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Liverpool’s State Of The Team: Midfield

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Liverpool have just completed a historic, albeit weird, title-winning season. With the covid-19 pandemic altering schedules and the next season just around the corner, we take stock of each unit, continuing with the midfield

Leicester City v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Liverpool just recorded the best points total in club history en route to their first Premier League title, and 19th overall league title. With the Covid-19 pandemic causing a three month stoppage during the season just completed, Liverpool will have not time to rest on their laurels as they kick off the season with the FA Community Shield against Arsenal on August 29. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will take a look at the status of each unit on the team. We started with the goalkeepers and defense, are following on with the midfield, and will finish with the attack.


Midfield

Liverpool’s midfield is quietly effective. They don’t get the same plaudits as the record setting defense and the dynamic attacking triumvirate. They don’t score a lot of goals or provide a lot of assists. But what Jürgen Klopp has tasked his midfield to do, they do extremely well. They progress the ball, maintain possession, and ultimately control the game.

Still, soccer is a Newtonian game. Colloquially, for every tactical evolution, there are corresponding tactical adjustments by opposing teams to attempt to shut off what is effective. For Liverpool, they have shunted most of the attacks to the flanks, running much of the creative play through their dynamic fullbacks. Over the course of the last two seasons, Liverpool have also played long diagonal balls from their central defenders. The odd man out in this attack has been the midfield. As teams start to adjust to Liverpool’s current tactics, there may be room for more attacking verve from the midfield. This, however, would require a shift in personnel.

Let’s take a look at where things stand with the starters and the reserves, and what questions there are heading into next season.

The Starters

For much of the past two seasons, Klopp has pretty heavily relied on the midfield three of Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson. While there has been some minimal rotation due to injuries or fixture congestion, this tried and true bunch has played the vast majority of the minutes. That could change next season.

Fabinho is nailed on as the holding midfielder when he is healthy, and has put himself in the discussion of the best number 6’s in the game. He’s much more than a destroyer, chipping in (literally) with three assists to go with two absolute thunderbastards that found the back of the net.

Jordan Henderson is the unquestioned team leader. While it’s not always evident while he is on the field, the team always seems just a bit flatter when Hendo is not playing. At 30, he is getting to the tail end of his prime, but there seems to be little doubt that he will be a regular starter if healthy.

Both Fabinho and Henderson are signed through June of 2023, so they should provide a settled presence for at least another season or two.

The biggest question in the midfield is if Klopp wants to adjust the tactics to allow for mroe dynamism from the midfield, and if Naby Keita has done enough to supplant Gini Wijnaldum as the third starter. They are very different players. Wijnaldum, in this system, is the ultimate ball recycler, boasting a passing completion rate of almost 91%. It’s also nigh unto impossible to get the ball off of him, often showcasing that talent while being pressed. A Statsbomb article highlighted his importance earlier this year:

With their greater emphasis this season on beating teams who ask questions of their possession game, Wijnaldum’s intelligence in distribution sees him selected over players who are more gifted in other, more directly observable ways. As much as Liverpool fans might cry out for a more ostensibly attack-minded midfield option, because of how he moves the ball, he’s as essential to the chances their front three ends up creating as he is snuffing out the moments where Liverpool are vulnerable.

Basically, he gets the ball in sticky situations, beats the press, and moves the ball to people in better positions to do damage. He’s also been extremely durable, starting 35 games in the league. While he has been a dependable, vital cog in the midfield, Wijnaldum is 29, and only has one year left on his contract. Wijnaldum has been offered a new deal, but apparently wants assurances he will continue to be a key player for this Liverpool side. Some of his minutes could be usurped by the player pipped to be the future of the midfield, Naby Keïta.

Keïta, when healthy, has shown glimpses of the player Liverpool payed over £52 for. The Guinean glides through challenges, and shows excellent vision with his passes. While not as tidy with the ball as Wijnaldum, Keïta has shown to have a dynamic element that could be essential when the fullbacks get stymied. The biggest issue with Keïta (on the field) has been his ability to stay healthy.

The Bench

While the midfield was the deepest unit this past season, but there will be some changes going into next season. For the purposes of this article, Harvey Elliott and Xherdan Shaqiri will be classified as attackers rather than midfielders.

Adam Lallana has Cruyff turned his way to Brighton on the south coast, making room for Curtis Jones to step into a larger role. The young Scouse midfielder was impressive when given the opportunity to play in cup matches, and earned his first Premier League minutes (and goal) in the waning stages of the season. While Lallana wasn’t healthy enough to be on the bench regularly this season, Jones could steal some minutes away from James Milner as well...if Milner stays.

James Milner has two seasons left on his contract, which would likely take him to the end of his playing career. Leeds, his boyhood club, just earned promotion to the Premier League after a very long time in the wilderness. While there has been nothing public from the club or player, there is some fan speculation as to whether Milner would want to join up with Leeds to help them establish themselves in the top flight.

If Milner does leave, that could also open up an opportunity for Marko Grujic. The Serbian midfielder impressed over the last two season while on loan to Hertha Berlin. Liverpool reportedly will either keep him with the team this season, or have a permanent deal done, no more loans.

Harry Wilson also expects to have his future sorted this summer. He can play deeper in the midfield, or as a wide forward, similar to Alexander Oxlade-Chamberlain. While Wilson has a lethal shot, he doesn’t provide the dynamic athleticism as Ox.

What To Watch For In The Transfer Market

As mentioned, there is a strong likelihood that one or both of Harry Wilson and Marko Grujic get sold on. Wilson is reportedly garnering interest from the likes of Leeds, Newcastle, and Southampton.

The other big rumor that just won’t die is for Liverpool reportedly interested in the sublimely talented, but fragile, Thiago Alcantara. The 29 year old midfielder is absolutely one of the best in the game when healthy. This rumor would only make sense of Gini Wijnaldum were to leave, however.

Parting Questions

Do you think Gini Wijnaldum signs a new contract? Does Naby Keïta stay healthy enough to earn a regular starting spot? Does Curtis Jones end up with more minutes than James Milner?