Liverpool are set for a major rebuild in their midfield ranks this summer, but it is not the first time Jurgen Klopp has attempted a reboot.
When Liverpool signed Cody Gakpo in January, it completed a gradual refresh of the forward line over the last three transfer windows.
But the midfield has not benefited from the same approach, with the purchase of Thiago in 2020 still the latest permanent signing.
Curiously, there is a perfectly balanced, peak-aged, Klopp midfield three in the squad: Fabinho, Naby Keita, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Few would clamour for this unit to line up as a midfield three in any upcoming game, and the latter duo are drifting towards a contract expiry exit this summer.
But was that the midfield reboot all along?
Shapes, positions and roles
Midfield has been described as the hardest position to play in for Klopp.
Players are expected to aggressively back up the high press, drop in to cover the wide areas and track back to support the defence.
Beyond this general remit, there are three distinct roles in a Klopp midfield. These don’t necessarily correspond to positions such as No. 6, No. 8 or No. 10 – and they can be seen in a number of different systems.
But the roles themselves can be broadly defined as:
- Screening – protects the back line, winning tackles or committing tactical fouls, and acting as a pivot to progress the ball from side to side
- Between the boxes – described in more depth here, but essentially a pressure valve; maintaining possession by dribbling past opponents (take-ons) and playing sensible passes
- Box-to-box – a dynamic player who offers thrust, hard tackling but also occasionally threatening the opponent’s goal
The side Klopp inherited wasn’t purpose-built for his football, but he led them to two finals with a modified 4-2-3-1.
In the 2016 Europa League final, James Milner and Emre Can shared the first two roles as a double pivot, with Adam Lallana – naturally a No. 10 – starting on the right wing but shifting inside, fulfilling the ‘box-to-box’ role.
This shows up in that season’s data.
All three score highly for ball recoveries, tackles made and pass accuracy per 90, with Lallana focused on take-ons and chance creation.
It’s an effective overall unit, but hard to see the three distinct roles.
Arguably the most specialised role is between-the-boxes, and that’s where Klopp recruited first.
Gini Wijnaldum had played further forward for Newcastle, but profiled perfectly in key areas such as pass accuracy, ball recoveries and take-on success.
This allowed Klopp to shift to a 4-3-3, with Milner and Jordan Henderson partnering Wijnaldum frequently – including the 2018 Champions League final.
Henderson screened, leading for tackles and ball recoveries per 90, as well as switching the play with long passes.
Milner was the most active, playing the most forward passes, creating the most chances and contesting the most duels.
And Wijnaldum offered control with accurate passes and frequent dribbles past opponents.
However, with Milner already 32 years old, Liverpool moved quickly to sign Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal – a player who was already demonstrating his ability to fill the box-to-box midfield role.
Naby Keita‘s 2018 switch from RB Leipzig was also agreed that summer.
Comparing his numbers over the following year with Wijnaldum, he was clearly recruited to play the Dutchman’s role.
After Liverpool’s functional midfield came up short against a world-class Real Madrid trio in the 2018 Champions League final, the upgrade was completed with the signing of Fabinho.
Though he’d played in a pair at Monaco, Fabinho‘s numbers suggested he could thrive as the defensive midfielder of a Klopp team – particularly his tackling reliability and inclination to play safer passes.
With over £100 million invested across two windows, Liverpool now had a specialist in each role, who represented an upgrade on the existing options, all aged under 26 – theoretically with their peak years ahead.
But in the five years since then, Klopp hasn’t started a Fabinho-Keita-Oxlade-Chamberlain midfield once.
So, what happened?
The best ability
The short answer is injuries. But the timing and the context of these injuries were also critical.
Oxlade-Chamberlain missed almost all of Keita’s debut campaign recovering from injury, while the Guinean’s availability declined steadily across his first three seasons.
Club captain Henderson also successfully transitioned into a box-to-box midfielder, while Wijnaldum’s performances made him indispensable.
Of the three, only Fabinho became a starter in the title-winning midfield.
Perfectly balanced, brutally effective, with clear specialists in each role. Even when fully fit, it was difficult for Keita or Oxlade-Chamberlain to break into this unit consistently.
Oxlade-Chamberlain began appearing more often as a deputy in the forward line, while Keita’s injury issues relegated him to useful part-timer status.
By the summer of 2020, the biggest criticism of Liverpool’s midfield was not its effectiveness or its durability, but its lack of creativity – which was addressed with the signing of Thiago, a different profile of player altogether.
What could have been
By now, Fabinho would be starting with 29-year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain and 28-year-old Keita, all three of them considered to be in their prime years.
The failures of Oxlade and Keita due to injuries is exactly how and why Liverpool’s midfield has became an issue.
Instead, a combination of injuries and older players like Henderson and Thiago – who are now succumbing to age and last year’s mammoth campaign – have kept them out of the side.
Youngsters Stefan Bajcetic, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott may prove an exceptional trio in time, but they’re still developing.
Before the next likely reboot this summer, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain are stuck representing what might have been – but ultimately never was.