The Unfashionables Thriving

The players in question have heard it all before. The negative talk would have crumbled lesser men. No matter what they do, or how well they perform the doubts still arise. The thought being that Liverpool’s midfield group was not good enough to challenge Europe’s best on all fronts. The lack of a player in the Steven Gerrard mould who would almost win single handedly at times was deemed a massive weakness in this Liverpool side, and emerging from that Gerrard shaped shadow was never going to be a simple task. Not only that, but Gerrard in his prime was supported by widely accepted elite talents in Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.
At what point though, will the wider world admit that as a unit our midfield is world class. James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum were the trio which started the Champions League final for Liverpool and yet it was thought mistakenly once again before the PSG match that they may be overmatched in midfield. We have seen them take charge of opposing midfields on a very consistent basis over the past twelve months but still somehow they have not earned widespread respect. Why wouldn’t the general public think that way? It could be something to do with simple perception, after all for as long as I can remember exotic sounding names always rightly or wrongly implied greater footballers. Let’s take the PSG opponents as a perfect example…
Angel di Maria…
They honestly sound like they should have poetry written about their exploits. They are the type of names that could add millions to a transfer fee! Perhaps, if Milner really was born Milinar, or Henderson was known as Jordinho, or if we referred to Gini Wijnaldum by his given name of Georginio, maybe just maybe, the admiration would be greater. Unfortunately, that ship has probably sailed. As ridiculous as it sounds, our midfield just isn’t trendy. It doesn’t mater at all to me if they keep playing the way they are. They are the unfashionables.
The collective groan could be heard across the planet when the teams were announced, and our captain was rightly named in the starting eleven. It remains to be seen what more Hendo can do to prove his worth. A Champions League final run, and a World Cup semi finalist in the space of a few months are seemingly not enough. Thankfully as per usual, Henderson was absolutely brilliant. There was a point midway through the first half where he made three quick fire bone crunching tackles, one of which actually even caught Joe Gomez in some unfortunate friendly fire! It was brilliant stuff. A captain’s performance of the highest quality (and his vice captain too went along for the ride with his perfectly timed tackle on Neymar) . Milner and Wijnaldum were the star men on the night, but Henderson’s role cannot, and should not be ignored any more.
What is most interesting to me that the majority of our midfielders started out their professional life in a different position or role. Henderson rose through the ranks as a box to box midfielder more thought of as an attacking player if anything. Milner has essentially played everywhere but was predominantly a wide player for most of his career. Gini Wijnaldum played mostly as a withdrawn forward prior to arriving at Anfield as did Adam Lallana. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of course also followed the Milner career path but thankfully for us has been given a serious midfield opportunity much earlier in his life than his ageless teammate did.
Neymar’s worst nightmare
This demonstrates that Jurgen Klopp and his scouting team are particular keen on attributes a player has rather than a set position. Qualities are held in high regard no matter where they are currently being used. It sounds very simple but it is not as easy to do as one would think. It also wouldn’t be a huge shock to see more positional musical chairs taking place in the next couple of years with Trent Alexander-Arnold a strong candidate to move back into midfield or even have Roberto Firmino dropping back and excelling as a deeper lying threat.
The increased tactical flexibility is even more impressive this season as well. The Wijnaldum as the deepest lying midfielder experiment started last season with some mixed results. He is now thriving in that role when required and looks like a player completely at ease now with what is expected of him. It took Oxlade-Chamberlain months to truly settle in, as it may potentially as well for Fabinho. There is certainly no need to rush things with the current set up doing so well. Even the wonderfully brilliant Naby Keita is still learning on the job what is required in the Kloppolution. Keita has barely gotten out of second gear yet and still looks a phenomenal talent who as well will only get better as time goes on.
It was discussed on the run to the Champions League final last season about the type of impact that Philippe Coutinho would have had if he had stayed and played in the central trio. I honestly believe that we wouldn’t have made it quite as far with him as the system just worked so much better with the players used because of their versatility and defensive awareness. Coutinho certainly would have been useful as an additional attacking option in the final but up until that point I think we were almost certainly better off without him. In a way Coutinho really was too much of a big name for this midfield.
One of Jurgen Klopp’s most impressive and underrated characteristics is his ability to be patient and wait for the particular targets that he knows will perfectly mesh into his team. As we can see often, he doesn’t usually buy the finished article but instead invests in the potential to achieve that perfect equilibrium on the pitch. It is certainly paying off so far for our midfield of lovable misfits. Rafa Benitez had the Benitles, and it seems Klopp has the Unfashionables…

Ronan O'Rourke

Irish/Belgian. Lifelong Liverpool fan and eternal optimist. Always been a firm believer in the Kloppolution.

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