Getting the perfect mix in Liverpool’s midfield

Klopp needs to get the magic potion just right.

Posted by Tom Bodell

Liverpool's James Milner

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The front three is a given; the defence picks itself; Alisson has proved that his record transfer fee was worth every penny already — all that is still uncertain is Jurgen Klopp’s midfield.

There’s no shortage of good options, but football isn’t just about picking the best players, it’s a special alchemy, trying to get the right ones together who complement each other.

Our friends at Football Whispers look at what the perfect combination of ingredients might be for this Liverpool side.

Liverpool special:
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While Anfield might not be the home to any of the central midfield poster boys of world football at the moment, no-one can deny the strength-in-depth in the position.

Naby Keita, Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Adam Lallana, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (once he recovers from injury) is a list that any other club in the league would be envious of — even Manchester City, who are strangely lacking in that department.

The goal

Although counter-pressing was one of the big creators for the team when Klopp first arrived on Merseyside, the upgrades to the attacking talent in Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah mean that the midfield can afford to act as more of a service to the attackers, and less of an attacking threat themselves.

Pressing and defending turnovers are still key, of course, but they can be more ‘get the ball, play the ball to the forwards’ than they were at the start of Klopp’s reign.

So, press the ball, win the ball, get the ball forwards in almost equal measure — sounds simple, right?

The base

“The good thing is all our midfielders – Hendo [Henderson], Adam [Lallana] – all work,” Klopp said at the start of the season.

“They accept the offensive line sometimes has not exactly the same desire to defend, so they close the gaps and help us with that. That makes their life a bit more uncomfortable, but helps us in other situations.”

The fact that all of the midfielders are so prepared to press is great, but doesn’t make the job of picking who starts any easier.

Although it means dropping the captain, Fabinho makes more tackles and interceptions than Henderson, and makes the best fit as the deepest midfielder in whichever system Klopp decides to use, now that he’s adapted to his new club.

“He has the qualities, all the qualities,” Klopp said of him a few weeks ago. “Hard challenges, good offensively, defensively, quick, good shooter, fantastic set pieces, good header, all these things. Strategic too, good strategically in the right moment.

“He is more a rather reserved person, looking, watching, absorbing, and it always takes a little bit more time. But on the pitch, he is back now and that’s good now.”

The press

Fabinho’s fellow new summer signing has also had to acclimatise.

“I am following English courses and I am really, really motivated to speak English. It is really important to me.” Naby Keita said recently.

“I want to be able to speak to the coach and I want to be able to speak to the other players in the team so I am really working hard.

“I am finding the Liverpool accent a bit difficult to be honest, but I am trying my best. I don’t know much Scouse yet, but I have been told ‘boss’ means good.”

The Guinean has also struggled with injuries, but when he finds his feet he should be unstoppable.

In 2017/18, his final season in the Bundesliga, he was active defensively and offensively, making 4.81 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes and 3.07 take ons per 90, the most of any central midfielder in the league.

Getting it forwards

It’s difficult to tell who’d be best-placed to get the ball forwards from this season’s performances as they’ve tended to be a little restrained. Last season, the two midfielders to make the most key passes were Oxlade-Chamberlain (1.27 per 90 minutes) and Milner (1.17).

Given Milner’s adaptability and work ethic — “The end [of his career] is not to see, and his desire to improve is exceptional,” Klopp’s said — he’s a perfect player to have in the team anyway.

Or, if Klopp wants a bit more attacking power, he could rejig the system to a 4-2-3-1 and play Xherdan Shaqiri alongside the rest of Liverpool’s front three.

The balance feels right, but means coming to terms with loyal servants like Wijnaldum and, in particular, Henderson being set aside.

But no good team became a great one by standing still.

Liverpool to win a major trophy, 2.80*

*odds subject to change

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