Jurgen Klopp‘s substitutions were often questioned last season, but has his increased firepower off the bench helped the Reds turn a corner? Jake Clay takes a look…
There was no excuse for how bad Liverpool were during the 2022/2023 season. They were a shadow of themselves from the side that won the Champions League, the Premier League and a near undisputed quadruple.
Their quality was missed as much as their availability from the bench, or when rotating the side to provide fresh legs and options with the team’s shape.
There were times last season when Liverpool would be starting a front three of Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez and Roberto Firmino, and if this attacking line wasn’t working, then there were no solutions off the bench to change the game.
It left Liverpool looking one-dimensional, making it easier for the opposition to set up and adapt to how they were going to play.
This season, the Reds are only eighth in the table of most used subs by Premier League managers, but Klopp has certainly been effective with his.
The substitutes Liverpool have brought on this season have scored nine goals between them already.
It has particularly been the case when chasing the game. The tactical changes Klopp has made has bamboozled opponents.
Nunez’s last say on Tyneside
The most obvious example of this came at Newcastle, when Nunez stole the headlines with his match-winning cameo despite the Reds being down to 10 men.
Both Jota and Harvey Elliott came on around the hour mark and proved effective in getting Liverpool up the pitch while a man light.
Elliott’s energy in midfield allowed the Reds to set up in a 4-4-1 shape, and when Jota picked up the ball on the left wing, he could drive up to support Salah, giving Newcastle a decision of whether to push for 2-0 or control the game at 1-0.
Then, with the game still poised at 1-0, the big man came on.
His impact off the bench shouldn’t be a surprise as he has contributed four goals and two assists since the start of last season, second only to Callum Wilson in the Premier League within the same timeframe.
This is where Liverpool can mix up their personnel, as they have the technical brilliance of Cody Gakpo but can switch it up with the robustness of Nunez.
The rest is history as Nunez’s last-minute winner will be hard to top as the moment of the season.
Classic 4-4-2 saves the day
The thought of 12.30pm Saturday kick-offs, international breaks and Liverpool FC all in the same sentence always sends a shiver down the spine.
The game against Wolves showed the signs of Klopp’s side last season: passive, weak and just second best.
Last season, that side would have crumbled, losing the game 2-0 without laying a glove on their opposition.
Having the benefit of bringing on an extra forward to make it a 4-4-2 forces the opposition back because of the attacking players buzzing around them.
This includes Elliott, who has been excellent with every substitute appearance and has added so much energy when going forward.
In nine substitute appearances this season, Elliott has helped turn losing positions or stalemate scorelines into wins and last-minute points.
Wolves went from being able to get in behind Liverpool’s 4-3-3 formation to not being able to lay a glove on their two-man midfield due to the firepower Klopp can bring off the bench.
Diaz immediately pulled to the left wing and was electric in sustaining Liverpool’s pressure, and Nunez’s introduction created wave after wave of attacks.
Elliott’s deflected effort deserved to be his goal after another bright impact from the bench.
These were the games that cost Liverpool last season, including the awful 3-0 defeat at the same stadium back in January.
More of these tests were to come before this current international break.
A run of games when the bench saved Liverpool
Yet this was the situation Liverpool faced in these games as they found themselves pressed against a wall before finding a way through it.
In the Merseyside derby, both Nunez and Elliott injected a sense of energy and purpose that helped the Reds find two goals in the last 20 minutes of the game thanks to a Salah double.
Even when Liverpool’s in-form forwards were firing off target, there was Diaz after the most horrifying week one could ever suffer.
The Colombian came onto the pitch with a fire that rescued his team a point in the dying seconds.
Make no mistake games against weaker opposition were Liverpool’s Achilles heel last season. They only managed to pick up 36 points from 60 against the bottom 10 teams in the 2022/23 campaign, compared to the 58 they amassed in the previous season to demonstrate the drop-off.
Klopp didn’t have those game-changing options to turn games around and snatch points from the jaws of defeat.
This season though, from the seven games so far against the bottom 10, Liverpool have collected 17 points from a possible 21.
Considering one of those games was dropped points away at Chelsea, this shows a staggering difference in using the squad against these kinds of teams.
Timing is key
Klopp has, at times, been criticised for his use of substitues during his Liverpool career.
Sometimes it has been for not being proactive during a game Liverpool are clearly struggling in, other times it’s been a case of taking the wrong player off at the wrong time.
For instance, Salah was taken off against Chelsea in the middle of a barren run at Anfield when the Reds couldn’t buy a goal and lost six home games on the bounce within the 2020/21 pandemic season.
The decision seemed ludicrous at the time and was an example of the manager making the wrong tactical choice.
This campaign has been a different story. Any time Klopp has faced adversity, he has reacted to it swiftly.
Again, the Newcastle victory comes to mind because putting Elliott and Jota on that early into the second half was a risk, but it set the tone for Liverpool to throw men forward, which paid off later in the game.
Similarly, in the Wolves game, the Reds were awful until Klopp made the decision to throw on Diaz and change the formation, with Elliott and Nunez being subbed on before the hour mark.
Klopp made more changes from the bench between 45 and 60 minutes in these two games than the rest of the Premier League matches combined.
This shows that the manager has reacted to matches where Liverpool have struggled by bringing on players that will bring energy and pace early in the second half to give the Reds a foothold in the game.
Liverpool have made just under half of their league changes all season between 75 and 90+ minutes to rest legs, but some of them – like Nunez at St James’ Park and Diaz at Luton – have made an immediate impact.
Last season Klopp’s substitutions were questionable, but now with an embarrassment of riches, Liverpool’s manager has an armoury that produces results.
* This is a guest article for This Is Anfield by Jake Clay. Follow Andy on Twitter, @Jakeclay98.