Liverpool’s unprecedented set of injury challenges this season (which include the decimation of one position group in total as well as an overwhelming number of players being unavailable in general on any given match day) mean that players are being asked to play more minutes than they might otherwise expect to, in positions that are perhaps not their best — which necessarily means that the tactical plan is less than ideal.
For the sixth time this season, Liverpool have at least eight players unavailable for a match tonight.— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) February 3, 2021
They've had six-or-more missing in almost two thirds (65.6%) of their matches. pic.twitter.com/xPCKZimnal
This set of Liverpool-specific challenges comes in addition to the general challenges all teams face as a result of a contracted and relentless fixture schedule on top of a foreshortened preseason, a perfect storm to create the wider uptick in muscle injuries as well as more general fatigue.
Manager Jürgen Klopp spoke briefly in his pre-Manchester City press conference on the physical challenges his players have been asked, again and again, to confront this season.
“We didn’t have a break… it’s really tough, it’s a tough year, a tough season. I know for some teams it looks like lesser but for us, for the reasons you know, it’s tough.”
The Reds boss iterated something he touched on immediately following the Brighton match as well, however: that the challenges are not simply physical.
“[After Brighton] was the first time I felt [the importance of mental, not just physical fatigue] actually, but after a week with twice traveling to London, playing two intense games, two really good games — I don’t think we ran too much in these games. We ran exactly as much as we had to to win the games and then we came back and faced a Brighton team who had a good idea and we were not ready in that moment, obviously.
The boys wanted but couldn’t and if you see that there are two possible reasons: they don’t want, [and] I can say that’s not the case, or they can’t. So, if that’s the case then you have to think about why they couldn’t and that was the thing I was talking about after the game and that’s all.”
While we like to think that professional players find it easy to get up and go again when the next game comes around, it’s worth thinking about the particular challenges of this season.
These players, as Klopp suggests, do not have weak mentalities. Asking a depleted squad to get up and go again against Brighton after a week with two great performances — and with one of the biggest games of the season coming quick on Brighton’s heels — is a mental challenge. The Liverpool squad is made up of incredible professionals, but also human beings.
Of course, there have been mental challenges like this (if not quite to this relentless extent) in previous seasons, and the players have dealt with it before — perhaps a prime examples would be the win away at Southampton soon after returning from Istanbul with the UEFA Super Cup last season and the masterclass 4-0 against Leicester City immediately after returning from an extra time effort to win the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar. These players have shown themselves able to dig deep into the well again and again.
What’s so different now? Well, the injuries are certainly an issue.
As Andrew Beasley noted in The Liverpool Echo, an inability to play anything close to your first choice eleven for a sustained period makes everything more challenging, from tactics to mentality. Liverpool have played without a key position filled with a player who actually plays in that position (or the first choice player) for sustained periods in the past (CC: left-back phenom James Milner), but losing an entire position group, using midfielders as center-backs, and having a depleted set of squad players for the now-diminished midfield over a long period of time is a mental as well as physical challenge.
It’s presumably a much bigger challenge to play in these conditions in three games a week without any fans in the ground. While the romance about fans in Anfield is often derided by rivals, the crowd (and even the away end, in certain grounds especially) can bolster a team who are in desperate need of a boost.
It makes sense that the team facing the largest uphill battle with injuries would subsequently be more affected by the absence of fans urging them on — they simply need the fans’ support more.
Of course, fans are absent from grounds due to the very real threat of the pandemic, so we cannot expect any change in this particular mental-fatigue-boon any time soon.
Klopp spoke briefly about his own plans to help combat his squad’s mental fatigue. He does not believe there are issues with mental health overall in the squad, but only that the team needs to rediscover some of the “freshness” that the challenges of the previous week sucked out of them.
Hopefully the return of key players (and the signing of actual center-backs[!!!!]) can help with this.
It’s a small thing, too, but the addition to the dressing room of two players in Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak who are likely truly excited to play for a team like the English and World Champions, Liverpool Football Club, might give the other players just the boost they need.