With games coming almost every few days now that the UEFA Champions League has commenced, Liverpool will be playing a lot of minutes in quick succession. As a result, Virgil Van Dijk’s injury hits the Reds harder than it might have done in a more regularly-scheduled season, as resources will be stretched.
More than in previous seasons, it will be important to get results in the Champions League group stages: Jürgen Klopp would likely prefer to guarantee progression early on rather than have a set of meaningful games in the later group stages. As a result, coming home from Amsterdam with a hard-fought three points was a great return from an (at times) ugly game.
The mid-week matchup also gave Reds fans a hint of who could benefit most from the packed schedule: young Rhys Williams came on in the dying minutes to help shore up the points, with much being made of the fact that the youngster spent last season on loan with Non-League side Kidderminster Harriers. The youngster looked delighted with the occasion, something Klopp touched on in his pre-match interview ahead of Sheffield United.
Also notable was the manager’s choice to replace the front three early in the second half on Wednesday. Klopp has already shown that he will be taking advantage of the Champions League substitution rules: teams are allowed five substitutions, but three times within the game (so, not including halftime, the break between normal and extra time, and the halftime in extra time), and an additional substitute is allowed during extra time from the enlarged 23-man matchday squad. In fact, the Premier League is alone in its choice to limit teams to three substitutes, as the International Football Association Board (IFAB) left the decision to extend the rule up to the discretion of individual leagues.
This means that Liverpool’s fringe players serve to benefit from the combination of fixture congestion and additional substitutions. While the schedule can and should be viewed as a challenge and a constraint, many squad players — both youngsters like Rhys Williams and seniors on the fringes, like Xherdan Shaqiri, who also saw minutes in Amsterdam — might do well to see this added challenge as an opportunity.
Who loses out? Well, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané might have felt hard done by coming off in an away fixture with a narrow lead. It is also worth considering whether Andy Robertson might have got some minutes of rest had his deputy, Konstantinos Tsimikas, been fit to play. While fans might see the ability to rest players because the side now has able replacements as a good thing, these first team players will likely disagree. Fewer minutes means less time to lodge Champions League goals and assists, things each of these player will value.
Even if Diogo Jota and Takumi Minamino look bright and promising, fans should note that a shared load necessarily means some first team players might sacrifice individual accolades to preserve their fitness for the good of the team as a whole. This new ask might prove to be yet another way for Liverpool players to show their strong mentality and togetherness as they push past pandemic-related issues, injuries, and a gruelling schedule in an effort to secure silverware in 2020/21.