As Jurgen Klopp‘s campaign for player welfare continues across Premier League and Champions League, there is one, unused, elephant in the room in Kostas Tsimikas.
In the wake of Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s hamstring injury, and Andy Robertson‘s subsequent issues in the same area with Scotland during the November international break, the stage seemed set for both Neco Williams and Kostas Tsimikas.
But over a four-day, two-game spell that saw Williams emerged as a major talking point – first for poorer, then for richer – the Reds’ first signing of the summer was nowhere to be seen.
Tsimikas remained an unused substitute during both Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Brighton and the 1-0 victory over Ajax, despite the furore raging on over player welfare amid a busier-than-ever schedule.
After the controversial stalemate at the AMEX, Klopp claimed that if he were permitted to make five changes in the Premier League he would have withdrawn Robertson and introduced Tsimikas.
“If you can do five subs in a game like this, it’s not for tactical reasons,” he said, having seen James Milner, Neal Maupay and Adam Lallana all depart with muscle injuries.
“For example, today with five subs I take off Robbo 100 percent and bring Kostas Tsimikas on to save Robbo – not to make our game better or whatever, just to save him.
“That’s the situation, so it’s not about changing tactics or the system or to bring five players on at one time. It’s not like this. It’s just to save the players.”
But three days later, Robertson again started as Klopp made five changes to his starting lineup for the visit of Ajax.
It was an expected start for the Scot, given the fact Liverpool needed at least a draw to secure progress to the last 16 with one game to play, and with the Eredivisie champions arguably the toughest opponent in Group D.
However, the notion of “saving the players” appeared to have been forgotten somewhat when in the first half Robertson went down twice following an awkward collision early on, the second time requiring strapping around his left foot.
Unlike in the Premier League, the Champions League allows managers to make five subs in the interest of player welfare, with UEFA announcing that it was “in order to alleviate the burden on players caused by the condensed international match calendars 2020/21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But Liverpool ended their group-winning tie with Klopp have only made two changes during the game – the first coming as Roberto Firmino replaced Diogo Jota in the 68th minute, and the second as Mo Salah made way for Rhys Williams in the 90th.
The manager’s options were certainly slim, but those that went unused at Anfield included Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi, Leighton Clarkson, Jake Cain and, of course, Tsimikas.
In his pre-match press conference, Robertson himself expressed his belief that players “could get a little bit more help” from officials with the introduction of the five sub rule in the Premier League, and the 26-year-old is well-placed to make this point.
No Liverpool player has clocked more minutes than Robertson (1,354) so far this season, with Gini Wijnaldum (1,281) just behind him, and despite a clear issue against Ajax, he stayed to play on for the full 90.
There are obvious, mitigating factors in Klopp’s decision not to make his full complement of changes – the inexperience elsewhere in his side, and the desire to win and ensure the following week’s clash with Midtjylland is a dead-rubber – but the fact Liverpool only needed a draw suggests less caution was required.
On Tsimikas’ arrival back in August, Klopp proclaimed that the Greek is “a proper option” that would allow Robertson much-needed rest, as expecting him and Alexander-Arnold to play “50-something games” every season “would limit their careers.”
There have been speedbumps in Tsimikas’ progress in his first months at Liverpool, of course – he has struggled with both injury and COVID-19 – and the majority of signings are given an extensive adaptation period before being relied upon.
But on two clear occasions when Klopp needed his No. 21, he opted against calling him into action, and after the Ajax game the manager revealed that the club faced a wait to see if Robertson would be fit for Sunday’s visit of Wolves.
That may force Tsimikas into a first Premier League start, but given the circumstances, he would be forgiven for not heading into his next outing with full confidence.
Perhaps the 24-year-old is simply yet to reach the standards required, whether that be in training or in his rare outings for Liverpool so far.
Klopp was, of course, seen to be roaring at Tsimikas throughout his first meaningful start of the season – the 2-0 loss to Atalanta in the Champions League – and he was duly substituted on the hour as Robertson was thrown in once again.
But in such a uniquely difficult period, a player with prior experience of top-level football with Olympiakos should at least be trusted to perform in certain games to relieve a player in clear need of rest.
He is not the only one, of course, and two names aforementioned also present a similar scenario.
While Wijnaldum was hugely important throughout the full 90 minutes against Ajax, and arguably grew into the game as Liverpool looked to hold onto their 1-0 lead, the sight of Minamino on the bench was a jarring one.
Tuesday night was Wijnaldum’s sixth game in just 17 days, totalling 485 minutes for club and country over that spell, and after the victory, he told Dutch broadcasters that he is “blessed to stay fit during this period.”
Like Tsimikas, it seems as though Klopp is yet to have full faith in Minamino, and a failed experiment with the Japanese in the No. 8 role away to Brighton will not have improved matters in this respect.
But at some stage, with two key players edging increasingly closer to the red zone – regardless of their impeccable fitness records – the manager will need to bite the bullet and rotate.
It is just a surprise it has not already come for Tsimikas.