What Jurgen Klopp did at Benfica with half an hour remaining blows away Liverpool’s future

Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Benfica in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final was a strange game. You often hear the phrase ‘a game in two halves’ when each team dominates for 45 minutes, but it was more like ‘a game in three sections’.

In the first half, it was pretty much all Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side led in shots 11-4, scored twice and managed to squander four clean chances. It’s not hyperbole to say that the tie could have been over before the half-time oranges were dealt.

It was inevitable that the home team would respond and they did. During the first quarter of the second half, the only shots came from Benfica players, and Darwin Nunez scored when Ibrahima Konate failed to make a routine clearance.

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With his side on the ropes, Klopp made a decisive move to halt their decline in the 61st minute. Thiago Alcantara, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have been replaced by Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota.

With substitutes of this standard, it was hardly a promising roll of the dice, but it certainly paid off. From then on, Benfica didn’t fire a single shot and the Reds (in yellow) tightened their grip on the draw when Luis Diaz scored three minutes from regulation time.

It was a perfect example of the strength of Liverpool’s current squad and gave a potential glimpse into the possibilities open to Klopp in the Premier League next season. With the option of making five changes from the bench having been approved for 2022/23, we could see the Reds boss making a trio of substitutions on a regular basis.

Not that it hasn’t happened before. It has been an option in European football since the start of last season, was in place for the section of the 2019/20 season which was played behind closed doors and was also allowed in the Community Shield.

It was during the traditional curtain raiser that Klopp first made a triple change, when the Reds drew 1-1 with Manchester City (before losing on penalties) in 2019. However, at this occasion Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Xherdan Shaqiri had just 11 minutes to make an impact. Although they were unable to force a breakthrough, the shot tally showed 8-0 in favor of the Reds for that period, so the changes appeared to be working.

Klopp then brought on three players simultaneously in a league game against Aston Villa at Anfield in July 2020. The correlation is not automatically causal, and the Reds often finish games strong, but as it was 0-0 when the three subs arrived and 2-0 at full time, it is reasonable to consider that the triple player change was successful.

Liverpool also added a goal to the score line later that month against Newcastle, but as the players brought in were Firmino, Mane and Salah it was no surprise when the front two linked up to seal a victory 3-1.

Making drastic changes has not always paid off. In a Champions League game against Atalanta last season, Klopp made a quadruple substitution after the Italian side scored and they quickly put in another soon after to inflict a rare home defeat to the Reds.

But a three-man switch had already helped his side to a 1-0 victory at Ajax earlier in the group stage, and the Liverpool manager made a triple switch in the win at Atalanta, even though his team was already 5-0 when He did.

The match with Benfica was not the first three-way substitution Klopp has made in Portugal this season. He did it at Porto and one of the men brought in (Firmino) quickly scored twice. The Reds also scored twice at Inter Milan in February, breaking the deadlock 16 minutes after Diaz, Henderson and Naby Keita were called up as one on the bench.

It all adds up to show that Liverpool have played 220 minutes after a change of three or four players in the league and in European competition. In that time, they have scored eight goals to concede just two, giving them a goal difference average of +2.5 per 90 minutes. Klopp’s latest treble substitution may have guided his side to the last four of the Champions League and provided some insight into how the Reds can attack the league in 2022/23.