Joe Gomez may seem an unlikely symbol of why Liverpool have gone from sixth and faltering to title contenders in 12 months, but few players more aptly represent the transformation.
Jurgen Klopp can point to more compelling reasons for why, in his own words, “Liverpool are kind of back”; Virgil van Dijk’s return to form, a midfield renovation, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s reinvention and Mohamed Salah’s ceaseless goalscoring capacity have had a deeper and more profound influence on this year’s race.
But an overlooked feature of Liverpool’s re-emergence is the restored reliability of Klopp’s understudies, none of whom are excelling more than Gomez.
While many of those clubs who went into this campaign with similar aspirations have dropped off because of a lack of depth – not least New Year’s Day opponents Newcastle United – Liverpool’s setbacks have not undermined a Kop title bid. It is in stark contrast to last season.
In 2022-23, Liverpool’s trusted servants of the Klopp era took the brunt of criticism for mediocrity. As they toiled, the onus was on those who had been on the fringes – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and the lesser spotted Arthur Melo among them – to step up and carry more of the burden. The bench looked as jaded as the first XI and their negligible contribution left Liverpool as exposed as Jordan Henderson and Fabinho running out of gas.
Compare that with a series of stellar contributions from the ‘back-ups’ this year. Liverpool’s substitutes are already responsible for a combined 12 goals or assists (the total was 16 across all of last season), Kostas Tsimikas was improving as Andy Robertson’s deputy before his recent injury, while Gomez is enjoying his best run of form for three years.
The quality of Gomez, Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and youngster Jarell Quansah means that while Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle cite their many absences as the root cause of their inconsistency, Liverpool’s injury list has been barely referenced beyond Klopp’s press conferences.
Diogo Jota, Andy Robertson, Thiago Alcantara and Joel Matip are the most high profile senior players to be out for a prolonged spell and Luis Diaz was missing for a while due to a family trauma in Colombia. Youngster Stefan Bajcetic – the most consistent midfielder last season who was destined for a prominent role in this one before growing pains halted progress – has played just 72 minutes. Now Tsimikas faces a lengthy rehabilitation, leaving Klopp short of cover.
That has prompted calls for Klopp to move for another defender in January, especially given Matip’s serious knee injury.
Gomez is chief among the reasons why the club is minded to resist. “He didn’t have a good year last year but he is absolutely back to his best,” Klopp agreed. “He is still a young man – it is crazy to think that. He is just for us a super important player. He can play all the positions at the back and that is very important.”
Gomez is the sole survivor from the Brendan Rodgers era and is entering his ninth year at the club looking like the defender once regarded by England coach Gareth Southgate as the perfect ball-playing centre-back.
Despite his many injury setbacks and frustrations – and being perennially linked with a transfer – he signed a new Anfield five-year contract in 2022, Klopp testifying to his low-maintenance professionalism.
“He never came to my office and asked ‘can I go?’ No, never,” said Klopp. “It was always sorted before it could get to that point. We sorted a new contract, he wanted to sign and he wanted to stay. I think he and his wife really feel he is Liverpool through and through and so that is the reason more than anything else.
“I think Joe is absolutely at home here so that is No 1 [reason]. Joe had the problem of too many injuries in his time here – I’m not sure exactly the number but he’s been here for nine plus years if I am right – and the number of games he has had with the quality he has has nothing to do with me or Brendan – he was playing quite frequently when I arrived.
“He knows that in his time with his injuries that if you go somewhere and get injured you are just a different player but here he is still our boy and we will deal with it and you have all time to get back and that is a positive as well.”
How Eddie Howe must wish he had a player of similar pedigree to call upon in the absence of his starters. Newcastle arrive at Anfield having proved they can beat the best in Europe. Their evolution will rely on rotating as frequently and successfully as Klopp without compromising consistency.
Howe can take encouragement from Liverpool’s example about how swiftly fortunes can change, with Klopp energised by how open this year’s title race is and identifying the ability to freshen his line-up as critical.
“Villa have improved massively, Tottenham are back, Arsenal have improved massively, we are kind of back, and City is City,” said Klopp in his summary of the midway point of the season.
Will he send a rallying cry to his squad as they prepare for this campaign’s second half? “Usually I don’t prepare these kinds of things,” he said. “Fresh legs and a good idea of what we have to do and then: go for it.”