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Jurgen Klopp's gamble backfired in Madrid - and not for the first time

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Being the manager of a football club is a difficult job. You have to make decisions which pundits and supporters may find baffling but which you believe are in the best interests of your team.

Jurgen Klopp is all too aware of this. He touched on this issue when questioned about Trent Alexander-Arnold’s recent exclusion from the England squad.



“I am a manager myself. We always make decisions that other people probably do not understand. I respect Gareth (Southgate) makes his own decisions, of course, but I didn’t understand it,” he said.



There’s no question that Klopp is respected by Liverpool’s fans, and he certainly has a managerial CV which dwarves that of the England manager, but his decision to start Naby Keita in the Reds’ Champions League quarter-final first leg with Real Madrid left many scratching their heads.



It isn’t a decision without a precedent of sorts. Keita started the semi-final match at Camp Nou in 2019, though he only lasted 24 minutes before being withdrawn due to injury.

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However, he had been playing relatively regularly at that point, starting five of the previous six matches and scoring three times in those games. The tussle in Madrid was only the second start the Guinean has made since Christmas.

And as with the Barcelona match two years ago, Keita was substituted in the first half – but this time it was due to a tactical choice by Klopp.

The Liverpool manager explained his reasoning for his team selection prior to the match. "Real kind of man-mark, so you need dribblers who can turn and make the next situation a big advantage. That is Naby's job tonight,” he said.

Yet it didn’t work. Per FBRef, Keita carried the ball just 47 yards towards the Madrid goal, which was the same total Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri mustered between them in their combined 20 minutes on the pitch.

In fairness to Klopp, Keita has proven to be an excellent dribbler, with Sadio Mane the only Liverpool player who has completed more per 90 minutes in all competitions this season.

The selection of the Reds’ number eight in Madrid was a gamble which didn’t pay off though, and unfortunately for Klopp that has been something of a theme in 2020/21.

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Diogo Jota started a dead rubber match with Midtjylland in December. It enabled the Liverpool manager to give Firmino and Mane a breather for the majority of the match, but the Portuguese forward sustained a serious injury and subsequently missed three months of the campaign.

It’s understandable that Klopp wished to protect his established stars, but Jota had outscored the rested duo on his own at that point in the season.

It was also surprising that Divock Origi was withdrawn before Jota in Denmark, as he was surely far less likely to be frequently involved in the future matches. Had the former Wolves man been taken off first, he might have remained healthy.

The club as a whole also bet on the probability that having three senior centre-backs would be enough for this season. It was a risk which backfired when they all suffered major injuries.

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And even the solution to that problem may have been handled better. The Reds’ form with Fabinho back in midfield rather than covering in defence – at least prior to the Madrid loss – suggested the season may have gone more positively had he stayed there all along.

Management is a career of gambles. Well informed, educated guess-style gambles, but rolls of the dice nonetheless.

And it’s somewhat futile for fans to disagree with the choices their manager makes, as he is privy to far more information than they ever will be.

But when Klopp reflects back on 2020/21 at the end of a hugely challenging campaign, it would be natural for him to wonder if some of the decisions he made could’ve taken a different path, and what the impact of his choices has been.

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