Why Liverpool’s squeaky midfielder needs an overhaul

It’s not often in recent years that Liverpool supporters have had reason to envy their Manchester United counterparts, but Monday may have provided some. Erik ten Hag had two new midfielders on the pitch – Casemiro suited, kicked and influential Christian Eriksen in the 2-1 win over Jurgen Klopp’s side. And if the £60million fee and Casemiro’s huge four-year contract make him precisely the kind of signing Klopp wouldn’t make, if Eriksen’s age suggested he too wouldn’t have been on an Anfield shortlist, the most feverish part of the fan base would welcome any addition to the center of the park.

Liverpool don’t work like that. Klopp rarely compromises, preferring to wait for his first-choice targets, as he did for Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, even if that can create short-term problems. He does not hide his admiration for Jude Bellingham, who may be available in 2023. But he also tends to believe in the players at his disposal and this has reinforced his reluctance to return to the transfer market.

While there are parallels to the decision not to buy a centre-back in 2020, which then cost them amid a wave of injuries, there is a fundamental difference. Then Liverpool had three specialists for two positions. Rewind a few months and Klopp appeared to have nine options for the three midfield spots.

Now he has too many midfielders and too few. The flaws in the nine didn’t just show up in a winless start to the Premier League campaign, but on the treatment table. While Klopp’s MVPs have formidable fitness records – think Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and, with one crucial issue, Van Dijk – too many of his midfielders are prone to wounds.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has become an afterthought amid his absences. Thiago’s ceiling over the past decade has been 42 club games per season, and Liverpool played 64 last season. The problem with owning a unique talent is that no one replicates his role when he’s out and they have to factor in the likelihood of him missing one in three games. Naby Keita was supposed to be the most dynamic, but due to a combination of selection and fitness issues he never played more than 41% of minutes in a Premier League campaign. He’s been sporadically excellent but an overall assessment – ​​if not Klopp’s more generous verdicts – may be that he’s flattered to cheat and, in a curiosity of a career at Anfield, it’s odd that Liverpool have failed to extend the £52m contract. signature that could leave for free. Now Curtis Jones has entered the cycle of injury after injury. At the other extreme, Jordan Henderson played 57 games last season, but probably never will again.

Harvey Elliott has had opportunities this season

(The FA/Getty)

The composition of the nine is both equal and unequal. That Klopp has three youngsters, in Jones, Harvey Elliott and Fabio Carvalho, may explain a determination not to bring in anyone who would be an obstacle to their ambitions. But there is a generation gap: James Milner, 37 in January, is buying time at Liverpool ahead of a possible overhaul next summer when Milner, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain are all out of contract. The nine split into three in their thirties, three 21 or younger, and just three – including the oft-injured Oxlade-Chamberlain – in what are believed to be their peak years. Liverpool may have the past and the future, but it begs the question of the present.

And the reality that the young trio are essentially attacking midfielders highlights an imbalance. Of the nine, only two, Fabinho and Henderson, are really suited to the starting role and the captain is also a first-choice number 8. That’s why, despite all the attention on Bellingham, the ideal Liverpool midfield makeover would involve not one addition but two. Another defensive presence would help bring in the solidity they’ve lacked this season and Klopp’s decision to bench Fabinho at Old Trafford was odd.

All of this may be a roundabout way of saying that a year after his departure, Liverpool are missing Klopp’s definitive midfielder. Gini Wijnaldum was never injured, always consistent and could fill all three roles. He rarely scored or assisted, but he excelled at keeping the midfield running smoothly, offering selfless support in a way that cut off counter-attacks, retaining possession, covering gaps and facilitating excellence more catchy than others.

The midfield is the most functional department of the Liverpool team; since the departure of Philippe Coutinho, his most extravagant talent, he has been recalibrated in such a way that there is no longer an equivalent of Kevin de Bruyne or Bruno Fernandes. Yet he attracts the most attention when he doesn’t perform properly, when they lack the required combination of chemistry, energy and tactical discipline, and Liverpool looked stretched at Old Trafford.

Wijnaldum was both the great player and the constant; he has been neither since leaving, losing his place at Paris Saint-Germain and picking up an injury at Roma. Liverpool’s first year without Wijnaldum was two games away from finishing with glory on four fronts. But while their attack was overhauled in 2022, their midfield now appears to be in limbo, awaiting a 2023 change.

Why Liverpool’s squeaky midfielder needs an overhaul

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