With Xherdan Shaqiri and Daniel Sturridge both coming into the Liverpool side to star in consecutive games, their new-found squad depth has been made clear.
“We’ve started now three times in a row with the same starting lineup,” Jurgen Klopp told reporters ahead of last month’s clash with Leicester City.
“That will not happen too often from now in the future. It’s probably not possible.”
The manager had named the same starting lineup for each of the Reds’ first three games in the Premier League, and was rewarded with three victories.
But after one change for the 2-1 win at the King Power, and reversing it as they secured the same result at Tottenham, Klopp has begun to utilise his squad ranks.
Daniel Sturridge was brought in, out of necessity, for the visit of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, while Joel Matip and Xherdan Shaqiri both started against Southampton.
Liverpool now have seven wins out of seven—their best start to a season ever—and in the past two victories two stand-ins have proved decisive.
The performances of Sturridge and Shaqiri in the past two games have highlighted a key improvement for the Reds that could give them the edge they need to achieve tangible success.
Roberto Firmino‘s absence from the starting lineup for the Reds’ Group C opener against PSG was considered a bitter blow, with the Brazilian only deemed fit for the bench after an eye injury.
With Thomas Tuchel’s side arguably the biggest threat in their Champions League group, without their No. 9, Liverpool could have been blunted.
True to form, however, the hosts overwhelmed PSG from the first whistle, stymieing their unimaginative counter-attacking approach and feeding off the Anfield crowd.
The inclusion of Sturridge, spearheading the forward line alongside Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, did require a slight change in style.
But it also added an element of unpredictability in the final third, and Sturridge made this count when he headed home the opener from Andy Robertson‘s cross.
The sight of Sturridge tearing away before pulling off his trademark celebration would have been encouraging for Klopp—but more important for the manager was his ability to slot into the system.
“It was just positive, the impact Daniel had. An intense game, it was a fantastic game for him, that’s the best news,” he told reporters later that week.
“Now we know more about that. A lot of games will come and so it’s good to know about that.”
With Southampton arriving at Anfield just four days later, and back-to-back meetings with Chelsea to come, Klopp opted to make further changes in the league.
Matip replaced Joe Gomez, Shaqiri took over from James Milner and Firmino returned to reclaim his place from Sturridge.
The 3-0 victory was one of the easiest Liverpool will enjoy over the nine months of the season, but that they were able to cruise through the second half was due to Shaqiri’s defining 45 minutes.
On his first start for the club, in a new role and in a new system, everything ran through the Swiss.
In the first half, no Liverpool player had more shots (two) or created more chances (one); he had one fewer touch of the ball (32) than Salah and Mane combined (33), and completed nine more passes (25).
It was his cut inside and shot that led to Wesley Hoedt’s own goal, and his arrowed free-kick that laid on Salah’s strike to effectively seal the game.
Klopp made a surprise call to withdraw Shaqiri at the break, but insisted after the game that “as a new player, usually you struggle most but he didn’t—he tried everything.”
These were genuine, game-defining performances that, during a busy run that sees Liverpool play seven times in 23 days, allowed Klopp to rest key figures.
But Sturridge’s return to the bench on Saturday, and Shaqiri’s substitution at the break at Anfield, laid it clear: they remain squad players, not yet considered part of the first-choice setup.
Firmino is indispensable, and Milner is proving so this season so far—in his 45 minutes on the pitch against Southampton, he nearly doubled Shaqiri’s touches (62), and equalled his shot tally (two).
However, whether dictated by circumstance or employing tactical flexibility, both Sturridge and Shaqiri proved they are crucial options for Liverpool this season.
The manager will now be aware that Sturridge can take over from Firmino in high-pressure games and perform, and he will know he can switch to a 4-2-3-1 and unleash Shaqiri in the No. 10—among many other possible systems.
And these are only two examples of a beefed-up squad that will help fuel Liverpool’s title challenge.
Comparing the Reds’ substitutes’ bench for the Champions League final in May with their seven in reserve against PSG provides a stark reminder of this improvement:
Liverpool’s bench vs. Real Madrid: Mignolet, Klavan, Clyne, Moreno, Can, Lallana, Solanke
Liverpool’s bench vs. PSG: Mignolet, Matip, Moreno, Fabinho, Keita, Shaqiri, Firmino
With the departure of Ragnar Klavan and the emergence of Gomez as Van Dijk’s partner, Matip has effectively taken over as fourth-choice centre-back.
Simon Mignolet remains as backup goalkeeper, while Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno are excellent, interchangeable options as covering full-backs.
The real progress can be seen in the final three spots: Naby Keita is a major upgrade on Emre Can, Shaqiri a level above Adam Lallana and both Firmino and Sturridge are better than Dominic Solanke.
Most importantly, Keita, Shaqiri and Sturridge are genuine game-changers from the substitutes’ bench.
Against Southampton, Klopp had Keita, Milner and Fabinho as midfield options in reserve, which is arguably better than the majority of first-choice trios for any side in the Premier League.
Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rhian Brewster are still sidelined through injury, while Solanke and Divock Origi are both available if required.
Those two strikers were the Reds’ most subbed-on players in the past two seasons, but such has been Liverpool’s upheaval that they will be considered fortunate to play half as many games in 2018/19.
They have been overtaken by new signings like Shaqiri, and revitalised seniors like Sturridge, whose top-level quality will be as important as the likes of Salah, Mane and Firmino if the Reds are to win the title this season.