There have been days in the Anfield reign of Jurgen Klopp when injuries have piled up, or when one of his few irreplaceable players has been lost to the team, but as they prepare for Old Trafford on Sunday never have their number been diminished so rapidly and so early in a season.
After the draw with Crystal Palace on Monday night, Klopp wondered aloud whether there might have been an injury curse on the team. “I have experienced a lot of weeks [when injuries have happened] but that was like we have a witch in the building,” he said. “Every day somebody else pulled out for the craziest of reasons”.
As for the first of those, Joel Matip, who sustained a groin injury before the weekend, there was some concern. Klopp thought that the centre-half might be “two weeks [out] … more I think”. Joe Gomez was held back as a substitute on Monday night as a precaution with some qualms over his fitness. “A little issue”, said Klopp, that had prevented Gomez training every day in the build-up. Roberto Firmino “couldn’t make it” after an unspecified problem in training.
On the morning of Monday’s game, Klopp had been told that there was a problem with Jordan Henderson too: “a little concern if he plays too long”. “That’s the situation,” Klopp reflected, “and it’s not too cool.”
As for the rest, Ibrahima Konate went down with a knee problem in a pre-season game against Strasbourg. Diogo Jota tore a hamstring in a training run. Thiago Alcantara; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; new Scottish full-back Calvin Ramsey and reserve goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher were all previously injured before the season began. Already this season over the first three games, including the Community Shield, the Liverpool squad have collectively lost 26 matchdays through injury. By comparison Manchester City have three current first team injuries and a total of four matchdays lost.
Liverpool and Klopp have been adamant this summer: no more signings. A previous injury crisis of epic proportions in the second half of the 2020-2021 season forced them into a change of strategy but for now the line is holding for this campaign and they will work with those they have, and work on those players they currently do not.
The Klopp project has run in no small part on his teams’ capacity to play at a level that many opponents just struggle to match. A high press, with triggers to surround and isolate opposition, and a high defensive line to squeeze the game and cope with the risks in behind. With that comes a requirement for players to match the energy of any opponent, match after match. The team trains as it plays and every player’s fitness - and every player’s limits - have to be managed meticulously.
When it came to selecting the single word that would encapsulate the ethos of the Klopp years, his Dutch assistant Pep Lijnders chose “intensity” as the title of his recent book that explained the strategy behind the scenes.
It means that the medical, fitness and conditioning departments of the club have to be just as competitive as any other. If playing for Klopp is exhausting one can only surmise that working to prepare the likes of Mohamed Salah and Luis Diaz must be just as demanding. There has been major change at the club since Klopp’s arrival in October 2015 and, as things stand, the club are currently looking for another head of medical.
The previous incumbent Dr Jim Moxon was the third to serve under Klopp, following Dr Zaf Iqbal and Dr Andy Massey. It has been the same with the head physios: Chris Morgan, Andy Renshaw and Philipp Jacobsen have all departed. Lee Nobes is the current head of physiotherapy, joining from Manchester City in 2018. He brought Morgan back as first team physio. All of those who have left did so on good terms and for different reasons, and each were considered key to what was achieved in their time at the club.
The job of the medical staff is unquestionably one of the highest profile in the game. Keeping Liverpool’s group of elite footballers capable of running opponents into the ground and repairing them quickly when they falter is a seven-day-a-week endeavour.
Klopp has also recruited from his own contacts and some of those staff are among his closest aides. They include the fitness and conditioning coach Andreas Kornmayer and Andreas Schlumberger, head of recovery and performance, whose specialism is in biomechanics. Schlumberger had worked with Klopp at Borussia Dortmund. Kornmayer had worked against him, for Bayern Munich, under Louis van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola.
The club has also promoted its own staff from within, including the fitness coach Conall Murtagh, a former professional footballer who previously worked at the academy. Keeping the players in a perpetual state of peak fitness is a huge operation, and the bespoke conditioning and rehabilitation schedules for each individual are extensive. It is labour intensive with every player expecting one-on-one attention to his needs.
The club have been here before in recent years. They were top of the Premier League at Christmas 2020 and then the challenge faltered as injuries claimed key players after Christmas of that title defence season. The season is primarily remembered for the injury to Virgil Van Dijk against Everton in October but there were also serious injuries to Henderson, Matip and Gomez among others, including another crisis of personnel at centre-back. It pushed Liverpool back into the transfer market for a centre-half when no such move had previously been planned.
The second half of that season needed a strong finale which Liverpool achieved to qualify for the Champions League. Even so, for a league game near the end of it, against Southampton in May last year, Klopp was without 10 first team players. Last season saw fewer problems and that was reflected in another exceptional performance across all competitions. But managing a squad at this level evidently comes with its risks, and so early in the season, the manager is feeling the consequences.