
During this run Jordan Henderson played a game at right back; Milner played right back twice (alongside a smattering of appearances at leftback). Klavan started in nine matches, in seven different back four combinations. A lot of players featured in roles you wouldn’t necessarily think of when you consider the squad’s achievements over this time.
Where do we go from here?
Liverpool are a much stronger squad today (yes, yes, when fully fit, but also just generally) than they were at the beginning of this run. Despite this visible strengthening, the Reds have not gone 63 games unbeaten at home by playing the fans’ preferred “Best XI” at Anfield every time out. Let’s return to where we started: the fact that 40 players have contributed to this run so far, and 18 have played over 1,000 minutes for the Reds. It takes a squad.
Maintaining a perfect record is a big ask with an injury- and COVID-depleted squad, but Klopp has shown us since 2017 that he doesn’t need a perfectly fit squad to make Anfield a fortress. It will be harder to continue without fans, and as player availability shrinks, but there’s no reason to give up hope — we won’t be the only squad affected by injury in a season like this.
Klopp told us in his pre-Leicester press conference that he’ll make no excuses.
“I’ve always said, as long as we can field 11 players then we will fight for the three points. We can and we will line up 11 players, I can promise that at least for Sunday, and then we will fight with all we have.”
What his record since 2017 has shown us above all is that we ought to believe him.
Stats used in this article are via Instat and are correct as of November 2020.