Liverpool’s high-energy, rock-and-roll football, with its emphasis on pressing, counter-pressing and counterattack demands extremely fit footballers. The ability to make a large number of high-intensity sprints and to keep doing that for 90 minutes, and extra time if required, is a big part of being a Liverpool player under Jürgen Klopp.
The demands are not the same on every player of course and certainly, Alisson and some other members of the defensive unit do not need to have the same levels of stamina as some of the more dynamic members of the setup. But for the most part, any member of the front six, and quite probably the full backs too, simply has to be able to run and run. And, run. And, then sprint. But just who is the fittest Liverpool player?
James Milner Gives the Rest a Chance
Ahead of the 2023/24 season, it was announced that Mo Salah had won the “James Milner award”. One of Liverpool’s standard fitness tests over the last few years has been their pre-season lactate test.
Since renowned fitness king James Milner joined the Reds from Man City in 2015, the Leeds-born midfielder had come out on top in this test every single season. Considering he was 36 years old when taking the test prior to the 2022/23 campaign, that is impressive stuff. However, with Milner leaving in the summer to join Brighton, an opportunity arose for someone other than the Duracell-powered player to claim glory.
What Is the Liverpool Lactate Test?
There are many different ways to test a player’s fitness, with various methods, as well as different notions of what we mean by fitness. Those of certain age will remember the “bleep test” from school, more officially known as a 20m multistage fitness test, whilst certain team sports have used a 2km run to measure a minimum level of fitness. Liverpool’s preferred weapon of choice for a fair while now has been the lactate test.
This measures the intensity at which a footballer can compete before their levels of blood lactate become too high. As a way of ascertaining who can keep on running at a high intensity, it is an excellent test and very suited to the sort of endurance needed of a Premier League footballer. Players are required to run at different paces for varying intervals with a rapid test of the lactate in their blood after each one.
Once they hit a certain threshold they are producing lactate at a rate beyond which their body can process it. In such a scenario, fatigue will kick in and it will simply become impossible for a player to keep performing. With the Reds’ lactate test, should a player record a reading over a pre-determined level they must drop out and the test continues until just one player remains.
The test is known for being gruelling and unpleasant, as Andy Robertson explained. It led to him being sick multiple times around the pitch, which – given he is well-known for his excellent engine – says a lot about the test.
With Milner no doubt running players 15 years his junior ragged on the south coast, the likes of Robertson, Jordan Henderson and other super-fit members of the Liverpool squad would have been hoping to claim his crown. In the end, though, it was Salah who was reportedly the fittest – as measured by this particular test.
Due to the nature of the test, only a small number of players can take it at any one time. In the first batch of players, Salah was up against Robertson, Henderson, Ibrahima Konate, Conor Bradley, Virgil van Dijk and full back Kostas Tsimikas. In the end, youngster Bradley and Henderson made the podium but it was Salah who came out on top.
In another heat, Liverpool’s new midfield signing, Dominik Szoboszlai finished ahead of Luis Diaz and Cody Gakpo. With Szoboszlai charged with bringing new energy to the midfield, that was an encouraging sign but in the end, it was Salah, aged 31, who was adjudged to have come out on top.
Does That Mean Salah Is the Fittest?
As said, “fitness” can mean many different things and despite Salah’s impressive upper body strength and physique, we doubt he could match VVD or Konate (who both did poorly in the lactate test) when it comes to the bench press. Salah may or may not be the fastest player in the Reds’ squad, with this another possible definition of fittest. That said, Darwin Nunez was the fastest of the group according to official Premier League records for 2022/23, clocking in at 36.53km/h. Kyle Walker was the fastest recorded last term at a speedy 37.31km/h.
There are clear distinctions between fittest, strongest and fastest, of course, but a broader view of what constitutes the former would probably include at least some elements of the other two. Ultimately, the person with the best lactate performance simply has… you’ve guessed it: the best lactate performance. There are other methods of measuring fitness from an endurance perspective, including VO2 max and the less well-known use of fractional exhaled nitric oxide testing, or FeNO.
In addition, any baseline measure of aerobic fitness is useless unless the player in question has the mental capacity to push themselves to that physical limit. Milner was certainly one person who could do that and Salah also possesses an exceptional work rate, pressing from the front in a way that has been central to Liverpool’s success. That new boy Szoboszlai won his heat ahead of Luis Diaz and Gakpo bodes well and no matter who the new James Milner is, we just hope that a re-energised Liverpool can have a much better season than they managed in 2022/23!