With Liverpool’s team taking shape ahead of the 2015/16 season, defensive midfield remains a rare area of the pitch where first-choice is up for debate.
It would be foolish to say that Brendan Rodgers already has 10 of his starting XI for their trip to Stoke City on 9th August sorted, but that’s surely not a million miles away from being the case.
Jordan Henderson and James Milner look a match made in heaven in the middle of the park, whether that be in a midfield three or in a diamond, and their dynamism will be key to the Reds’ hopes in 2015/16.
Quite how Rodgers decides to use his forwards is not yet known, but it would be a big surprise if Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke weren’t first-choice for the early weeks of the season.
Firmino may not start against Stoke, mind you, depending on whether he is lacking match sharpness or not following an extended summer break.
This brings us to defensive midfield. There are three players vying for a starting berth, with the trio all bringing different strengths and weaknesses to the side.
As it stands, Lucas Leiva looks the favourite to be Liverpool’s main man in the role, which seems the sensible option by Rodgers.
The 28-year-old remains the only out-and-out defensive midfielder at the club, and is now one of Liverpool’s most senior players.
He proved how influential he can be when he was reintegrated into the team last winter, with the Reds’ resurgence in form coinciding with the calm, understated presence he brought to proceedings.
The former Gremio man’s reading of the game is terrific, he keeps the ball ticking over without being flamboyant and his focus is almost solely on the defensive aspect of things.
There are negatives, of course.
The injuries the Brazilian has suffered has left him with virtually no pace, which sees him concede countless fouls and receive needless yellow cards. His use of the ball could also be more incisive at times.
He might not have the overall game of someone like Nemanja Matic, Morgan Schneiderlin or Javier Mascherano, but Lucas is still a very safe pair of hands.
Has there been a Liverpool player who has divided opinion quite like Joe Allen over the last decade?
The Welshman has plenty of detractors who see him as someone completely out of his depth, while his supporters laud him for his quietly undervalued influence.
In truth, the diminutive 25-year-old is somewhere in between.
On his day he can be terrific, as shown by his exceptional display against Manchester City in March, but too often he follows it up with a limp performance against inferior opposition.
Allen certainly brings attributes to the side that Lucas doesn’t, most notably crisper passing and an ability to run with the ball. His pressing game is also one of the best in the squad.
It is debatable whether Rodgers trusts his former Swansea star to be his first-choice defensive midfielder yet though, and this season is a pivotal one for the Wales international.
He has reached the stage where he simply must kick on, much in the way Henderson has, or face being case aside more and more as the season progresses.
There is definite potential there, as much as his critics like to claim he is Championship standard, but he needs to start playing with more belief and consistency.
In a strange sort of way, Emre Can has become something of a forgotten man during pre-season, due in part to not going on the club’s tour of the Far East and Australia.
The young German almost feels too good to leave out of the side, but it seems difficult to find a space for him without disrupting the balance.
Although the 21-year-old could certainly do a job in defensive midfield, his gung-ho style and lack of experience means playing him there would be a gamble.
That may be a slightly negative stance to take, however, and giving him a chance to thrive in the role could prove to be inspired by Rodgers. [td_ad_box spot_id=“custom_ad_3″]
Can is not a competent enough centre-back to play in a two, he has shown he cannot shine at right-back, while Henderson and Milner have the two more forward-thinking midfield roles in the bag. It feels like defensive midfield or the bench for the time being.
There is no shame in that, given Can’s age- he probably progressed faster than anyone expected last season- and he will become more and more key in time.
Long-term, he may well be Liverpool’s holding midfielder, although his Yaya Toure-esque style could be wasted there.
Defensive midfield has become one of the most important positions for any team in the modern game, and Rodgers has his work cut out in deciding on who to rely on most out of Lucas, Allen and Can.
The Northern Irishman has been criticised in the past for not taking the role seriously enough, and you wouldn’t totally rule out him trying out Henderson or Milner in the role. That would be suicidal.
Allen is probably the least likely to nail down a starting spot in the first few months of the campaign, but should the needlessly-nicknamed “Welsh Xavi” get a chance and impress, he could really kick on in a Liverpool shirt.
Can is comfortably the most exciting of the three, with easily the most potential, but deploying him in front of the back-four does feel a little too attack-minded.
He is still very raw in certain aspects of his game, and he doesn’t yet have the consistency and intelligence to be relied upon week in, week out.
It is Lucas, therefore, who should slot in alongside Henderson and Milner, despite his aforementioned deficiencies.
Long-term, the likeable Brazilian is not the answer, but for now he brings the experience and know-how needed for Liverpool to thrive in their tough early months of the season.