The meta-game of football is eternally evolving and endlessly fascinating. As tactical whats and strategic whys are asked by innovative managers, their opposite number will offer up a variety of answers depending on their squads’ abilities and their own philosophies.
At a more granular level, positional demands within formations evolve as well; the pure creative number ten, for instance, has largely been replaced by false nines and attacking eights, as demands for positional flexibility and defensive output increase in this brave new gegenpressing world.
Seemingly at the forefront of this meta at the moment sits Jürgen Klopp. While the 4-3-3 is nothing new, the requirements the German puts on his players at times certainly are. Starting on the left, Mohamed Salah can play both as a pure wideman, opening space for a midfielder to run into, or as the team’s de facto striker, aggressively making diagonal run after run into the space vacated by Roberto Firmino. Trent Alexander-Arnold must be both an overlapping touchline crosser, and a centre-right playmaker in the David Beckham mold, all while delivering the goods as a fullback. The list goes on.
In midfield, the Reds manager’s approach has been marked by a preference for generalists. Fabinho notwithstanding — and the Brazilian’s passing means that he is not your run-of-the-mill destroyer — every player in Liverpool’s midfield is expected to contribute significantly in both directions. Naby Keïta was brought in specifically for his ability to put up huge numbers both in ball winning, ball progression, and chance creation. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana have both been converted from wingers to industrious pressing machines in central midfield. Jordan Henderson and James Milner have played at least a dozen positions between them over the course of their careers.
Typifying the trend is Georginio Wijnaldum. While the Dutchman with the beaming smile has played both as a winger and a defensive midfielder during his time in Red, he is most commonly deployed in a position this writer refers to as a Control Eight. In essence, Gini is a safety valve, capable of pressing or covering, being the outlet or finding it, using his close control to take the ball past his man or his big caboose to win a free kick if overwhelmed. The stats don’t necessarily show it, but the 29-year old has been critical to Klopp’s success in recent years, in particular the team’s ability to control the flow of a game.
It wasn’t always like that, though, as Wijnaldum first burst onto the scene as a tricky winger at Feyenoord. For eight years in the Eredivisie, the young Dutchman would cut inside from either flank to take on all comers, braids flowing in the wind as he put up a goal or assist every 196 minutes, just over double what has been his tally at Liverpool.
“My development since I came to Liverpool has been good,” Gini told the club’s official site. “I have become more of an all-round player.
“I was used to playing in a very attacking role and only in attack. Since the World Cup with [Louis] van Gaal [in 2014], I have had a more controlling role in midfield and that went well. After that, I didn’t play that role again, at PSV or Newcastle.
“When I spoke with Klopp, he saw me in a more defensive role,” the reds number five continued. “Where I needed to be an all-rounder. It’s not always easy as I am used to attacking, but it has helped in my development. I am a more complete player now than I was when I arrived.”
It is thus worth keeping in mind when perusing Liverpool’s assumed options in the transfer market this summer — as Klopp will look to bring some youth into his ageing midfield — that while the instinct will be to search out established all-rounders, the manager is eminently capable of converting just about any sufficiently talented footballer into the player he needs.