Klopp’s unsung heroes: Liverpool’s backroom staff have become as vital as Salah, Mane and Alisson

Paul Small. Lee Nobes. Conall Murtagh. 

Not names that a lot of Liverpool fans will be too familiar with, if truth be told.

At the moment, though, they are as vital to the Reds as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Alisson Becker.

These are the unsung heroes; the backroom staff tasked with helping Jurgen Klopp’s squad through this most challenging of periods. 

And they are certainly earning their money at the moment.

With injuries mounting and fixtures coming thick and fast, Liverpool are feeling the strain – in more ways than one. Legs are aching, minds are wandering, the treatment room is full, and the manager is ready to fight the world in the name of player welfare.

The latest challenge for the Premier League champions comes this evening, in the form of a Champions League clash with Ajax at Anfield.

It’s another big game. They all are, right now. A point against the Dutch champions, the team they beat 1-0 in Amsterdam back in October, would see Liverpool through to the last 16 for the fourth season in a row. Significant.

Just as significant, though, is the fact it would take the heat off their final group match, away to FC Midtjylland a week on Wednesday, affording Klopp the ability to make changes to his starting line-up, safe in the knowledge that qualification is secured.

The Reds’ December is loaded – tonight begins a run of eight games in 29 days – and so any opportunity to rotate will be welcomed with open arms.

Klopp’s options are already stretched, with James Milner the latest first-teamer struck down by injury. Milner, who damaged his hamstring at Brighton, joins Trent Alexander-Arnold, Naby Keita, Thiago Alcantara, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri on the missing list, while Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez remain long-term absentees.

A busy time, then, for the club’s physios, masseurs and fitness staff.

“The players sometimes spend more time in their departments than with me on the pitch,” said Klopp, half-smiling, on Monday. “We don’t train a lot, because we can’t, so they are very, very important.

“They know this, to be honest. They are always incredibly important, but especially in intense periods like this.”

No sooner had the final whistle sounded at Brighton on Saturday, then attention switched to Ajax. Preparation is key, and at the moment recovery is everything.

The work started the second the players returned to the dressing room at the Amex Stadium, where ice baths, massages and recovery drinks awaited. 

Bumps and bruises, strains and aches, were attended to by Nobes and his team of physios, who worked throughout the flight home from the south coast, while Mona Nemmer, the club’s nutritionist, was on hand to make sure players refuelled correctly. The importance of carbohydrates after a game has been drummed into each and every one of them.

The squad reconvened at Kirkby on Sunday, where players followed their own carefully tailored individual schedules.

For those who had started at Brighton, that meant a recovery session, a mixture of light jogs, bike or pool work and manual treatments, depending on each player’s previous and upcoming workload. Andreas Kornmayer, the head of fitness and conditioning, and coaches Conall Murtagh, Tom King and Jordan Fairclough oversaw the work.

All players are given fatigue-related questionnaires to complete after games. Most visit Paul Small, the club’s long-serving masseur. Small has been with Liverpool since 2001 and is one of the most popular staff members – despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Evertonian. 

His team has been boosted for this season by the arrivals of Michelle Hudson, who joined from Rugby League club Warrington Wolves in the summer, and Motonori Watanabe, who came from Championship club Bristol City, having previously worked at Watford and before that with judo champions and sumo wrestlers in his native Japan.

Liverpool also make use of technology. They use Game Ready, a state-of-the-art compression and icing machine. Developed using NASA spacesuit design, it continuously circulates cold water from the control unit’s ice reservoir, reducing swelling and heat via a wrap which is applied directly to the body. This season, above all others, it has proven priceless.

Monday brought a more strenuous outdoor training session. Joel Matip, rested for the trip to Brighton, was pictured at the AXA Training Centre, although there was no sign of Fabinho. With senior centre-backs thin on the ground, Liverpool will be extra careful when it comes to those two.

“I don’t have the players for prioritising,” Klopp insisted on Monday. “We played two days ago and the fittest players for that game were on the pitch. And that will be the case for this game.”

We can certainly expect changes against Ajax, though. Matip should come back in, as should Jordan Henderson, who played 45 minutes as a substitute at Brighton. It would be a surprise if Rhys Williams, the teenage centre-back, did not start, while Divock Origi and Curtis Jones will come into contention. 

Klopp withdrew Salah early on Saturday, much to the Egyptian’s annoyance, while Sadio Mane started on the bench. He admitted afterwards that he would have taken off Andy Robertson for Kostas Tsimikas too, if he had been allowed five substitutes. The Greece international started the defeat to Atalanta last week, and may well get another chance to impress this evening.

“Ajax are a good side,” Klopp said on Monday. “And since our game they are flying, pretty much; big results, clear at the top of the table and some very talented players coming back. I am expecting a close game.”

The incentive for Liverpool is clear. Get the result, get through and they will then have four days to recover ahead of the visit of Wolves on Sunday, where for the first time since March there will be fans, 2,000 of them, to give the players that extra push. 

After that they would be able to switch things round for the Midtjylland trip, before their punishing schedule continues with games against Fulham (away), Tottenham (home) and Crystal Palace (away) in the space of six days. 

The latter fixture, by the way, is a Saturday lunchtime kick-off – and we all know Klopp’s thoughts on those. An early Christmas present it is most certainly not.

Those, though, are concerns for another day. For now, all eyes are on Ajax. It will take a big effort – a team effort – but the Reds, somehow, are ready. 

They have to be. 


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