How Liverpool’s Wing-Backs Are Their ‘Number Tens’

Does Liverpool's midfield lack creativity? Or is the creativity coming from a different area of the team?
Andrew Beasley  |  12th April 2019

If you were going to ask a group of people to describe the archetypal Manchester City goal, they’d all likely come to a broadly similar conclusion.

A player takes the ball to the byline, crosses to either the back post or perhaps somewhere more central but close in, and a teammate is left with a tap in.

The likes of Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling are masters of creating such chances, and are often on the end of them too.

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But they’re not the only ones; central midfielders like the two Silvas are also more than capable of setting them up. Bernardo even assisted David for a goal in this fashion at Southampton at the end of December.

This is in stark contrast to Liverpool’s midfield. Sceptics are quick to highlight their lack of goal threat, and the raw statistics do not paint an attractive picture.

‘GOAL-SHY’ MIDFIELD

If we look at games started in midfield in the Premier League (and ignore games where the likes of Jordan Henderson and James Milner have had to play at full-back) then the Reds’ players have collectively amassed just six goals in those matches. Discount a penalty from the versatile number seven’s tally, and it’s just five.

The assist total is no better, also standing at five. Compared to what City’s squad can offer, it could be considered embarrassing. David Silva alone has scored six league goals when starting in midfield and has matched that figure in the assist column too.

The Spaniard is undoubtedly a fabulous player, but should he alone be capable of surpassing the goal contribution threat of Liverpool’s entire starting midfield for a season?

In terms of the assist numbers, it’s no fluke either. Understat carry an ‘expected assists’ metric, which attempts to quantify the quality of chances that a player creates. Ahead of this weekend, David Silva has the fifth highest total in the Premier League, with his namesake Bernardo just behind him.

James Milner has done reasonably well to reach 19thin the chart, but you won’t find another Liverpool midfielder in the division’s top 100.

There are many ways to skin a cat, though, and Jürgen Klopp has stationed his sharpest instruments in wide areas. Even then, it’s not in the conventional way that ‘wide areas’ might imply, with wingers, but with full-backs assuming that role.

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Where Liverpool’s midfield may not offer too much in a creative sense, the first choice pairing of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson more than make up for it.

TAA & ROBBO’S PRODUCTIVITY

The Scot is currently joint-fourth in the Premier League for assists, with nine, while his Scouse counterpart is joint-eighth with seven. No team in the top flight has created as many open play chances from full-back as Liverpool have either.

As the ‘Oh You Beauty’ website recently illustrated, this level of productivity is largely unheard of from Liverpool. It’s 14 years since the club’s full-backs last hit double figures for assists in the league – via the collective of Riise, Finnan, Josemi, Traore and Warnock in Rafa Benitez’ first season in charge – and Klopp’s first three seasons at the club yielded a total of 20.

So why the change? Perhaps the most likely explanation is that injuries in midfield have lead Klopp to play this way. And not just in the sense of injuries to players the club already owned either.

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Nabil Fekir was due to sign from Lyon last summer to add a creative spark to the Reds’ midfield. However the deal fell through, and it’s interesting to note that the Frenchman is behind both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson for assists this season, be that expected or actual.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was starting to look like he could fill the Coutinho void too. The latter scored or assisted a goal every 110 minutes while Klopp was in charge, and for the period after Phil left for Barcelona, Ox directly contributed to a goal every 138 minutes, so was heading in the right direction. It has therefore been left to the full-backs to pick up the slack. As Klopp said recently:

“Everybody asks for perfection but we have to use our set-up to our advantage and use the full-backs. The midfielders have slightly different jobs to do and the strikers as well. This is clear.”

The pass statistics for the season illustrate how deliberate it all is.

The job of the midfield is to win the ball, and get it to the full-backs.

The top pass combination from any Liverpool midfielder in the league and Europe this season is from Gini Wijnaldum to Alexander-Arnold, with 259 passes. While obviously a much smaller sample – of 78 passes – Trent is the top receiver from Xherdan Shaqiri too.

Meanwhile, Robertson is the top pass recipient for Henderson (213), Milner (177), Keita (160) and Lallana (57). Fabinho may favour van Dijk overall, but his second most common link up is Robertson too. Win it, give it, and let the full-backs cause havoc.

Klopp has engineered a creative solution to a creativity problem.

Remember that the next time the stats show Liverpool’s midfield has barely created a chance.

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