Jurgen Klopp has not hidden the fact that he believed Liverpool’s midfield needed strengthening. While he is always backing players publicly, and rightly so, his actions in the transfer market show that he wasn’t entirely happy with the club’s strength in depth in the middle of the park, and has moved to rectify that during the past couple of seasons.
Here, our friends at Football Whispers take a look at the selection dilemma on Klopp’s hands.
When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain arrived from Arsenal he was singled out by his new manager as a utility player. “In the system we play at the moment, he can play in four positions. Both No.8s and both wingers,” said Klopp. But though the former Arsenal man did play a number of roles, he was primarily used in midfield, and was thriving in the position prior to picking up a serious injury.
This shows Klopp felt the team needed something extra in central areas, and Oxlade-Chamberlain provided it.
Going into the new season Klopp has once again dipped into the market for central players, solving Liverpool’s long-term problem in defensive midfield with the acquisition of Fabinho, and adding one of the best all-round midfielders in Europe in the shape of Naby Keita.
The latter is seen as the big signing, but each will be important to the way Liverpool shape up this season in their quest to finally win a trophy under Klopp.
Of the current crop Georginio Wijnaldum is an important player who can play a number of the midfield roles. He could be seen as a Keita-lite, but if he’s able to involve himself in games he can make his own contributions to the build-up play, using his ability to keep the ball under pressure to keep things ticking over. He is also ideal for Klopp’s defensive style.
Having played in more attacking roles, as well as on the left of midfield during his time at Newcastle, he could also be paired alongside Keita in a dynamic midfield duo in front of Fabinho.
Wijnaldum could also play as an alternative to Fabinho in the deep-lying role, but this job is likely to fall to Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool captain has been realistic about his role in the side since Keita’s signing was announced last summer, and in his press conferences has encouraged new signings to strengthen the squad, even in the area he plays. This way of thinking is typical of the selfless Henderson, who is likely to have a utility role similar to Wijnaldum this season.
But this doesn’t mean that the existing pair will not play a key part, and they could end up starting games more often than many think, even after the high profile arrivals this summer. The idea of strengthening the squad isn’t so three midfielders can start every game, but so a number of players can come in when needed to provide quality, as the club look to challenge in multiple competitions.
Adam Lallana has played a regular part in pre-season after spending much of last season on the sidelines, and could be pushing to start the campaign in the attacking midfield role. He lacks some speed both physically and in terms of decision making on the ball, but his all-round technique, touch, and work rate out of possession cannot be questioned. These traits can complement those of the new arrivals, and Lallana will be pushing to start the opening game against West Ham. The same could be said of James Milner whose role as vice-captain could work in his favour with club captain Henderson arriving back late following the World Cup.
On paper Liverpool’s best midfield would incorporate the new signings straight away, with Fabinho, Keita, plus one other player lining up in a midfield three, but there are a number of other factors to take into account when assessing the strongest lineup.
The manager tends to favour a 4-3-3 formation, but at times has dabbled with lineups resembling a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2. This could mean there is only space for two midfielders, and again Fabinho plus Keita would seem like the obvious pairing. But it could also mean more midfielders are used if attacking players such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Made, or Xherdan Shaqiri are unavailable. Keita could easily move forward, with someone like Henderson, Fabinho, or Wijnaldum filling his deeper spot.
In the 4-3-3 Klopp could even move Henderson forward to play as one of the advanced two, but the 28-year-old is likely miss the start of the season anyway due to England’s progress to the latter stages of the World Cup. This could also affect the midfield hierarchy going into the new campaign, and set the tone for Klopp’s rotation for the rest of the year.
Klopp has said there will be no new signings unless something happens to one of his current squad. With Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the season, it could be argued that this has already happened and he needs one more player, especially in the attacking midfield role in which the Englishman was beginning to thrive; a role he once had pencilled in for Philippe Coutinho.
Klopp now has plenty of options in the core of his midfield, with Trent Alexander-Arnold also able to do a job there if required. Fabinho and Keita looked nailed on for the first two positions, but who starts the season in the third spot? Lallana, Wijnaldum, Shaqiri, or another new signing?
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by Tom Bodell