Nathaniel Clyne buried on depth chart but can still be an asset for Liverpool
After an eight-month layoff due to a serious back problem, Nathaniel Clyne has finally returned to full training and the reports coming out of Liverpool's warm weather training camp in Marbella, Spain, this week suggest that the 26-year-old is looking good and is eager to make up for lost time.
It must have been incredibly frustrating for him. Prior to this season, Clyne had been a virtual ever-present under Jurgen Klopp. Rarely injured and never rested, he was usually one of the first names in Klopp's lineup until he suffered the back injury last summer.
In his absence, youngsters Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold have stepped up to share duties at right-back. Although both have made some mistakes (as young defenders tend to do), they've been very impressive and Clyne has become something of a forgotten man.
Gomez was even rewarded with a full international call-up and made two appearances for England in showpiece friendlies against Germany and Brazil last November.
He has a bright future, but he is still learning his trade and has occasionally been found wanting in situations that the more-experienced Clyne would have probably dealt with easily. Gomez was culpable for goals conceded at West Ham and Arsenal, as well as at home to Manchester City.
As tends to be the way with young players, Alexander-Arnold's form has also fluctuated, but overall Liverpool haven't been hindered much by having two inexperienced right-backs.
They sit just two points off second spot in the Premier League and they already have one foot in the Champions League quarterfinals. It's doubtful they could have improved on that even if Clyne had been available, so you'd have to say he hasn't been missed as much as he might have been.
Klopp deserves great credit for that. He has managed the situation excellently and his faith in youth has been rewarded. Gomez had edged ahead in the battle to be first choice, but Alexander-Arnold has started the past three games and performed very well. There appears to be little to choose between the talented pair and Klopp has no real need to rush Clyne back before he is ready.
It's easy to forget about players when they have long-term injuries, particularly when their replacements perform well. Prior to his injury, Clyne was Liverpool's top right-back and was pushing Kyle Walker hard for a spot in the England team. He is still Liverpool's best right-back but he may have to wait a while yet before he gets to prove it again.
When Clyne is ready to return, Klopp will have to choose from among three players for one spot. Only one can start and although rotation will provide another with some playing time, the third man in the pecking order is unlikely to see any action at all. That role was occupied by Jon Flanagan in the first half of the season and he made just one appearance (in the Carabao Cup) before joining Bolton Wanderers on loan in January.
Despite Clyne's seniority and experience, he's now third in line. Not based on ability, but because it's going to take him some time to get back to the level that he was at prior to injury. When he does get back there though, something will have to give. Having two quality players for every position is great for a manager. Having three, however, is a problem.
With a full preseason behind him, Clyne will feel confident that he can win his old job back, and in the long term perhaps the versatility of Gomez and Alexander-Arnold will make Klopp's decision easier.
Gomez can play in the centre and that may well prove to be his future position. Currently there are four players ahead of Gomez for a place at centre-back, so for now he's a right-back.
Similarly, those who watched Alexander-Arnold come through the youth ranks at the club will tell you that the "box to box" midfield role is probably his best position. His first-team breakthrough came at right-back only because a vacancy opened up there when Gomez sustained a serious knee injury shortly after Klopp took charge.
There was no spot available in midfield then and there isn't now either. That could change in the summer as there are doubts over the Anfield future of Emre Can and James Milner, but for now Alexander-Arnold will fight it out with Gomez for the right-back position.
So where does this leave Clyne? Out in the cold for now, most likely. Yet there are three months left in the season and a lot can happen.
As the season progresses the stakes will get higher and higher for the Reds. The battle to secure a top-four finish could go down to the wire and they will be hoping to be involved in the latter stages of the Champions League. Every game will be vital and Klopp will need to pick his strongest available players.
Liverpool can be vulnerable defensively and Clyne is comfortably their best defensive full-back, so if he can get himself back to full fitness in the next four to six weeks then perhaps toward the end of the season his experience and defensive skill may yet prove to be an important asset for Klopp.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.