Liverpool fans are often trolled by competitor fans about always thinking at the start of every season that this will be their season. The Reds’ optimism has almost been successful on two occasions in the last four seasons. But it has not materialised in a league title or indeed any silverware in the last few seasons, as at some point in the campaign a slip-up (pun intended) occurred that threw them off the track. Hence the derision from the other fans.
In 2013-14, even after the famous Gerrard slip, the Reds had a small chance of winning the title but they bottled it completely at Selhurst Park when they allowed Crystal Palace to come back from a 0-3 score line to draw level. In 2015-16, Jurgen Klopp’s first season, their Europa League campaign seemed to be in full flow and it was till the first half of the final in Basel. Then Alberto Moreno decided to doze off and Sevilla won in the second half on a canter.
The current season started very brightly for the Reds. Until December, they were looking like a title challenge was on. But then Liverpool began dropping points too frequently for them to maintain that challenge. They won enough to keep the top four in sights but the title challenge had fizzled out even before January had ended. This time it was not an individual slip but a coincidence of having two of their best players unavailable throughout January. That and a collectively shaky confidence, especially when facing the sides from the lower half of the table.
Now, despite winning handsomely against West Ham at the London Stadium in their penultimate match, the Reds fans are still nervous about whether their side can get to top four or not. This is because their last match is against the relegated Boro at home and Anfield has not been anywhere near a fortress in the second half of this season. It has been a cauldron of nervousness. Adding more woe to their shaky confidence is Jurgen Klopp’s apparent unwillingness to make quick changes when his side is unable to break the opponent’s stubborn defences or when the opposition is pounding on the Reds’ fragile defence. Klopp seems to assume, and he has been proven right on more occasions than not, that his choice of starting lineup is the best and that if he keeps faith in them for a bit longer, they will not disappoint. But those few times when he was wrong in keeping his starters on for longer are the times that have frustrated the Reds fans the most.
Latest example was last weekend’s game against Southampton at Anfield. The Saints were hell bent on not conceding a goal and Klopp’s starting XI was proving inept in unlocking their defence. Liverpool needed a change and introduction of Sturridge in the 69th minute did not afford them the time to change the course of the match. We will take a look at Klopp’s apparently late substitutions and see if they have any correlations with the points that Reds have dropped this season.
Optimum Times for Substitution
To say that Klopp or any other manager is late in substituting, we need to understand which are the best times for a manager to make the changes. In the book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong, the author Chris Anderson cites a study conducted by Bret Myers at Villanova University. The study’s findings are:
“… if a manager’s team is losing, for maximum effect he should make his first substitute before the fifty-eighth minute, his second before the seventy-third, and his third before the seventy-ninth. If he is not losing, it does not matter when he makes his substitutions.”
This means that historically if a team needs to score goals in the second half to improve its result and if that team’s manager rings in the first change before 58th minute, 2nd before the 73rd minute and 3rd before the 79th minute then there is a good chance of improvement in the score line. The study says that 40% of the time that a manager followed this rule, there was an improvement in the score. But slower substitutions led to an improvement in the score only 22 percent of the time.
The book also cites Jurgen Klopp, then at Borussia Dortmund, as a reluctant substituter. The data for his current season with Liverpool seems to agree.
Klopp’s Generally Late Substitutions
In 37 matches this season, Klopp has followed the <58<73<79 substitution wisdom only once. It was during the game at Stoke City in the 32nd game week. Liverpool were trailing by a goal at half time. Klopp introduced Firmino and Coutinho after the break and also made his third substitution (Sturridge on for Origi). The final result was a win to Liverpool with both Firmino and Coutinho scoring in the 72nd and 73rd minutes. While it is tempting to say that this proves that Myers’ findings are gospel, but just one data point from one team is not enough to do so. But, we can say that Klopp was forced to follow the wisdom once and Liverpool turned around the game. He was forced to follow because he had baffled everyone by starting a very young attack and had to correct that at half time.
In all the other 36 matches, he has not followed the substitution best practice in its entirety. In 9 games, he made his first change before the 58th minute but in three of them, he was forced to make the changes early due to injuries in the first half. In six of these nine games, Liverpool’s goal difference (goals scored – goals conceded) improved i.e. the score improved between the first substitution to the final whistle.
Similarly, he has made only seven 2nd substitutions on time (before 73rd minute) and only four 3rd substitutions on time (before 79th minute). And similar to Myers’ study, these on time changes have resulted in a score improvement 40-60% of the time, although we are looking at all Liverpool matches, not just the ones they were losing at the time of the first substitution.
Time-wise, on an average Klopp made his first substitution in the 65th minute, 2nd substitution in the 81st minute and the 3rd one in the 87th minute, which indeed shows that he is quite reluctant to change the personnel and is not proactive in making changes. More often than not, this tendency of his has not hurt Liverpool but on a few telling occasions it has.
Late Subs Even in Losing or Must Win Games
There were 17 matches this season, when Liverpool were trailing or level with the opponent when the first substitution was made. Of these 17, in six the first sub was made before the 58th minute and the Reds turned around two matches (Swansea at Liberty and aforementioned Stoke match), when they were trailing by a goal and they ended up winning by one. On the other hand, in the rest of 11 matches, where they were trailing or level at the time of the first sub, Klopp delayed the first sub beyond the 58 minute mark. Liverpool managed a score improvement in only two of these games and won only one of them (Merseyside derby in December).
Some games clearly demanded proactive changes from the manager but they were not forthcoming and Liverpool dropped points in each of them. Case in point is the Hull game away in February, where subs were delayed (67, 83, 83 minutes) and Liverpool ended up losing by a higher margin. In the game against Palace at home as well, the subs were introduced pretty late (79, 82, and 84 minutes), not allowing the substitutes the time to make an impact. Southampton at home last weekend is one more example. It was a must-win game, and although the Reds were not trailing at the time of the first sub, more aggressive changes might have moved the bus parked by Saints. Klopp introduced Sturridge in the 69th minute, which was just too late. If Reds had turned around these games, they might have had a few more points by now and might be competing for 2nd instead of hanging on to the 4th position.
Jurgen Klopp is a great manager and more often than not, the starting XI he puts out is able enough to win the game. But there are times when the opponents have come prepared to deal with the starting XI and they need a new challenge for Liverpool to make inroads. I feel and the data shows that Klopp is not eager to react to such situations. He keeps faith in his starting XI for far too long and that does not allow the subs to have any meaningful impact on the game.
Along with some good strikers and left backs, he should also be looking at the timing of his subs this summer. If he becomes more proactive in ringing in the changes, who knows, the next year might indeed be Liverpool’s year.