With calls for Harvey Elliott to be given a run of starts for Liverpool growing, Leo Rutherford looks at why the youngster has been such an effective ‘super-sub’.
Liverpool were staring down the barrel of another set of dropped points at Selhurst Park, until 20-year-old Harvey Elliott produced another stellar showing off the bench to send the Reds to the top of the league.
Elliott’s lovely fake to beat goalscorer Jean-Phillipe Mateta before opening up and rifling home a thunderous left-footed finish created remarkable scenes in front of an away end who may be starting to believe in the prospect of a title charge.
Undoubtedly, the dismissal of Jordan Ayew made proceedings a whole lot easier for a Liverpool side who were yet to kick into gear, but Elliott’s technical security and bravery to attempt key passes are central to Liverpool’s array of late fightbacks.
Elliott’s cameo (subbed on in the 75th minute) provided 100 percent pass accuracy, 31 touches, the second-highest shots total of the afternoon with two, and two recoveries as well as a fantastic goal.
Similarities can be drawn to Liverpool’s 3-1 win from behind at Molineux back in September, where, until substitutions were made, Wolves effectively negated the visitors’ buildup and the forward line were simply too static.
Despite limited minutes, the young midfielder has registered 10 goal contributions for both Liverpool and England U21 this season, as he strives to add increased efficiency to his impressive skillset.
After all, this is a player who recorded double-figure assists as well as seven goals during his loan spell as a 17-year-old prodigy at Blackburn.
At Liverpool, the immense maturity became apparent in Elliott’s game earlier than anyone could have anticipated – earning the trust of his manager to become a trusted asset on the right of the midfield three.
Elliott’s numbers aren’t too bad three years on from his Championship experience: averaging a goal or assist every 99 minutes in the Premier League this season.
Generally, it is his ability to take the ball on the turn and drive into the half-spaces left by the tiring legs of the midfield opposition which proves to be beneficial for the Reds in second halves, as well as the obvious talent in terms of ball-striking and chance-creation.
Though much is made about his lack of physicality in comparison to the profiles which Liverpool have had in midfield in recent times, the physical shortcomings are essentially equalised due to his mature reading of the game as well as the fact that he is predominantly facing tired legs.
Impressively, Elliott is averaging 7.68 progressive passes per 90 in all competitions, ranking him behind only Trent Alexander-Arnold (8.66) in this department, as well as leading the way in terms of passes into the penalty area with a promising average of 3.05.
Visualised above are passing maps from the 2-1 win over Crystal Palace.
The first graphic highlights Liverpool’s passing network in the attacking half in the 74 minutes before Elliott replaced Nunez, while the second features the 20-year-old’s 15-minute-plus-stoppage-time cameo.
Essentially, Elliott’s total of four completed progressive passes would have ranked as the second-highest for the Liverpool starters in the three-quarters of the game he sat on the bench – only behind the devastating Alexander-Arnold, of course.
The England U21 international also enables the Reds’ other creative outlets to provide final balls, with his appearances coinciding with Liverpool retaining higher possession percentages.
The man in question produced a total of 10 progressive passes and carries in his 20-plus minutes on the pitch in south London, once again second in the Liverpool ranks that afternoon.
A wider point can be presented about Liverpool’s current struggles to continually create high-quality chances for their forwards, especially on smaller pitches away from home.
Ideally, Ryan Gravenberch and Dominik Szoboszlai would be leading the way in terms of progressive passing and generating high-volume chances, abilities which the pair have evidenced that they are more than capable of displaying.
The Hungary captain is pivotal to all aspects of Liverpool 2.0 – the solution here is certainly not to condemn Szoboszlai to a bench role in favour of Elliott at right central midfield.
As per Opta data, the £60 million summer acquisition boasts the highest number of ball recoveries in the Premier League this season, with 112, making his presence in the side non-negotiable even if he is having an off-day with his passing.
Intriguingly, the two advanced midfielders co-existed on the same pitch in the win at Sheffield United, with Szoboszlai featuring on the left wing in the final 10 or so minutes.
Though very little can be formed in the way of conclusions, given that the Reds were simply trying to retain a lead, Elliott provided a strong showing off the bench and the 23-year-old looked ever so comfortable on the left and found the back of the net in stoppage time.
Elliott himself, in the post-match interview with TNT Sports last Saturday, spoke openly about the freedom which Klopp sent him onto the pitch at Selhurst with.
A youthful hunger, drive and intensity, combined with genuine class on the ball, makes Liverpool’s No. 19 a perfect candidate for this free role in between the lines, and the league leaders are certainly reaping the rewards from it.
Statistically, the facts also bode well for the view that Klopp’s side improve considerably when attacking substitutions, like last weekend’s match-winner, enter the fray.
Liverpool have gained the most points from losing positions in the Premier League this season with a staggering 18 (seven more than the next-highest in Brighton), and have netted the most goals in the final 15 minutes of matches in the division.
Given that no player in the Premier League has made more substitute appearances than Elliott (12), can this be a coincidence?
Granted, the sample size for the creative midfielder is far from substantial in the early months of the season, but his improvement and efficiency at progressing play is evident.
Averaging more progressive passes, scoring contributions, higher passing accuracy and progressive carry distance, as well as turning the ball over much less per 90 than last season, Elliott has matured into an extremely effective weapon in possession with the ability to continually attempt killer balls whilst rarely losing it.
If it ain’t broke…
The fresh injection of new blood around him has certainly done much to help the youngster, as he is benefiting from a more energetic midfield with the legs to defend transitions; the new-look engine room allows Elliott the freedom to showcase his talent.
Two of his strongest performances in the club-wide failure of last season arrived in the FA Cup, where he netted well-taken goals at the Amex and Molineux in sides containing a lower average age than what was seen in the Premier League.
Ultimately, there are already overwhelming calls for the young star to be provided with a proper run in the team given his ability to change games.
In fact, Elliott himself told reporters before the 2-1 loss at Union SG: “I don’t really want to be known as a super-sub.”
“It’s a great headline but at the same time I want to be in the team,” he told reporters.
“It’s time for myself to establish myself in that position again and hopefully get a good run of games but, at the same time, I need to be patient as well and maybe be the super-sub as well.”
Klopp, however, spoke earlier in December about the necessity to get away from the idea of teams having ‘starters’ and ‘best XIs’, as football continues to evolve into much more of a squad game.
Is there a need to fix something that isn’t broken?
Everything indicates towards Elliott being considerably more effective off the bench than as a starter, though opportunities for starts will hardly be few and far between given the Reds’ charge on three cup fronts this season.