MATCHDAY PROGRAMME

Jurgen Klopp’s midfield evolution has been key to Liverpool 2.0 – but how exactly?

Liverpool’s midfield overhaul was undoubtedly the story of the summer at Anfield, and here Leo Rutherford takes a deep dive into how evolution has paid off.

The Reds conducted a major overhaul in their engine room over the summer transfer window, with the new arrivals of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Ryan Gravenberch and Wataru Endo.

Jurgen Klopp publicly admitted that he felt that “it was time” to transform the middle of the park from the oldest midfield in the Premier League to one of the youngest, and the success of ‘Liverpool 2.0’ thus far has certainly been epitomised by their renewed energy in this area of the pitch.

Liverpool recouped north of £50 million for the departing Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, while James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita parted ways at the end of their respective contracts.

The quintet were, of course, prominent members of a high-flying side that delivered the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and so on, yet their roles would diminish by the end of last season.

Injury woes in this department are nothing new for a side who have suffered greatly from availability crises in recent seasons; young duo Fabio Carvalho and Harvey Elliott were even thrown into the deep end in last season’s away Merseyside derby.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, October 29, 2023: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) and Dominik Szoboszlai after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 3-0. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Significantly, Szoboszlai has already doubled the total combined Premier League minutes which Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain registered last season, while the Reds’ new Hungarian No. 8 is only 128 away from eclipsing Thiago‘s tally for the previous league campaign too.

Thus far, Liverpool’s new-look midfield has been the necessary glue between a free-flowing attacking force and a tight defensive unit that has shipped the second-fewest goals in the division (11), as Klopp’s side sit just one point behind Man City and two behind table-toppers Arsenal.

Let’s take a closer look at how such a transformation has been made possible.

 

Defensive midfield: Mac Allister and Endo

PRESTON, ENGLAND - Monday, August 7, 2023: Liverpool's Alexis Mac Allister during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and SV Darmstadt 98 at Deepdale. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Cries for the Reds to bolster their virtually non-existent holding midfield options were as loud as ever in the summer, but the manner in which the problems were addressed was certainly unconventional.

Fabinho had reached extraordinary heights in Liverpool red as he elevated himself to the world’s greatest in the position at one stage, being named in the Champions League Team of the Season for 2021/22.

Yet the now Al-Ittihad midfielder’s rapid decline in the final 12 months of his tenure was brutal enough to lead to a total rethink in the No. 6 position in the corridors of the AXA.

The £35 million acquisition of Mac Allister from Brighton back in June led to discourse surrounding whether the World Cup winner could add goals to the Liverpool midfield.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Saturday, November 25, 2023: Manchester City's Bernardo Silva is dispossed by Liverpool's Alexis Mac Allister during the FA Premier League match between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at the City of Manchester Stadium. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Instead, the 24-year-old has began his Anfield tenure in a deeper area of the pitch, predominantly featuring behind Szoboszlai and Curtis Jones in the midfield three.

Thirty-seven percent of Mac Allister’s minutes on the south coast came as a No. 6 under Graham Potter and Roberto De Zerbi, so it is certainly not a totally unfamiliar adjustment for the Argentine to make.


Graphic via Sky Sports

But the tricky midfielder possesses a wholly different skillset to the mainstays in the position from recent years, most notably Fabinho and Henderson.

Anfield scouts will have been alerted to Mac Allister’s impressive press-resistance, which led to him recording the fourth-lowest turnover rate out of all Premier League midfielders last season, being one of the main creative outlets in a possession-comfy De Zerbi team.

The former Brighton man has at least brought considerably more on-ball security to the table, despite the clear defensive deficiencies.


Graphic created via DataMB tool. Mac Allister 23/24 (blue) vs. Fabinho 22/23 (green)

The data certainly supports this view – Mac Allister’s arrival has led to a stark improvement in possession, but he is of course led by his predecessor in terms of individual duels.

The remarkable disparity between the two in the progressive carries and progressive passes department visualises Liverpool’s idea to utilise a player with immense technical security deeper in the pitch, to effortlessly progress play and break the lines.

An ability to carry the ball 20 to 30 yards up the pitch from deep is an invaluable asset for a team, and is evidently a much more consistent aspect of Mac Allister’s game than Fabinho‘s.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 30, 2023: Liverpool's Wataru Endo during the FA Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Eyebrows were certainly raised across the football world when 30-year-old Japan international Endo traded a Bundesliga relegation dogfight with Stuttgart for the glamour of Liverpool.

The failure to land key summer targets Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia clearly led to a rethink in strategy, after which a more traditional and aggressive option was snapped up in Endo.

As expected, the new acquisition has started in all four of the opening Europa League clashes, but has also found his name in the starting XI of a Premier League teamsheet twice, in the absence of suspended seniors.

Indisputably, Endo displayed his most complete performance in a Liverpool shirt in the 5-1 hammering of Toulouse: registering a goal, five tackles, three interceptions and two key passes.


Endo’s defensive action map in the recent 3-0 home victory against Brentford

 

Right central midfield: Szoboszlai

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 2, 2023: Liverpool's Dominik Szoboszlai celebrates after scoring the first goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The decision for long-serving captain Henderson to depart was seemingly an event which no one at the club had anticipated, but the Reds have coped just fine in his absence.

Szoboszlai’s £60 million release clause was triggered in July, and neither he nor Liverpool have looked back since.

Viewed as the complete midfielder that hasn’t been present in the Anfield ranks since the legendary Steven Gerrard, Szoboszlai has proved his worth as an all-action presence with the genuine ability to dictate the game at his spectacular best.

