From Kiev to Madrid, what a difference a season can make. Any UEFA Champions League victory is a success to savour, but with the disappointment of defeat against Real Madrid still stinging in Liverpool’s collective mouth, the accomplishment of defeating Tottenham understandably makes this success even sweeter.
But it is also worth looking back to last season’s final disappointment, because as the old adage says – “you learn more in defeat than in victory” – and it may well be that the lessons learned in that game primed Liverpool for victory this season.
The contribution made by Liverpool’s fringe players in the Champions League this season was a vital factor in their winning of a sixth European Cup.
Liverpool’s summer signings allowed Klopp to go into big European games with the ability to call on quality players off the bench, unlike the season previous.
The general consensus before the 2017/18 Champions League final in Kiev, was that, while Liverpool had a good first eleven, but that they struggled for real quality beyond that.
Real Madrid on the other hand, could call on world class players such as Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio if needed. The way the game played out only highlighted the weakness of the Liverpool squad as a whole even more.
Mohammed Salah’s injury after thirty minutes forced Klopp into bringing on Adam Lallana, as the only forward on bench was the inexperienced Dominic Solanke.
Adam Lallana was the only other real attacking option he had at his disposal.
‘Los Blancos’ were able to call on the services of Gareth Bale just around the hour mark, while the game was tied at a goal a piece. Within three minutes the Welshman had found the back of the net in spectacular fashion, before adding a second with just under ten minutes to play.
Liverpool only made one other substitution during the game, that was to bring on the combative Emre Can, a good midfielder on his day, but not the attacking threat Liverpool desperately needed to try and get back into the game.
The young forward Dominic Solanke was left on the sideline as Klopp didn’t make a third substitution. Was it a subtle message to the owners about what he thought about the lack of depth his squad had or did he simply think the young Englishman wasn’t good enough to make the kind of impact he desired?
Either way it was a damning indictment on the overall depth of their squad.
Fast forward nearly a year to this season’s Champions League final and Liverpool are back again, and this time they are more well equipped than the previous year when it comes to squad depth.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the contributions of their squad players, they might not have reached the final at all. Throughout the campaign, the so-called ‘fringe players’ have popped up with important goals and assists, as far back as the opening game.
Daniel Sturridge, who had been sent out on loan last season and didn’t look to be part of Klopp’s plans for the future, had been brought back into the fold and started their opening game against Paris Saint-Germain.
He scored the opening goal as Liverpool went on to win three goals to two. He would go on to feature in the knockout rounds as well.
Xherdan Shaqiri had been bought in the summer to provide cover for Mohammad Salah and bolster Liverpool’s attacking options.
He didn’t feature as much throughout the season as everyone expected, but started the return leg of the semi-final against Barcelona, providing an assist in what was one of the competitions most glorious comebacks.
Which brings us to one of Liverpool’s most important players of the season, Divock Origi. Similar to Sturridge, he had been sent out on loan the season before, but whereas the Englishman was deemed surplus to requirements, the Belgian’s move was to intended to gain some much needed experience and playing time.
Like Sturridge and Shaqiri he did not feature all that much over the course of the season, but when he was called upon, he delivered nearly every time.
If you had told Liverpool fan’s that the Belgian international was going to score the winner in the Merseyside derby, two goals in a Champions League semi-final, and the goal that would secure them their sixth European Cup, you may have forgiven them for asking if you were crazy.
The signing of quality players such as Naby Kieta and Fabinho in midfield also made a huge difference to the overall quality of the squad, as Klopp now had plenty of options when it came to picking three midfielders to start each game.
It’s also a testament to his man management skills that he managed to keep them all relatively happy.
He was able to slowly introduce Fabinho into the setup over the course of a few months, so when he was included in the first eleven, he didn’t look mile off the pace as some players can in their first season – such as Fred at Manchester United.
By contrast, in last season’s final in Kiev Liverpool’s midfield looked spent after an hour on the clock against Madrid last season, the result of a long season with very little rotation due to the lack of options.
For Liverpool to be able to call on the experience of James Milner with half an hour to play in this year’s final again goes to show the importance of a strong bench, and how they got it right when it came to strengthening key areas in the summer transfer window.
It’s now nearly essential to have players of equal ability competing for numerous positions all over the pitch. Manchester City were able to shell out huge money on Riyad Mahrez last year.
He has played under thirty games for them in all competitions since joining, but crucially got a goal and an assist against Brighton on the last day of the season to send City on their way to retaining the Premier League trophy.
It’s this type of squad investment that Liverpool’s owners may have match next season if they are to finally win the trophy that their fans desire most.