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Liverpool’s midfield balance: More goals, but less pressing

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The final international break of 2021 could have been well-timed for Jurgen Klopp to assess the balance of his midfield this season, especially after recent results, writes Keifer McDonald.

The thought of a mid-season international break more often than not feels like an inconvenience for even those most committed to their nations.

But for once it feels like the international calendar has been somewhat well-timed for Jurgen Klopp as he has been handed the opportunity to sit down and dissect the recent below-par outings, with many supporters citing the defeat at West Ham as one that had been lingering in the pipeline for a number of weeks.

In the aftermath of ending their 25-match unbeaten run last time out, there has been plenty of questions raised about the Reds’ midfield in particular, and whether they have the ability to grind out results in the style that they frequently executed during the title procession in the 2019/20 season.

But with the Reds having swept the continent of its glistering and most pristine trophies just a few seasons ago, what seems to have changed for Klopp’s once all-conquering system?

 

Shift in style

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 30, 2021: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson celebrates after scoring the first goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

As a result of Klopp now having five fit centre-backs at his disposal, the Reds have been able to trust Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to return to their more attacking roles from wide.

The numbers would suggest that Alexander-Arnold, at least, is back to his best as he’s racked up 48 shot-creating actions in the Premier League so far this term, with only Mohamed Salah (51) and Bruno Fernandes (54) creating more.

This freedom, however, previously came with its limitations elsewhere on the pitch as those in advanced midfield roles were required to act as temporary cover in the full-back areas – something Gini Wijnaldum excelled at. The Dutchman did the unseen wor and gave the midfield balance and defensive assuredity, two components that cannot be so well measured by metrics.

But this campaign Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita have been given less restrictive roles as there appears to be a more front-footed approach without the safeguarding of the former Liverpool man.

On one hand, the attack-minded approach appears to have been a great success for Klopp as his midfielders have either scored or assisted 19 of the 49 goals all competitions so far – thus silencing the summer pleas from plenty of supporters who felt that the current options were unable to contribute in the final third regularly.

But if the Liverpool hierarchy were somehow not impressed enough by Wijnaldum’s performances during his five years at Anfield to bow to his contract demands, perhaps the five months since his departure have highlighted how crucial he was to the Reds striking a happy medium in the middle of the pitch.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, January 21, 2021: Liverpool's captain Georginio Wijnaldum during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Burnley FC at Anfield. Burnley won 1-0 ending Liverpool’s run of 68 games unbeaten at home. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Since his summer switch to Paris, Liverpool’s problem has been being able to identify someone capable of succeeding in his exceptional off the ball work.

And like with anything in the world, with change comes drawbacks and the early season stats would suggest that the Reds are struggling to replicate his efficiency which helped secure their first league title in 30 years.

 

Pressing problems?

It is evident to the naked eye that the trio of Henderson, Fabinho and Keita are situated in a higher default position in comparison to previous seasons, which has caused the trio to collectively have less of their touches in the defensive third and instead taking up more threatening areas.

Despite its infancy, the tweak has certainly proved its value as there has been a windfall of decisive contributions in the final third of the pitch from those occupying the central positions, with the midfield on course to beat their goal and assist contributions from the 2019/20 season.

However, despite the trio taking up a more advanced starting position – which allows them to engage the counter-press higher up and become more compact between the lines – they are enjoying less success with their pressing, as shown in the table above.

In recent months the likes of West Ham, Brighton, Atletico Madrid and Man City have all bypassed Liverpool’s midfield with far too much ease, with Wijnaldum’s unvacated recovery positions looking more glaring by the week.

This, alongside Liverpool’s high-defensive line, has allowed teams to profit by overloading both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson – who have found themselves without protection after taking up advance positions, or doubled-up on.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 30, 2021: Brighton & Hove Albion's Leandro Trossard scores the second goal to equalise the score at 2-2 during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There are plenty of reasons as to why Klopp may have opted to shift the midfield balance this season, as the Reds managed just one Premier League goal over an 8,100-minute period at Anfield between January and March.

That wretched run coincided with the club’s worst home run since the 1953/54 season as even the famed front-three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were unable to bail their teammates out.

Liverpool’s uncharacteristic showings earlier in 2021 will have reminded all that, despite the brilliance of Salah, they cannot afford to rely on individuals in front of goal.

And it’s no surprise that the midfield have become more fluid when transitioning from defence into attack this season, something that was demonstrated by the multiple 5-0 thrashings that were handed out in October.

But as the Reds gear up for their busiest spell of the season and positions begin to be rotated, perhaps for Klopp and Liverpool attack really is the best form of defence given the attacking inclination boasted by the current midfield options.

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