Liverpool’s trip to St James’ Park in late April had the potential to be a tricky one for Jurgen Klopp and his players.
It pitted the Reds against a Newcastle United side that had won six home matches in a row, and came just days after a difficult Champions League semi-final against Villarreal. Yet Klopp still made several changes to his team.
It worked as Liverpool claimed a 1-0 win. Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and Ibrahima Konate all started on the bench as the Reds strolled to an important victory.
Liverpool have produced more comprehensive performances and achieved more emphatic results this season, but this match illustrated just how strong they are right now.
Not so long ago, it was argued that while Liverpool’s first team was among the strongest in England and Europe, they lacked the squad depth to challenge on all fronts. This was certainly the case when comparing the depth of the Reds’ squad to that of Manchester City’s. The latter clearly had the advantage.
When Salah was forced off through injury in the 2017/18 Champions League final, his replacement was Adam Lallana, a player who had only started one Champions League game that season.
Emre Can was Klopp’s only other substitution off the bench with the German introduced with only seven minutes left, when Liverpool were already 3-1 down. Klopp didn’t have many other options.
Now, though, Liverpool boast a squad with two or three top-level players per position. Even as Klopp rested some of his key players for the away game against Newcastle United, Liverpool started with a front three of Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane. Naby Keita, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez also came into the side with very little drop-off in performance.
City, on the other hand, have had their squad tested in recent times. When suspension ruled out Joao Cancelo for the Champions League semi-final first leg against Real Madrid at the same time that Kyle Walker was sidelined through injury, John Stones started at right back. When he couldn’t last the full 90 minutes, Fernandinho – a holding midfielder – was brought into that position.
Of course, Manchester City have significant squad depth, but they haven’t constructed their squad as intelligently as Liverpool have over the last few years. Case in point: City spent a club-record fee of £100 million on Jack Grealish last summer to play in a position they were already well-stocked in.
Contrast that with the £36 million Liverpool paid to sign Konate and solve a problem area. They then added Diaz in January with the Colombian contributing four goals and three assists in just 12 Premier League appearances.
That addition helped Klopp tighten up his backline, with Liverpool conceding just 24 goals in 36 matches, compared to 42 goals in 38 matches last season. Grealish’s signing, meanwhile, hasn’t progressed Manchester City in any noticeable way. The £100 million outlay has yet to show in City’s performances and results.
Liverpool and Manchester City have both used 26 different players in the Premier League this season. However, City have six players with fewer than 100 minutes, while Liverpool have just three players yet to reach that milestone and one of them is Takumi Minamino, a full international for Japan.
Pep Guardiola might argue that this is down to the number of academy graduates he has given a chance to in the Premier League this season. It’s certainly true that Manchester City are doing more to establish a pathway between their youth ranks and the first team. Just look at Cole Palmer, James McAtee and Liam Delap.
However, Klopp has also done this, it’s just that the likes of Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and Caoimhin Kelleher have featured more regularly. Elliott and Jones have played over 1,000 Premier League minutes between them this season and that number would be even higher had the former not suffered a serious injury.
All this being said, there are still some weaknesses in Liverpool’s squad. Gomez and James Milner have both filled in at right back when this is neither player’s natural position. Fabinho’s recent injury has raised questions over who might replace the Brazilian should he be unavailable for the upcoming FA Cup and Champions League finals. Klopp doesn’t have another midfield anchor like him.
Nonetheless, Liverpool have been able to compete on all four fronts this season (Liverpool will play every match they could have over the 2021/22 campaign) due to the strength of their squad and the shrewd recruitment conducted over the last few years.
It’s not that Manchester City have spent badly, it’s just that their closest rivals have spent better. Liverpool’s past weakness has become their current strength.