Jurgen Klopp is not a fan of the Premier League’s festive period. He’s made his opinion known in the past, expressing his disbelief at the absurd demands on players. While every other top European league rests up for the stretch run, England overdoses on football.
“I understand – 100 percent – tradition,” he said in 2016. “I would never say Boxing Day is not a good idea, because I love it. It’s Christmas time, but I love it, I watched these games when I was not part of the Premier League. But to have a matchday with two days between? There should be another possibility.”
He’s right. There should be. Liverpool played its fourth game in 11 days, and second in three, Monday at Burnley. The Clarets, like others, played their fourth in 10. Some teams will play three in six. The fixture congestion suppresses quality, increases injury risk, and has lasting effects.
But that’s another argument for another day. Klopp, in addition to being peeved by it, had to cope with it. And for the second consecutive year, he coped expertly.
Klopp stayed true to his squad rotation beliefs, making seven changes from Saturday’s 2-1 win over Leicester. He left Philippe Coutinho and Mohamed Salah out of his matchday squad, apparently with minor injuries. He left Roberto Firmino on the bench.
And he was vindicated by Ragnar Klavan’s 94th-minute winner.
Liverpool appeared to have thrown away two points – and a shot at 10 points from four festive-period games for a second-straight year – when Johann Berg Gudmundsson snuck free at the back post and cancelled out Sadio Mane’s cracking left-footed goal just after the hour mark.
But with vultures circling to criticize Klopp, Dejan Lovren latched onto Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stoppage-time free kick. Klavan nodded Lovren’s header over the line. Liverpool celebrated in front of rabid away supporters, survived, and clinched its third victory in a row.
And Klopp did what no other Premier League manager was able to this holiday period. He kept players fresh, and still got desired results.
Klavan, in fact, was one of his seven introductions into the starting lineup. Simon Mignolet, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Adam Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dominic Solanke also came into the team. Loris Karius, Joel Matip, Andrew Robertson, James Milner, and the star attacking trio all dropped to the bench, or out of the team entirely.
It was a B-plus team, and with it essentially came the acknowledgement that a draw at seventh-place Burnley wouldn’t have been the worst result in the world. It was short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Klopp knows that managing workloads know will pay off in March and April.
But he also knows he now has a deep enough squad, especially in midfield and up front, for it to pay off in the present as well.
“I like rotation, I love the quality of my squad and I am really pleased,” he said after the match. “It was not fantastic football, but it was a fantastic attitude. Today, it wasn’t possible to play brilliantly.”
It’s not possible for any team to play brilliantly week in and week out. It’s therefore imperative, especially in a tight top-four race, to turn sub-standard performances into three points. Liverpool did that.
And instead of being resigned to more sub-standard performances from fatigued players in the future, Klopp’s players will have that extra ounce of energy and strength down the stretch to win that race.
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