While Liverpool’s improved defence and attacking trio got the press, midfield played a key—if often under-appreciated—role in their success in 2018-19. At times they were criticised for lacking invention, yet in attack, Liverpool were England’s second top scorers and one of just five sides in Europe’s top leagues that created three or more expected goals per game.
In part, that was due to the midfield’s solidity allowing the fullbacks to bomb on, freeing up Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to play as old-school, touchline-hugging wingers as much as defenders. In part it was also due to the midfield being better with the ball and with getting into dangerous areas than they were sometimes given credit for.
They may not have been flashy, but you don’t get 97 points and a spot in the Champions League final with a bad midfield and as a group Liverpool’s were very, very good.
After facing some criticism in the first half of the season and struggling with fitness, Henderson stepped up when it mattered most in the final stretch, taking the chance to move forward provided by Fabinho’s growing confidence in the single-pivot and showing his values as a hard-running box-to-box player who could harry opponents over the entirety of the midfield and show up late as a support player in the box.
He also showed at times just what a leader he has become, playing through pain of knocks and a long, draining season and driving his teammates to do the same as the season entered its final weeks. Additionally, his ability to switch play over the top remains highly under-rated.
Flashy and James Milner will never go together, but the stout midfielder repeatedly leaving Neymar in a crumpled heap when Liverpool faced PSG in the Champions League group stages will for many be a memory of 2018-19 that lingers. Willing and able to do any job asked of him by manager Jürgen Klopp—and willing and able to run for 90 minutes as a 33 year old often playing twice a week in the most demanding league in the world—and showing no signs of being anywhere close to the end of his career.
Without Milner’s ability to plug holes—and his ability to steamroll over opponents when necessary—it’s hard to imagine Liverpool winning nearly as often as they did in 2018-19.
A slow settling-in period probably hurts Fabinho’s chances this season, but on the strength of the second half of the campaign it appears as though Liverpool finally have themselves the dynamic holding midfielder the side has lacked since Lucas Leiva hobbled off against Chelsea all the way back in 2011.
By the end of 2018-19, there was no doubt who Liverpool’s midfield anchor was, and watching him dominate the great Lionel Messi at Anfield in the second Champions League semi-final leg was a joy for anyone who appreciates a player who can do the tough work in the middle of the park. Add in his penchant for dangerous chipped passes over the lines and you’ve got yourself an understated star.
No midfielder played more minutes last season for the Reds than Wijnaldum, and for much of the year he was the glue. He could be player you sometimes didn’t notice when he was in but whenever he wasn’t it became obvious just how much his teammates missed his ability to retain possession, to resist the press with a simple pass or quick turn away from danger, to read a dangerous break and provide cover or to occupy a defender in the box and free up space for Liverpool’s attackers.
Put another way, Wijnaldum might be the smartest player in the team. The player most likely to end up a manager when he hangs up his boots. It’s something Jürgen Klopp has touched on, his ability to read the game and to understand systems and roles. And while he might not be the most technically gifted player on the pitch—though he’s certainly no slouch on that front, either—it’s hard to overstate just how important his football IQ and calmness on the ball were to keeping Liverpool running smoothly.
You didn’t always notice him, but in 2018-19, when Wijnaldum worked, Liverpool worked.
Liverpool’s 2018-19 Midfielder of the Season
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