Liverpool enter new year wrestling with old midfield woes

It was after the evisceration of Manchester United that Jurgen Klopp delivered assessments which still, three months later, offer the brush strokes of Liverpool’s conflict in evolution.

At the height of their blitzing this season, a period in which they blazed 37 goals in 11 games across all competitions, having gone on their longest undefeated run since 1989, the manager purposely zoned in on their flaws.

Liverpool were a free-scoring machine in a throwback to their 2017-18 vintage, but there was little sign of the control, steel and surety that delivered the status: champions of England, Europe and the world.

By that point, the clues of underlying struggle showed itself against Milan at Anfield, plus away to Brentford and Atletico Madrid.

Liverpool twice led against Manchester City on Merseyside only to draw, and failed to exert superiority over 10-man Chelsea at home too but flawlessness wasn’t expected against title rivals.

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The high-definition picture from a wide lens, however, did not make pretty viewing for Klopp.

And so when Old Trafford was brought to its knees, he took his shot: “The world is a bit like this: you win 5-0 against United and everything is perfect. Well, it was not. United had clear-cut chances which we gave them.

“We have some really impressive scorelines but you don’t expect that to happen all the time and I have no problem with winning a game 1-0. That is where we have to be ready. We have to be that stable and consistent when the opponent has the ball. That is where we can 100 per cent improve.”

That is where Liverpool have 100 per cent not improved. Since then, points have been dropped at Anfield to Brighton and a trip to West Ham was marked by a first defeat of the season. December was a calamity and coupled with the turn of the year has left the club 11 points off top spot.

Chaos rather than stability and consistency coloured the matches against Tottenham, Leicester, and Chelsea.

Now Liverpool are without their main men in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, who have contributed a combined 33 goals this term. Naby Keita, a progressive midfield option, is on African Cup of Nations duty too so overpowering opponents offensively is off the table at a juncture where nothing else has been on it for Liverpool.

How and why? As discussed on these pages, when the Merseysiders finally ended a three-decade wait for the title, their design for progressing centred around evolving the approach.

Liverpool knew teams would focus on stifling creation from their full-backs and needed the ability to control and craft from midfield: enter Thiago.

He was the replacement for Gini Wijnaldum, who as The Independent previously reported, the recruitment staff weren’t overly invested in keeping.

They had long decided he was one of the easiest positions in the team to upgrade and evolve despite the heavy reliance on the Dutchman through Liverpool’s strongest moments.

Liverpool’s signing of Thiago represented a shift in how they would dominate the midfield

Thiago represented a shift in how the centre of the pitch would dominate and design games, which was a fine enough idea given his brilliance, but discounted his absences.

He has not started any of the games in which Liverpool have dropped points. When Thiago and Fabinho are operating in tandem from the off, Liverpool have the middle on lock. They have only managed to do that seven times this season: in victories against Leeds, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Southampton, Everton, Wolves and Aston Villa

In those fixtures, Liverpool have scored 20 and conceded just once. The blend of protection, tactical intelligence, press resistance and vision offers the platform for control. The pairing has been complemented primarily by the running and nous of Jordan Henderson, but also the ball carrying of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and early promise of Harvey Elliott.

Fabinho-Thiago is fundamental to Liverpool, with the latter only starting nine matches this season. Was it wise to pin an entire midfield shift – and wider evolution – on such limited availability?

No one could have argued that despite numbers, that department wasn’t a tightrope for the club.

Half of Liverpool’s midfield options – Thiago, Henderson, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain – going into the season were injury prone. Milner is 36 and the other two – Curtis Jones and Elliott are under 21. Fabinho’s absences are becoming more frequent too, underscoring the fragility in that position.

While Elliott’s fracture-dislocation of his ankle was a freak incident, none of the other issues in the centre of the park can be considered a great shock even factoring Covid-related disruptions.

Harvey Elliott’s breakthrough was curtailed by a serious ankle injury

Without Thiago in the XI, Liverpool can’t be who they want to be and revert to who they were before the transformation into a truly elite side: showcasing attacking blurs that can maim opponents, but are open to being smacked themselves.

The departure of Wijnaldum doesn’t offer them the comfort of consistent efficiency. The Fab-Wij-Henderson three pivotal to success was a functional machine: controlling space, covering expertly, and acted as the offensive protection.

Klopp will have had similar game management in mind when plumping for Fabinho, his captain, and Milner as the combination against Chelsea.

That they could not produce any semblance of pressuring the man in possession, recycling the ball, or taking the sting out of proceedings without serving up silly free-kicks will have been concerning.

In summary, a key component to Liverpool being in control centres around a supreme player in Thiago, who is simply not available enough.

An overhaul in midfield looks necessary no matter how many times the manager points to the number of bodies in there. How many can cover the left? How many are specialised anchors? How many can offer what Thiago does or even loosely replicate the base of him and Fabinho? How many honestly fit into Klopp’s vision for the evolved Liverpool?

There can be no debate as to whether the club do stellar business in the market, but whether they do enough will always be a sticking point. Expecting Liverpool to compete with state-funded projects is daft, but wanting them to steadily refresh and fortify the squad is not.

Since the purchase of Alisson in 2018, the only significant purchases have been Thiago, Diogo Jota and Ibrahima Konate with Kostas Tsimikas and Takumi Minamino added as squad cover.

The midfield needs surgery. It is not the sole area of concern, although it has a significant impact on the structure – including the high line. Without pressure against the ball, it screams punishment.

This is not to absolve defenders of blame. Virgil van Dijk has said he is “not a robot” and the evidence that the centre-back is still shaking off the effects of an ACL tear in his right knee grows. Passages of play featuring Michail Antonio and Christian Pulisic immediately spring to mind.

Often there has been too much space to cover between the centre-backs, a gap too wide between them and midfield, and ultimately a forsaking of the basics.

Klopp touched on this in November: “You have the ball, that doesn’t mean you are only offensive, you need people in protection.

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“You don’t have the ball, that doesn’t mean everybody is in the challenge, you need help around, you need good positioning for after winning the ball.”

It is a new year, but Liverpool are still grappling with that old problem. They are not quite who they were, not quite who they want to be and so are not quite enough to trouble City.

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