Friday, October 7, 2022

Liverpool have done the unthinkable and built a deeper squad than Man City

If Jurgen Klopp is naturally unwilling to say Liverpool can win the quadruple, he was more than willing to discuss the first step, in the latest step.

That was Ibrahima Konate’s thunderous header, that set Liverpool on the way to a 3-2 win in their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. The goal might have radiated raw power, but Klopp felt it was more about sleight of hand – or head.

“Teams are so focused on Virgil,” the German said of his defensive leader, Van Dijk. That allows Konate to come in out of nowhere, and do the job.

It almost sums up the Liverpool team right now. There’s always someone ready to come in, and step up.

It raises a potentially crucial point, for both the Premier League title, and this unprecedented pursuit of all four major trophies. Do Liverpool now have the strongest depth in world football? It may feel surprising, given that is supposed to be one of City’s main qualities, but it felt one of the more meaningful lessons from Saturday’s game.

While so many of Pep Guardiola’s second string struggled, from poor Zack Steffen to an exposed Nathan Ake, so many of Liverpool’s supposed substitutes are indistinguishable in importance from their first XI.

The defense is probably the only area of ​​the team where you could definitely say they have a preferred four.

Further forward, Klopp has so many options and potential variations. Take one of the stars of Saturday, and the player who perhaps most elevated the game with his sense of self-expression. Luis Diaz was notionally supposed to be an impact player, and a medium-term successor to Sadio Mane.

He has instead become almost undroppable. You notice when he’s not on the pitch, and can’t take your eyes off him when he is.

Luis Diaz has brought a new energy to Liverpool since his January signing

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Luis Diaz has brought a new energy to Liverpool since his January signing

(AFP via Getty Images)

It speaks to the intelligence of Liverpool’s planning. It’s not just about depth now, either. They are essentially solving issues before they become problems. Klopp will almost have a new front three before anyone even realizes they need it, the uncertainty over Mohamed Salah aside. It is a further indication of that strength, though, that they can weather a sudden and drastic drop-off in scoring from the Egyptian.

Any dependency on Salah is gone. This is a true collective.

It also offers a lesson for many of their rivals. You can at least challenge limitless resources by thinking outside the usual parameters, by seeking to push boundaries yourself. That remains a lesson from Klopp’s time. This season undoubtedly represents immense achievement, even if they only end up with the League Cup.

It is a remarkable thought that, if they eliminate Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final, they will have ended up playing every possible fixture they could have at the start of the season. That further reflects that strength in depth, as well as how important it is.

It also represents a rare case where City’s planning can be criticised.

Guardiola cannot plead any kind of shortage, given that they have a £100m substitute in Jack Grealish. There was almost a negative for the playmaker in starting such a game, since it was a rare case of late where he is being trusted.

Jack Grealish started only one of City’s four games against Liverpool and Atletico this month

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Jack Grealish started only one of City’s four games against Liverpool and Atletico this month

(The FA via Getty Images)

In what has been a recurring issue in City’s season, though, there are questions over the distribution of those ample resources. That goes beyond the debate over whether they should have spent the Grealish money on a striker. The front position is now just one of a few where they look short. This game reminded that they will need another midfielder, and at least one other defensive option.

Again, Guardiola doesn’t have too much cause for complaint, though. It is a squad that is just lopsided rather than short. They have too many of the same strengths in too many of the same areas.

That might well be reflected in the silverware, mind. City could yet end up with a “lopsided” season by winning the two biggest trophies, in the Premier League and Champions League, rather than the two domestic cups.

That was perhaps another lesson of this game. It showed the influence of the fixture list and draws, as well as how Guardiola is prioritizing his squad.

While Liverpool were able to rest most of their stars in Wednesday’s Champions League second leg against Benfica rather than here, the Catalan naturally had to go full strength for their midweek game, and make changes for Wembley.

Pep Guardiola defended his team selection as Liverpool ended their treble bid

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Pep Guardiola defended his team selection as Liverpool ended their treble bid

(Getty Images)

It may well be crucial in the biggest tests, as City’s biggest players are kept that little bit fresher.

It is nevertheless an interesting inversion of what has happened in recent seasons, though. While it is now Liverpool who might have the deeper squad, it is City that have a more defined best XI.

That may still be the best XI in England and Europe, something that could yet be proven by where the major trophies end up.

It’s just this semi-final also proved that Liverpool have the squad to better manage a fight on all fronts. It’s why they can still win a quadruple, and City now look to a double.

Klopp was of course dismissive of the prospect.

“You can mention whatever you want,” he said. “It doesn’t make it more likely. A game like today actually shows how unlikely it is, incredibly difficult and intense… it is really unlikely that a team will win all the games.”

The natural inclination is to think that there will be a drop-off somewhere. “It’s all about decision making before the game.”

Guardiola, for his part, is still left with a chance at the two trophies he would choose most. The big question now is whether that will be affected by Klopp having greater choice from his squad.

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