Two stunning piledrivers against Aston Villa and Leicester have provided hope that the Hungarian can become the first Liverpool midfielder to register double figures in the goal charts since Philippe Coutinho in 2017/18, with the goalscoring numbers plummeting hugely in this department since the Brazilian’s departure.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 9, 2023: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson looks dejected as Arsenal score a second goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Despite his clear contributions in the pinnacle years of the Klopp era, Henderson endured one of the toughest seasons of his spell at the club last term, on the right of the midfield three.

Defensively, the ageing captain struggled to maintain the strong engine required to cover for the front-footed Trent Alexander-Arnold, and, offensively, there was a scarce amount of creativity or precision in Henderson’s attempts to create chances.


Graph created using MCLach Bot

It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Hungary have gone 12 matches unbeaten, the longest current streak in international football, since Szoboszlai was appointed as captain.

The 23-year-old’s capacity to break the lines and unlock defences has paid in dividends for Liverpool so far, creating freely for the record-breaking Mohamed Salah, who has relished the early months of his time spent with the new-look midfield.

For a large portion of last season, the Reds’ midfield was often labelled as ‘sluggish’ and ‘predictable’; two traits which certainly cannot be attributed to the in-form Hungarian.

The very best of Szoboszlai was unleashed in last month’s comfortable home victory over Nottingham Forest, where he registered two assists and four key passes, as well as the typically reliable off-the-ball performance.

 

Left central midfield: Gravenberch, Jones and Thiago’s role

LINZ, AUSTRIA - Thursday, September 21, 2023: Liverpool's Ryan Gravenberch applauds the supporters as he walks off with an injury during the UEFA Europa League Group E matchday 1 game between LASK and Liverpool FC at the Raiffeisen Arena. Liverpool won 3-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Netherlands international Gravenberch was a player on Liverpool’s radar for a number of years before his switch to Bayern Munich last summer, but the 21-year-old was quickly discarded in Bavaria by Thomas Tuchel.

A £38.5 million deal to bring the midfielder to Anfield was agreed on deadline day, despite late drama surrounding Bayern’s inability to sign replacement target Joao Palhinha from Fulham.

When fit, Thiago has certainly added another dimension or two to his role on the left of the two ‘eights’, and evolved Liverpool’s midfield into a more technically secure unit.

However, the 21-year-old has stepped into that position in promising fashion.

Gravenberch’s remarkable athleticism has undoubtedly made a difference in the middle of the park in his early appearances, but it is his on-ball prowess that provided a very welcome surprise for Liverpool supporters.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, October 26, 2023: Liverpool's Ryan Gravenberch during the UEFA Europa League Group E matchday 3 game between Liverpool FC and Toulouse FC at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The summer arrival possesses great ball-carrying talent, can break the lines with his incisive passing and dribbling, whilst being able to comfortably drop into the No. 6 position to progress the play from deep.

Already, Gravenberch’s profile has attracted premature comparisons to the likes of Yaya Toure and Paul Pogba, for his elegance on the ball despite being one of the tallest midfielders in the Premier League.

Goals against Union SG and Toulouse in the Europa League have served as a breath of fresh air for a side who have deeply struggled for goals from the centre of the pitch for a number of years.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, as the youngster was averaging 2.73 shot-creating actions per 90 during his time in the Eredivisie, where most of the Dutchman’s tenure was spent playing in a double pivot under Erik Ten Hag.


Comparison graph – Ryan Gravenberch (blue) vs Curtis Jones (red), 2023/24 stats. Created using MCLach Bot

Before the contentious red card in September’s defeat at Tottenham, Jones was relishing his opportunity as a mainstay on the left of Liverpool’s midfield three.

Jones had unarguably turned a corner when presented with a regular advanced midfield role in the starting lineup towards the end of last season, coinciding with an upturn in results as the Reds ended the season unbeaten in 11 Premier League games.

Healthy competition is beneficial for every successful team, and Liverpool finally seem to have that in abundance this season.

As shown in the data, the 22-year-old Scouser holds up fairly well in most metrics against the newly arriving Gravenberch, yet there are notable differences in terms of chance creation and progressive dribbling.

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 16, 2023: Liverpool's Harvey Elliott (L) celebrates with team-mate Curtis Jones after scoring the third goal during the FA Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers FC and Liverpool FC at Molineux Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The Dutchman leads in ball-carrying as well as both key and progressive passing, reaffirming his rare technical profile for a player of his size.

Inevitably, there are areas of Gravenberch’s game which still need to be ironed out; he is conceding almost twice the amount of turnovers on average as Jones this season – perhaps emphasising the need to be safer in possession on occasion.

On the defensive end, he naturally leads Jones in most metrics due to his years of experience playing in a double pivot, boasting impressive interception and aerial numbers.

However, and perhaps surprisingly, it is the young Englishman who holds the considerably higher percentage of dribblers tackled, as he continues to evolve from a left-sided attacking academy prodigy to a technically safe all-action midfielder with the total trust of the manager, as it would seem.

 

More to come?

LUTON, ENGLAND - Sunday, November 5, 2023: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp applauds the supporters after the FA Premier League match between Luton Town FC and Liverpool FC at Kenilworth Road. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In short, despite some noticeable shortfalls defending transitions, Liverpool’s transformed midfield is performing exceptionally stronger than that of last season, when the Reds recorded their lowest league finish since 2015/16.

The talented Spanish pair of Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago are yet to feature for the Reds in the Premier League this season, and yet Klopp’s side find themselves in a position with genuine aspirations of their 20th title.

Whether another defensive-minded midfielder enters the doors of the AXA Training Centre in January remains to be seen.

But the once inescapable plethora of rumours surrounding the potential signing of Andre from Fluminense have certainly dissolved since the Copa Libertadores final.


* This is a guest article for This Is Anfield by Leo Rutherford. Follow Leo on Twitter @leor61_. To submit an article for consideration, contact [email protected].