Joe Gomez this week became the latest Liverpool player to have his season cut short by injury. The young defender underwent surgery on a damaged ankle and will now join Joel Matip, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Emre Can and possibly Adam Lallana in the stands while their teammates face Brighton and Real Madrid for the highest possible stakes; one game to qualify for next year’s Champions League and the other to win this year’s.
Whereas the injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain was unfortunate and unavoidable, some of the others might have been prevented, particularly this latest one for Gomez.
The youngster first damaged his ankle while on international duty with England against the Netherlands in March. He was initially ruled out for a month and missed both legs of Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final clash with Manchester City. He returned for the Reds’ 2-2- draw with West Bromwich Albion three weeks ago where he performed reasonably enough before understandably struggling in the latter stages of the game.
He did not train in the week leading up to Liverpool’s next fixture, a disappointing 0-0 home draw with Stoke City, and he endured a torrid time throughout the game. He started poorly and got progressively worse as the crowd’s frustration with him began to show.
Little did those inside Anfield that day know that the 20-year-old was playing through the pain and really shouldn’t have been out there at all. Remarkably, he remained on the field for 90 minutes even though Jurgen Klopp had a natural replacement for him on the bench in Nathaniel Clyne. When Clyne was belatedly brought on he was then deployed in the front three and not at right-back.
The injury to Gomez was sufficient enough that he was forced to undergo surgery this week, so it’s fair to wonder why he was out there at all against Stoke, let alone being asked to play the full game when he was clearly struggling. Credit goes to the player for putting his body on the line to help his team, but sometimes footballers need to be saved from themselves.
Did playing those games against West Brom and Stoke make the problem worse, or would this surgery have been required regardless? This is a question that Klopp should be asking his medical department, unless of course he was already aware of the risks and chose to ignore them.
It is not like this is an isolated incident. German midfielder Can has been sidelined for several weeks with a back injury and will almost certainly not return in time for the Champions League final. His World Cup participation may also be in doubt given how long he has been sidelined.
The first supporters knew of this back problem was when he was forced off after just 22 minutes of the 5-0 home win over Watford in March. It later emerged that — just like Gomez — he too had missed some training sessions in the week leading up to the game, so playing him was a risk that clearly backfired. To make matters worse, Can then joined up with the German squad and broke down in his first training session and was forced to return to Merseyside. He has not played since. Again, could this have been avoided?
Then of course there’s Lallana. A thigh injury sustained in a preseason friendly with Atletico Madrid had initially been expected to rule him out for three months but he suffered a setback and did not return until November.
He suffered another minor setback around Christmas time after which Klopp admitted they had rushed him back too soon. “Life is to learn from your mistakes and we all have to learn. Adam, myself and the medical department — we made this mistake. He looked fit but obviously he was not,” said the German.
Are Liverpool actually learning from those mistakes though? The examples of Can and Gomez would suggest perhaps not.
That previous comment from Klopp was at the beginning of March but by the end of the month Lallana was leaving Selhurst Park on crutches after damaging a hamstring only minutes after coming on as a substitute.
Lallana is now back in training again and hoping to make the squad for the final, but so far his season has been a virtual write-off. Would things have been any different if his rehabilitation had been taken more slowly? Would Gomez and Can be available for the final if they hadn’t been selected to play while carrying injuries? We can only speculate, but they seem fair questions based on what we do know.
In fairness, it’s tough for Klopp to get the balance right. The Reds high-intensity style of play puts players at greater risk of injury, especially in the latter part of a long season. Matters are further complicated by the lack of depth in certain areas of the squad combined with a raft of injuries in the one area in which it had seemed strong — midfield.
It’s a catch-22 situation. The lack of options is forcing Klopp to take risks with the players he has, but in doing so he jeopardises weakening a thin squad even further.
It is a problem that must be solved for next season. As well as Liverpool have done this year, their squad has been exposed in recent weeks just as many predicted it would be when they did not strengthen in January. It is to the players’ great credit they still have so much to play for, but it is imperative that nobody else goes down between now and the final.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.