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Jurgen Klopp’s big call solved Liverpool midfield issue – but will it stay?

A change of heart and a change of system from the boss saw Liverpool win in Europe midweek, but can we expect the same domestically?

Throw a dart blindfolded at a football pitch-shaped dartboard and there’s a fair chance you’ll strike an area which has been a concern for Liverpool this season.

From a lack of pressure on the ball at the top end of the pitch, to horrible wastefulness in the centre, to negligent or non-existent tracking of runners from deep all the way through to individual errors at the back, the Reds simply haven’t been…well, good is the word.

In the more-or-less words of Jurgen Klopp, everything had to change; everything had to get better.

The lack of time between matches meant our second detailed look at the midfield – the first is here, from a couple of games in – had to wait until after Rangers.

In the end, it’s just as well, as we finally produced a performance worthy of the name, changed up the alignment of the team and actually did some off-ball work to reflect our fabled, famous, until-then-forgotten ‘identity’.

LFC midfield, PL 2022/23

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, August 15, 2022: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson applauds the supporters after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Starting combinations and results

Fabinho-Henderson-Thiago – 2 draws
Fabinho-Elliott-Henderson – 2 wins
Fabinho-Elliott-Milner – 1 draw
Henderson-Elliott-Milner – 1 defeat
Fabinho-Elliott, Carvalho-1 draw

Midfielders by minutes

Fabinho: 540
Harvey Elliott: 455
Jordan Henderson: 376
James Milner: 270
Fabio Carvalho: 196
Thiago: 140
Stefan Bajcetic: 20

As usual, the stats are league only.

To note, Carvalho has 45 minutes in attack rather than midfield. Should he now continue to be used more in the front line, we’ll remove him from the equation next time out.

Now that we’ve had a few matches (nearly a quarter of the season gone!) and the sample size is larger, it’s worth a few direct comparisons with last year to see where the Reds are going wrong and where they’ve fallen short.

 

The problems so far

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, September 6, 2022: Liverpool's Thiago Alcântara during a training session at the AXA Training Centre ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 1 game between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Across the board, our passing is around one percent down on accuracy from 2021/22 in each of short-, medium- and long-range passes.

It doesn’t sound a huge amount, but consider that Liverpool average around 650 passes a match.

Give the ball away an additional half-a-dozen times a game just through wayward balls – not counting losing tackles or not having possession in the first place – and the problems do mount up faster if the off-ball work isn’t up to scratch.

Looking into more detail now, there are certain match situations in which the numbers clearly back up what we’ve seen with our own eyes: namely, they are not playing at a high enough tempo, have struggled when opponents harass them and been generally a lot worse off the ball.

Returning to a strictly midfield focus, it is important to note that, a lot of the time, the centre of the park can be bypassed in Klopp’s team when the pressure isn’t right from the front.

He often talks about defending starting high upfield and that’s of course absolutely right – and a big part of the knock-on effect of the whole team conceding chances – but individually those in the middle have been making some odd choices during games all the same.

We’ll get to the positional stuff in a moment, but first the numbers.

Against Brighton, for example, a team who played through and cut Liverpool apart so many times they resembled a dubiously fashionable pair of jeans by full-time, it should perhaps have been an opportune fixture for the midfield three to get in plenty of defensive actions.

If they couldn’t stop all of their attacks, surely they halted plenty at source? Apparently not.

For context, Henderson played an hour, Thiago went off in the final minute. Elliott did not make a tackle or interception in his half-hour on the pitch.

Individual non-brilliance was on show too often again from Fabinho, who has had a very tough start to the season.

That said, Liverpool’s dismal defensive work in general has way too often left him exposed centrally, two players either side of him and no protection from the No. 8s.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, September 13, 2022: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' (C) is challenged by AFC Ajax's Steven Berghuis (L) and Jurriën Timber during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 2 game between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

As a result, he currently ranks third in the Premier League for middle-third tackles; his 2.2 per 90 average is up considerably on his 1.3 from last term.

It is, needless to say, by necessity.

As an aside – but highlighting of the extra recovery effort needed this season – the only player in the league’s current top 10 for middle-third tackles who is not a central ball-winner (think Joao Palhinha, Tyler Adams, John McGinn) is…Luis Diaz.

 

How it changed against Rangers

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, October 3, 2022: Liverpool's team lineup during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 3 game between Liverpool FC and Glasgow Rangers FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

By now most will have seen the horrendous screengrabs of Liverpool’s out-of-position right flank against Brighton, even if it hadn’t already scarred the retinas when watching live at the weekend.

That, as much as the result, forced the boss and his coaches into a reshuffle: a double pivot midfield in the Champions League enforced two players behind play more often and allowed four forwards to link up with frequency.

In very broad strokes, Liverpool have basically over the last couple of years been a 4-6 team: two centre-backs, the No. 6 and one No. 8 sit defensive in general play, leaving six players – three forwards, two full-backs, the other No. 8 – to attack at any given moment.

There have been attempts to make it a 3-7 in certain situations, creating overloads and swamping opponents high upfield, but when it goes wrong it leaves the Reds badly exposed.

Rangers saw Liverpool largely set up in a 5-5, one full-back or the other joining the attack, with occasions that a high press could tilt it to a 4-6.

As others have mentioned, and rightly so, the quality of opponent has to be taken into account, but given none of Fulham, Crystal Palace or Man United are likely to be winning silverware any time soon and all have caused Liverpool problems, we can still take the midfield solidity as a good step forward.

On the ball, both starters were better. Off the ball, well, only one really impacted that positively but it was more the shape, the arrangement, which proved helpful.

One very notable occasion where the double pivot triumphed when the single No. 6 would have left the centre-backs exposed again came in the second half.

Ryan Kent took the ball on the turn, spinning past Henderson, who had gambled on the Rangers man going or passing right, not left.

He surged into space, but with Thiago having been basically in line with the captain, he was able to match the runner, make the tackle and start Liverpool playing again.

A single example is never proof, but it is indicative of the difference the pair can make when the team doesn’t have the control it needs higher upfield to use just one – especially if one player does not make the needed recovery run.

 

Will the two-man midfield stay?

As for whether it sticks around for the Premier League, it will likely depend on two things.

First, whether there have been any training sessions to work out the flaws in the three-man problem. There are obvious issues with pressing and positioning which are unlikely to magically resolve themselves.

Given the form and quality of our next two league opponents – Arsenal and Man City – Klopp could just opt to stick with the confidence and slightly better defensive protection his side can take from the Rangers win, at least for this weekend.

Secondly, it’s a question of fitness of course.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 27, 2022: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' (L) and Kostas Tsimikas applaud the supporters after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and AFC Bournemouth at Anfield. Liverpool won 9-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Too many players have been too brittle and need to be protected. It would not be a surprise to see changes made at Ibrox to ensure the Reds are fighting fit against Pep Guardiola’s machines.

At a guess? Klopp hedges his bets against the Gunners.

The double pivot could remain, but with Fabinho part of it and Thiago pushed forward to operate as a more ‘true’ No. 10, allowing defensive protection but with also the option to return to a 4-3-3 if the opening stages do not go to plan.


Stats via FBref, WhoScored and FotMob