Both Leicester City and Liverpool have suffered a genuinely absurd number of injuries to key players over the last two and a half years. Both have dealt admirably with the adversity. No matter how disappointing it is to have dropped out of the top four on the last day of the season two years on the trot, please remember that those 5th place finishes represent a massive achievement for this club.
However, while the results have both been (mostly) positive, the tactical adjustments are wildly divergent. Let’s take a quick look at how Jürgen Klopp and Brendan Rodgers have dealt with the hands they’ve been...um...dealt.
The Klopp Way:
When Virgil van Dijk was mauled by a terrible tackle and lost for the year (oops, wrong link, try this one instead) and then the rest of the defenders started falling as well, Klopp’s first reaction was to move midfielders Jordan Henderson and Fabinho into central defense. While their individual performances were laudable, the midfield fell apart without their presence. The manager tried some different shapes to minimize the issue, using a 4-2-3-1 on to try to shore up the midfield. They even went 4-4-2 a couple of times.
It wasn’t really working. With ten games to play, the Reds were 6th on the table and 10 points out of the Champions League reckoning. They’d just lost to Fulham, but Klopp had also just made the tactical change that would turn their season around.* The pairing in central defense featured two young, untested, players who were, by trade, central defenders: Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips. Those two, along with Ozan Kabak, would be the central defenders for almost every match in their undefeated run-in.
This would become The Liverpool Way: Stick with the formation, stick with the tactics, and trust that players who were in the U23s playing the same system would at the very least know what they were supposed to do and who was supposed to be where. Some may see that as tactical inflexibility, but by playing the same 4-3-3 system at all levels, this means that you have the luxury of leaving players in their preferred role and minimizes the amount of time you have players on the pitch with their arms up wondering where they should move the ball.
In the end, Klopp determined that trying to manage his way around injuries wasn’t working and decided to trust “the system.” This year, in spite of some injuries in the squad, Klopp has deployed his charges in his 4-3-3 in every league match. This is one of the main reasons that Liverpool can insert several youth players into the lineup and still look like Liverpool.
* Yes, I know they were 6th on the table but a 6th-place finish would constitute a disaster for them.
The Rodgers Way:
If you read the Liverpool stuff, just reverse and that is how Rodgers copes with injuries in the Leicester City squad. I’m not exaggerating, either. The Foxes’ gaffer makes every effort to get his eleven best (or most in-form) players in the lineup every week. Liverpool have played a 4-3-3 every match? Leicester have started in 5 different shapes in their 18 matches thus far:
4-2-3-1: 7 matches
4-3-3: 3 matches
3-4-1-2: 3 matches
4-4-2: 2 matches
3-4-3: 1 match
(formations from WhoScored.com, which I find more accurate than other sources for this sort of thing)
In addition to adjusting the tactics based on who is available, Rodgers also has to shoehorn some players into awkward roles to get his best players on the pitch together. James Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho have played on the wings, Wilfred Ndidi often starts in central defense, Ademola Lookman plays on the right-wing when he’s really a 10 or a left-winger. It looks as though the Timothy-Castagne-at-left-back days are over, but I’d never say never. And, of course, Marc Albrighton plays wherever he has to.
Shockingly, these swings in position and tactics can lead to awkwardness on the pitch. Even if the lineup and the shape are optimized based on player availability, that doesn’t mean that the players are comfortable playing in these roles. The formation at the end of the Liverpool game on Wednesday was perhaps the best example of this. Trying to cling to a slim lead against a healthier and more-experienced Liverpool side and suffering three injuries during the match, Rodgers went to five at the back. The five he went with were:
RB: Marc Albrighton (right-winger by trade, our 5th choice right-back)
CB: Wilfred Ndidi (central midfielder)
CB: Jannik Vestergaard (our 5th choice senior centre-back)
CB: Ryan Bertrand (a left-back)
LB: Luke Thomas (a left-back)
So, two of the five at the back were playing their natural position, and one of them was an emergency-only guy. In case you were wondering how 5’9” Minamino was able to latch on to a lofted cross, this goes a long way towards explaining it.
My point, which I will at long last get to, is that Brendan Rodgers most definitely does try to manage his way out of adversity. When injuries strike, he will adjust the tactics to suit the best players at his disposal, even if that means playing them in unfamiliar roles.
My point here is not to bash Brendan Rodgers but rather to demonstrate the different reactions to somewhat similar circumstances. I say “somewhat” because, frankly, Leicester have been hit harder by injuries and possess less depth to absorb them. It’s not a perfectly apples-to-apples comparison. It is, I hope, interesting. What do you think is the best way to cope with injuries to key players?
What is the best way for a manager to deal with injuries to key players?
This poll is closed
Stick with the system and train your youth players to slot into it.
Adjust your tactics and roles to keep your best players on the pitch.
Something else (please comment below).
This whole thing was dumb. Why did you waste my time?