Jurgen Klopp feeling the effects of squad gamble in Liverpool’s midfield

After Liverpool’s nightmare injury crisis in defence last season, Jurgen Klopp is now experiencing a similar problem in midfield, which stems from his philosophy in squad-building.

When heading into the summer transfer market, Klopp and the club’s recruitment staff knew that they had one priority.

And by bringing in Ibrahima Konate, Liverpool addressed the biggest flaw in their approach in the previous summer when they failed to replace Dejan Lovren.

The development surrounding Nat Phillips‘ future – which saw possible moves to the likes of Newcastle, Burnley and Brighton pass by and a new four-year contract signed instead – has dealt Klopp a five-strong group of senior centre-backs.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, September 27, 2021: Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (L) and Joe Gomez during a training session at the AXA Training Centre ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 2 game between FC Porto and Liverpool FC. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Having gone from three players for two spots last term, the Reds currently have the luxury position of four fit options fighting it out for the place alongside Virgil van Dijk.

As a result, Phillips’ only minutes so far have come as a second-half substitute against Preston in the League Cup and for the under-21s against former side Bolton.

Joe Gomez, meanwhile, has clocked just 12 minutes in the Premier League.

It is a healthy situation that should cover all bases throughout the season ahead, with Gomez, Konate and Joel Matip all top-class partners to Van Dijk and Phillips a more-than-capable fifth choice.

However, when Gini Wijnaldum opted to leave on a free transfer last summer, the Reds were presented with a similar problem to when Lovren departed.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, May 23, 2021: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum is given a send off by his team-mates after the final FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Again, Klopp’s solution was to look in-house: with Harvey Elliott excelling on loan at Blackburn last term and slotting in well in pre-season, the 18-year-old was the de facto replacement.

Liverpool began the campaign with eight options for three roles, as Elliott joined Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago, Naby Keita, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones.

That Elliott was preferred to Thiago, Jones, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain to varying degrees over the early clashes with Burnley, Chelsea and Leeds signified both Klopp’s faith in the teenager and a strength in depth in midfield.

So it seemed, perhaps, as two-and-a-half months into the season and Liverpool are left with only Henderson, Jones and Oxlade-Chamberlain as fully fit midfielders.

Thiago is working his way back following a lengthy calf problem, while Fabinho is still sidelined and both Milner and Keita are laid up with hamstring injuries.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 28, 2021: Liverpool's Harvey Elliott (L) during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Elliott, after all, is the worst-affected, with the fracture-dislocation in his ankle expected to keep him out for the majority of the campaign.

The problem may not be quite as bad as being without Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip for the remainder of the season, and needing to draft Phillips and Rhys Williams in from the academy along with signing Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak.

But it certainly serves up another conundrum for Klopp as he sticks to his guns when building a squad.

“We are happy with the squad we have, but we have a lot of problems in the moment,” he told reporters before the clash with Brighton.

“We have the midfield players out, we had eight midfield players when the season started, now around about four.

“It’s not too cool, but there are always problems, we just have to try to sort them.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 30, 2021: Liverpool's Naby Keita speaks with manager Jürgen Klopp as he goes off injured during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Keita, only just back after a red-card challenge from Paul Pogba in the 5-0 thrashing of Man United, was forced off 19 minutes into Saturday’s 2-2 draw – but Klopp would no doubt maintain the stance he set out beforehand.

“If you say ‘OK, [sign] another four or five players, then you will never have that problem again in any position’, that’s maybe true,” he continued.

“But you can never have the atmosphere in the squad, which is much more important to win something than with a squad with 40 players. It’s just not possible.

“We spoke about it, you have to keep the players happy, the players need to see that they have the chance to get in the team if they perform on their highest level.

“With 40 players, that’s obviously not the case, and that’s probably the only solution for injury crises.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, August 9, 2021: Liverpool's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético Osasuna at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In short, Klopp was either not comfortable with signing a readymade replacement in Wijnaldum as it would block the development of Elliott and Jones, or those within the club would not sanction one given the number of personnel on the books.

This season is widely seen as make-or-break for both Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain, given their contracts expire in 2023, but there was no guarantee a move for either would have emerged in the summer transfer window given their unreliable form and fitness.

It would be remiss to suggest that Klopp’s hands were tied, but that is the reality of managing a highly-paid group of players around their peak age.

Another reality is that, of those eight midfield options, four can be considered injury prone (Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Thiago, Henderson), two are under 21 (Elliott, Jones) and one is 35 (Milner).

The question is not in their quality, but in their consistency and availability.

LEEDS, ENGLAND - Sunday, September 12, 2021: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' celebrates after scoring the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Leeds United FC and Liverpool FC at Elland Road. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Fabinho is, undoubtedly, one of Liverpool’s most important players – in league with Van Dijk, Alisson and Mo Salah – but even the Brazilian cannot be expected to play every game.

Where does that leave Klopp, then?

Unfortunately, for the short-term at least, it could be that he is left to take similarly drastic measures to his centre-back crisis last season, when he turned to the inexperienced and out-of-position to plug gaps.

Tyler Morton was named in the Premier League squad for the first time against Brighton, a day before his 19th birthday, while Takumi Minamino was given his first league minutes of the campaign in an unfamiliar role as central midfielder.

While Thiago is nearing his return and Fabinho could be back imminently, there is no ruling out at least one of Morton or Minamino featuring in midfield against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.

PRESTON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, October 27, 2021: Liverpool's Tyler Morton during the English Football League Cup 4th Round match between Preston North End FC and Liverpool FC at Deepdale. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Just like when Phillips partnered Kabak against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of last season’s competition, it is far from the situation Klopp would have envisaged.

“That was our problem,” the manager explained recently. “When we solved that problem, it was clear we would be better again.”

It must be stressed that, Elliott withstanding, Liverpool do not have any major injuries to consider, and perhaps there will be a positive solution to this crisis.

Morton could, after all, step up to become a reliable option at senior level despite his lack of experience, Minamino may finally find his feet in an unlikely position, or Elijah Dixon-Bonner could surprise us all.

But there is no denying this is a scenario that could have been predicted back in May, when Wijnaldum was given his guard of honour at Anfield.