Running a football club requires detailed planning, both short-term and long-term. Liverpool have proven countless times in the last few years that they are masters of this process, particularly when it comes to the transfer market.
They set out their stall with the financial packages for incoming and outgoing players, and they stick to them. The club has the ‘known knowns’ covered, as Donald Rumsfeld might have said.
But there are things that can not be fully prepared for, and injuries are chief among them. Liverpool had a better record in 2021/22 than they did in the preceding season – it would have struggled to be much worse – though the absences still came at a heavy cost.
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Tracking the time lost to injuries is not easy, particularly at a club with a squad of deep quality like the one which the Reds possess. Players returning from a fitness issue may be available for selection but do not make the matchday squad, purely because the manager has a wealth of options and does not require their services for that particular fixture.
However, one way to monitor injury problems is to count the number of times players missed at least one game thanks to a fitness issue, and this is how Premier Injuries record their data (with a metric they refer to as ‘time-loss injuries’ ). Their statistics highlight how Liverpool suffered far fewer knocks this season than they had when defending their league title.
Having had to contend with 47 separate injuries in 2020/21, the Reds did well to reduce their total to 33 in their latest, remarkable campaign. Instead of amassing the most absences, they had fewer than Leicester (35), Chelsea (37), Manchester United (38), Leeds (41) and Everton (42). Considering they had to negotiate 63 fixtures – which was 19 more than their Merseyside rivals and 21 more than Jesse Marsch and Marcelo Bielsa’s side – that was no mean feat.
Some of it will have been down to luck. You can not legislate for Jordan Pickford launching a knee-high challenge on Virgil van Dijk, for instance, as occurred in the derby early in 2020/21. A club can manage the playing time of their squad to the best of their ability and some dumb luck might tear their injury prevention plans asunder.
It’s vital to do whatever is possible though. Liverpool have done this by employing Zone7, an American company that uses artificial intelligence to aid in predicting injuries. The evidence suggests their work has proven effective for the Reds, but player unavailability still came at a significant cost to the club this season.
Further data from Premier Injuries shows that Liverpool had the fourth highest salary expenditure on injured players in 2021/22, at a figure of around £ 12m – a scary figure for a club run on efficient spending. It’s not clear if they also counted illness or Covid-19 protocol absences – the Reds had 22 such issues across 15 different players – so the true figure may have been even higher. It is the cost of doing business in top-level sport but it carries a heavy toll.
Almost half of Liverpool’s reported total went on two players: Thiago Alcântara and Roberto Firmino. They were unavailable on four and five separate occasions respectively, and only Harvey Elliott missed more matches than they did. This shows the risk of having the fourth oldest team in the division, with veterans’ bodies having likely accumulated more than their share of wear and tear. Such players are inevitably very well paid too though, and any injuries suffered by the top clubs will carry heavier financial penalties than those at the smaller teams.
It is an issue Fenway Sports Group know all too well. Per Spotrac, their Boston Red Sox side has already spent over $ 26m on injured stars, the second most in Major League Baseball, in 2022, and the season is not yet halfway through.
Injuries will never be eradicated entirely. Professional sportspeople push their bodies to limits mere mortals can not comprehend. It’s plausible that Liverpool could play close to 60 matches again next season, in a compressed timeframe and with a World Cup in the middle of the season.
Their chances of success will be improved if they can lessen the £ 12m wage drain and keep their best-paid men on the pitch as often as possible. How Jürgen Klopp and his team do that remains to be seen, though they did improve drastically last season after employing new techniques and another similar innovation in the future could close the gap further.