Nathaniel Clyne’s return to full fitness arguably could not have come at a better time for Liverpool.
The Reds are about to kick start the business end of the season with a top four place up for grabs in the Premier League and the Champions League reaching the latter stages.
It came as a slight surprise to most when Clyne’s name appeared in the squad list that travelled to Porto for the Champions League last 16 first leg but it was a welcome sight for all Reds to see images emerge of him boarding the plane.
The numerous questions that had littered Jurgen Klopp’s press conferences for the duration of the season about his progress were finally put to bed.
Clyne has now returned to full training and will be focusing on claiming back the right back spot in Klopp’s first eleven. but how difficult will that be?
Clyne initially suffered injury in the early stages of Liverpool’s pre-season but little was released from the club as to the exact problem and recovery time meaning he was not involved in Liverpool’s preparations for the campaign.
In November it was announced that the England international had undergone back surgery and would be facing a further three months on the sidelines.
Internal solutions work
Whether Liverpool boss Klopp anticipated the extent of Clyne's injury before any announcements is up for debate but the former Borussia Dortmund manager decided to stick with what he had and find solutions internally.
Klopp decided to hand opportunities to two of his younger players in Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold and both have impressed throughout their spells in the side.
Gomez in particular has put in performances that even caught the eye of Gareth Southgate who called him up to the England senior squad whilst Alexander Arnold has looked the part showing great temperament on the big stage at such a young age.
What’s been interesting to note is the reaction to Clyne’s return from injury. There is obviously delight at having another key first team player back in the squad but noticeably it’s not been heralded as a return that was desperately needed; something that wasn’t certain at the beginning of the season.
It’s a testament to how well the young pair of Gomez and Alexander-Arnold have performed during the season. The duo have been rotated by Klopp to keep them as fresh as possible and not to overload them with too many minutes.
The situation has proven fruitful with both players given the chance to develop under little pressure from the manager and given their age neither player has probably received the recognition they have deserved.
Is consistency the key factor?
Clyne's position is one he might not have expected to be in upon his return with his place no longer guaranteed but it may be wise for Klopp to consider placing him back in the starting line-up.
Despite positives heavily outweighing the negatives of the two young English defenders who have stood in for him, as with any young player there have been bumps in the road and inconsistency for both.
Gomez established himself as first choice between the two and has in the main had an excellent season when deployed in the right back role, growing into the position as the campaign has worn on.
However, lapses in concentration are still evident in his game. His misreading of crosses against West Ham and Arsenal leading to goals from Manuel Lanzini and Alexis Sanchez allowed both teams back into the game and his mistake against Manchester City leading to Leroy Sane’s equaliser at Anfield all proved or could have proven to be big turning points in games. Mistakes that a central defender playing right back can make.
The same can be said for Alexander-Arnold as whilst he provides the best attacking threat of the three, his defensive inexperience is evident during games as he continues to learn and make strides at the top level.
Last season, Liverpool clinched fourth spot largely down to their defensive stability in the final stretch of the season, keeping five clean sheets in their last six games and Clyne played a huge part in it. The lack of defensive errors during that spell was noticeable and given the tight race for the top four positions this term; it is something the Reds will be relying on again.
It is why a strong case can be made for Clyne’s inclusion in the side when fit. Since his move from Southampton in the summer of 2015, Clyne had been pretty much an ever-present until this current back injury.
Labelled by some as Liverpool’s ‘Mr Consistent’ he has regularly produced high level displays without errors during his time at Anfield and whilst he received criticism for his attacking play last season, defensively it was difficult to find too many holes in his game. It would make sense for Klopp to use him due to his experience which is far superior to his challengers.
Yet the lack of football Clyne has had since he picked up the injury could indicate that he will not be inserted into the line-up as quickly as he would like.
It is well-known that Klopp doesn’t rush players back, evident with Adam Lallana this season, and whilst Gomez and Alexander-Arnold have been involved all season, Clyne is bound to suffer from rust when he first returns. There is also no guarantee he will return to his usual form straightaway.
A further indication that Clyne will have to work hard for his place is to look at Alberto Moreno since he returned from injury. Andrew Robertson seized his chance after Moreno’s impressive start to the season was halted by injury against Spartak Moscow in the Champions League and the Spaniard has hardly had a look in since.
This isn’t like Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino returning from injury. Klopp has the luxury of having both Gomez and Alexander-Arnold in his squad who have over the course of the season, convinced him they are good enough and can be trusted.
Given the way the two have performed it would be harsh to relegate them down the pecking order just because Clyne has returned, stunting their development.
However, after the 26-year-old has picked up minutes and regained that full match fitness it would be unsurprising to see him reclaim his role due to the proven quality he has as the season begins to ramp up in importance.
When all of them are fit, it makes the most sense to play the experienced right back, at right back, that being Nathaniel Clyne.