There was so much to admire as Liverpool ensured the Premier League title race will go down to the wire.
Nine changes, no problem. There was maturity, resilience, composure and quality as Jurgen Klopp’s team moved to within a point of Manchester City with a 2-1 victory over Southampton.
“Incredible performance,” said Klopp. “It’s like having Ferraris in the garage and then you let them out. It was like, ‘Wow, these boys!’. ”
Now they need to take care of business against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Anfield on Sunday and hope for a favor from an old friend when Steven Gerrard takes Aston Villa to the Etihad. Considering that the gap was 14 points in mid-January, to take it to the final day represents a Herculean effort.
Klopp’s decision to rest key personnel after their energy-sapping FA Cup final triumph and utilize the depth of his squad paid off. It has been a theme of this marathon season. Time and time again players have emerged from the fringes and delivered the goods to keep the quadruple bid alive.
Takumi Minamino and Harvey Elliott had not played since March, but you would not have guessed given how they sparkled. No fewer than 21 Liverpool players have made 20 appearances or more this season.
Vitor Matos, the club’s elite development coach, is ideally placed to offer insight into how Klopp has managed to juggle his resources to guide Liverpool to a domestic cup double, a Champions League final with Real Madrid and set up a thrilling finale to the Premier League .
“It’s the kind of season you do not think will happen but you dream it will. It’s been unbelievable, ”Matos tells The Athletic.
“Rotation has been very important and it shows the amazing group of players that we have because everything starts on the training field – the effort and the professionalism they always put in is a massive part.
“It’s about giving the players the feeling of belonging, the feeling of trust. Nowadays squad rotation is not an option, it’s a need. But you have to be careful not to lose consistency on your performance, not to lose fluidity in the games.
“For example, if you change the profile of your midfield is the team going to be balanced? How will the relationship be between the defensive line and the midfield line? Who is going to form the outside (passing) triangle on that side? ”
Minamino top scored for Liverpool in the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup, yet he was not involved in either final. His emphatic finish against Southampton – on his first Premier League start for the club since December 2020 – cancelled out Nathan Redmond’s opener. The Japan international boasts 10 goals in all competitions this season – despite playing just 1,008 minutes.
What a finish 🚀
– The Athletic UK (@TheAthleticUK) May 17, 2022
Matos, who joined Liverpool’s backroom staff from Porto in October 2019, believes that is testament to the environment Klopp has created.
“We need to talk about the leadership of the manager that creates this mentality and the mindset of there being something that is bigger than ‘me’. Something bigger than anyone’s ego and that’s the team, ”he says.
“The manager, the mentality of the squad we have and the culture of the club – that’s a perfect triangle. What I mean by the culture is all the departments and staff inside the club trying their best to provide the players with the best place to develop and perform. They feel this mentality and positivity.
“We always train with maximum intensity and that helps them to perform at their level. We need to talk about concentration, about the players being emotionally connected to what they are doing, about fluidity and efficiency, so the whole body needs to be there all the time.
“It’s really important how you take care of players that are not involved in games, how you stimulate them, how you keep developing them, how you keep them with a collective mindset.”
With Fabinho, Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah all nursing knocks, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Thiago, Sadio Mane and Luis Diaz were all rested.
“The medical and fitness department are particularly busy with avoiding injuries and rehab,” Matos says.
“Their focus goes into the prevention work that helps the recovery process to make the players available for training and match selection. The decision of who plays and who will be rested is always made by the manager.
“You can only measure tiredness in football by using data. A player could have run 11km or 12km in a game but in all the moments when he received the ball, he never anticipated an offensive or defensive action, the timings of his decisions were different, he was never coordinated with the other players. That’s the real measurement. “
During such a hectic fixture schedule when time on the training field is limited, the importance of video analysis is magnified. That is where the work of assistant manager Peter Krawietz comes to the fore.
“It’s massive. Not only of the opponents but our team as well, ”says Matos. “Video analysis can give a player a different view of a decision in the game, a different positioning regarding the team, ball and opposition team.
“For some players having this overview of the game – making the game more conscious – helps them to perform better. Then it’s about how you give and deliver information and what you show on the video. Peter does an incredible job. ”
Joel Matip’s header from Kostas Tsimikas’ corner proved to be the winner and it was the 18th time Liverpool have scored from a set piece in the top flight this season – five more than in 2020-21.
They all count…
– The Athletic UK (@TheAthleticUK) May 17, 2022
“Peter is the person responsible for the set pieces and we have James French (the opposition analyst) as well in the background who analyzes and searches for different solutions,” says Matos.
“Our coaching team is focused on using each moment of the game, so we spend a lot of time trying to improve our set pieces.”
A key part of Matos’ role is working with the young players who are battling to establish themselves in Klopp’s squad. Assistant manager Pep Lijnders has described him as “the connector” with the under-23s set-up. Curtis Jones and Elliott started against Southampton, while the likes of Kaide Gordon and Tyler Morton have made an impact in the senior ranks.
“Their talent is huge,” says Matos. “Still a lot to come and a lot of space for improvement, but what is more important is that they get space and time to go on the journey with us.
“This mixture of senior examples and young talent is what makes our club a bit more refreshing.
“I am always available to give my views about training, match selection and analysis. Life is a team sport is what Pep Lijnders always says. It could not be more true in how we work here. Our staff live by the same rules as our team – everyone is responsible for everything.
“The relationship between Jurgen and Pep goes beyond football – there is a huge level of trust and respect. They have energy and passion from a different planet and believe so much in this team and club. ”
The only downside for Liverpool at St Mary’s was the sight of Joe Gomez leaving on crutches with his left foot in a protective boot after damaging his ankle. James Milner shone at the heart of the midfield before deputising admirably for Gomez at right-back.
Captain Jordan Henderson came off the bench to make his 55th appearance of the season – the most he has accumulated in 11 years at the club. Roberto Firmino, making his first start for a month, led the line brilliantly. There was also an eye-catching cameo from Divock Origi, which is likely to be his final outing for Liverpool.
Center-back Ibrahima Konate continues to grow in stature. Choosing between him and Matip for the Champions League final is arguably Klopp’s toughest selection decision. It feels like the young Frenchman has the edge.
Liverpool are the first team to remain unbeaten in their first 18 Premier League matches of a calendar year since Chelsea in 2008. They have won 15 and drawn three. Beat Wolves and they will finish on 92 points. That would have been enough to win the title on 24 occasions in the Premier League era. This time around it might not be sufficient, but whatever happens on Sunday the mood at Anfield will be one of celebration – especially with a trip to Paris to follow.
“It’s special to work with Jurgen and it’s special to work at Liverpool,” Matos says.
“Jurgen is an unbelievable person, a natural leader who is authentic. He makes you feel part of something big. He is someone who coaches with the idea to enjoy football, with the responsibility to deliver for the fans. He brings the players back to the essence of playing, a smile and real commitment towards the team.
“The new contract he signed recently shows trust from the ownership. It shows we can keep building and keep improving the process. As the song goes, ‘I’m so glad that Jurgen is a Red’. I love to be here. This club is special and it has special people. ”
(Top photo: Andrew Powell / Liverpool FC via Getty Images)