Written by: Daniel Ghorbal @danghorbal
After seeing a number of different midfield combinations last season, Jurgen Klopp has many options heading into the new campaign, with a realistic 7 different players capable of forming a midfield trio. Typically, throughout his time at the club, Jurgen has opted for a 4-3-3 formation with 1 midfielder playing the number 6 role, having the responsibility to protect the defence and split the play up, then 2 number 8s with more conventional midfield roles.
Last season, Fabinho was undoubtedly the man who made that number 6 position his own, with consistently solid performances, showcasing his ability to read the game and dominate the opposition. The Brazilian international acquired from Monaco last season will definitely remain as Liverpool’s central defensive midfielder for many years to come. However, this is where it begins to get complicated. Fabinho walks into the midfield but the 2 remaining positions are certainly up for grabs, not in the sense that no players deserve to nail down a spot in the side, but due to the fact there are at least 4 superb options for Jurgen and his coaching staff to ponder.
The first midfielder to discuss is Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s captain and leader. Henderson started off the season in his usual number 6 role but after Fabinho came in and fulfilled the role of an old-fashioned, no nonsense defensive midfielder, Henderson realised that this was not his place in the side and he was more suited to a number 8 role, similar to that of the one he played in Brendan Rodgers’ 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation in the 2013/14 season.
Although it wasn’t until April before Henderson was truly unleashed in this role, his impact in the side from then (Southampton away) until the end of the season was huge. Henderson has never been a player recognised for his goal and assist contributions but in the space of 4 games, Liverpool’s captain scored 1 goal and got 3 assists, a positive return for someone who isn’t blessed with attacking qualities. Personally, it would be refreshing to see Henderson start of the season where he left off. Ultimately, he is only the 6th player in Liverpool’s history to lift the European cup and a worthy recipient of the praise he received.
Also, if Fabinho was to pick up an injury or suspension, Henderson could easily fill in for his teammate and do a sound job. Jordan Henderson has often received stick in his Liverpool career for perhaps not being the superb defensive midfielder everyone wants him to be, however I simply think Fabinho’s excellence in that position sets the bar for the standard that needs to be implemented throughout the side. Henderson has never been ‘bad’ whilst playing here and sometimes the ex-Sunderland man can be an easy scapegoat for criticism. Whether he plays in the CDM role or the more advanced 8 role, Henderson will be a crucial part of the midfield next season and I suspect will start the majority of games where he is available.
The next midfielder to discuss is James Milner, although his future at the club may not even belong in the midfield. James has been a model pro for the club since joining in 2015, playing in a range of different positions and playing to the best of his ability and at 100% every time. Milner, a midfield by trade is perfectly suited for the role of a box-to-box, energy sapping midfielder. He has immense fitness levels, a good footballing brain and quality to add too.
However, as his attitude and commitment to the cause is always there, Jurgen Klopp has relied upon Milner and more specifically his versatility to cover key positions, especially left-back and right-back. As someone who never complains and does what is best for the club, Milner will always step in when required. Personally I think that this is a compliment to the ex-Manchester City man. It is not a case of Milner being thrown in because his services elsewhere are under-valued, but more down to the managers’ faith in him and his tendency not to let you down where others may. For the upcoming season, I see Milner being important as always, whether he plays left-back to cover Robertson, right-back to cover Alexander-Arnold or in midfield where he can strut his stuff and showcase his abilities.
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The 3rd midfield option to discuss is Georginio Wijnaldum, a man who has served Liverpool Football Club incredibly well over the past 3 seasons. Gini joined after leaving a relegated Newcastle and instantly connected with the fans. His chant to the tune This Girl is immensely catchy and caught on with the Anfield faithful upon his arrival. Wijnaldum is a player who can dictate the tempo of a football match and the trait he has which I think is under-valued is his ability to keep hold of the ball.
No matter how many players are around him or the pressure he is receiving, Gini always manages to retain possession and gives the full-backs and other players in the side license to attack. The only real fault with Gini is his occasionally lethargic manner of approaching games, i.e. The Champions League final where he was unable to make an impact in the game, although in fairness we would not be in the final if it wasn’t for his inspiring second-leg performance against Barcelona, scoring 2 goals after coming on at half-time. But for me, his ability to turn on a switch and become explosive is exciting to see prosper and at this current stage in time Wijnaldum definitely deserves a starting place within our Champions League winning side.
The 4th midfield option and arguably most difficult to predict is Naby Keita, the Guinean international who Liverpool signed from RB Leipzig in the summer of 2017 for a wholesome £52 million. Naby failed to live up to expectations in his first season, mostly due to injury but potentially a lack of confidence and struggled to string together a run of fixtures in the side, bar the beginning of the season. Similarly to Jordan Henderson, Keita had a brief spell of games towards the latter stages of the campaign whereby we caught glimpses of what he was about, receiving the ball in advanced areas and driving at defences.
Naby scored 3 goals in 4 games from the end of April to beginning of May but all that hard-work was undone after picking up a thigh injury against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Despite this, Guinea’s national manager was still adamant for his star man to travel to Egypt for the Africa Cup of Nations, but Keita has returned home already to see a doctor over his ongoing thigh injuries. Injuries are the biggest concern for Naby Keita heading into the 2019/20, as it is clear and obvious to see that the 23 year-old has potential for the future. If he can manage to stay fit and put together a run of games in the side, I have no doubts we will start to see the best of him, adding an extra dimension to our midfield when necessary.
The final 2 realistic options to discuss are Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana. I say realistic, as there are players such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Harry Wilson who can play the number 10 role, however I am going off the basis of Jurgen’s trusty 4-3-3 formation. Starting off with Lallana, he was arguably our best player in the 2016/17 season before the turn of the year, and there was a stage in his Liverpool career where he certainly looked like he had the potential to go on and achieve big things at Anfield. On the contrary, things did not work out like this for Lallana who suffered from multiple injuries and has never been able to regain the fitness to lever himself up the pecking order. For me, Adam will simply be a squad player next season and add depth, probably playing in all domestic cup games as well as a handful of league games as a rotation player in congested periods of the season.
Finally, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can consider himself a big option in midfield ahead of the new season too. Before his unfortunate ACL injury, Oxlade-Chamberlain was in superb form, scoring some cracking goals, especially his two against Manchester City. His overall ability and signs that he was adapting rapidly to Klopp’s tempo and style of play were admirable and the injury he picked up against Roma 14 months ago came at the worst possible time. 97 points and 1 European Cup on, he is finally back and in contention to game play/ will be after a full pre-season. If, and it’s a big if, Oxlade-Chamberlain can regain the form he showed in the 17/18 season, he will give Klopp a headache, albeit a nice headache ahead of the campaign.
Overall, Liverpool are blessed with midfield options and heading into the new campaign, there are multiple options for Jurgen Klopp to choose. With Liverpool’s participation in 4 competitions though, options like this are required for top sides, as if one quality player comes out, another quality player can replace him. It will be interesting to see Naby Keita’s progression at the club as well as Henderson’s role in the number 8 position.
Written by: Daniel Ghorbal @danghorbal