Liverpool sit just two points off the top of the Premier League table and second, level on points with first in the Champion’s League. On paper, it’s been a great start to the season, however, how many times have Liverpool truly played well going forward? The Anfield Talk’s Sam (@sammillnelfc) sits down to dissect the issues facing Liverpool’s midfield.
There was the first game of the season against a West Ham team with five new signings starting together for the first time and PSG at Anfield was another good win. Beyond that, there have been a couple of convincing wins against sides fighting relegation, however, we haven’t seen the free-flowing football of last season. Had it not been for Robertson, Gomez and Van Dijk’s exceptional start to the season, things could be looking a lot worse right now.
Liverpool’s lack of attacking fluidity has been blamed on a multitude of factors. Perhaps it’s the absence of Buvac, or maybe it’s Roberto Firmino’s poor form. Speculation and analysis will continue, however, there has definitely been a decrease in the midfield’s performances this season when comparing them to last season’s.
Klopp started the season playing Keita, Wijnladum and Milner. This appeared to be working well until Jordan Henderson’s late return to full fitness, as a result of his run to the World Cup semi-final’s with England.
Since then, Shaqiri has seen game time in the midfield, impressing on more than one occasion. Lallana has also come back in from the cold in recent weeks, although such has been his form, it looks as though he would have been better to stay in the cold for a while longer. Summer signing, Fabinho, has also started to have more of an impact. He made his first start in a 2-1 League Cup defeat to Chelsea at Anfield and impressed in Liverpool’s comfortable win at home to Red Star.
In the time Shaqiri has had to play in the midfield, he’s looked to be our most creative player. Whenever he receives the ball, he makes you feel as though something is going to happen. Whether it be him putting it in from 30 yards or sliding a lovelily weighted pass through to a forward, he seems to provide the cutting edge that Liverpool need to break teams down. This is especially pivotal against low block sides. At the start of last season, we saw Klopp deploy the ‘Fab Four’ (Coutinho, Salah, Mane and Firmino) against lesser sides or when we played at home. Coutinho would be the man to break the lines. Shaqiri also offers something which Liverpool have sorely missed since the Coutinho’s exit; a player who can score from outside the box.Embed from Getty Images
Perhaps the only reason the Swiss man isn’t starting every game is down to other options being better at defending. This should improve though as Shaqiri spends more time with Klopp and his team. Due to recent poor performances without him playing, he is sure to start the next game against Fulham.
Last season, after Coutinho left, we really saw Oxlade-Chamberlain flourish. He was given the license to run through the middle of the park with the ball at his feet. An example that springs to mind is his assist for Salah, at home to Newcastle. He drove towards the Newcastle penalty area and played Salah in, who was to his right. We’ve already seen Shaqiri thread similar passes to Salah, getting assists in the process.
Lallana has taken a long time to recover from his injury troubles and is still clearly getting back to full fitness. Unfortunately, to perform in this Liverpool team you need to be at the peak of your powers and it looks as though his time is running out at Anfield.
At the other end of the spectrum is Fabinho. He joined from Monaco in the summer and whilst it’s taking him time to adapt, he looks to be assured on the ball and can definitely be a great player in the long-term. In theory, he should be battling with Henderson for the holding midfield position, but the attributes which he has already shown, suggest that he could play as a box-to-box midfielder also.
The rest of Liverpool’s realistic midfield options are made up of Henderson, Milner, Wijnaldum and Keita. The latter came to the club with a year’s worth of expectancy on his shoulders. Reds fans saw what he could do in the Bundesliga and couldn’t wait for him to tear the Premier League up this season. As of yet, this hasn’t quite happened. He started promisingly against West Ham and showed glimpses of his magic against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. At one point, he received the ball in his own half, facing his own goal. He then proceeded to do a ‘Cruyff-esque’ turn and play an incredible ball over the top to Mo Salah who almost finished. Since then his performances have gone off the boil and he’s picked up a couple of injuries. There’s no doubt that Keita will come good, however, his creativity is needed at the moment and it would be great if he could return to the team in form.
Henderson hasn’t started the season fantastically, but you see Henderson’s importance more when he isn’t playing more than when he is. Against, Red Star Belgrade, it was obvious that he would have provided more protection for the back four more than any of Wijnaldum, Milner or Lallana.Embed from Getty Images
On balance, Wijnaldum and Milner have probably looked to be Klopp’s best two midfielders so far this season. Despite this, it unfortunately appears to be a similar story as in previous years for Wijnaldum. He turns up in home games but not away games. Against Arsenal and against Red Star Belgrade, in the first half, he was virtually non-existent.
We can look at individuals’ performances, but, as ever with Klopp teams, it is very much a team game. Liverpool’s midfield problems don’t only relate to breaking teams down. They are having an effect on Liverpool’s ability to win the ball back and therefore counter as well. This season Liverpool have a lower percentage of tackles won and duels won than last.
Whether defeat to Red Star is the wake-up call we need to get back to business or a change in formation is required, Klopp and his players need to find the solution soon. At the moment, a 4-2-3-1 seems to be the preferred option amongst supporters, but Klopp likes to stick with things and as we have seen in the past, his 4-3-3 system can be very effective against other top teams.