Everyone and their cousin’s dentist is talking about how Liverpool’s midfield needs some serious help. We’re a long way from the stout and resilient midfield three that provided the foundation for Liverpool to go on to one of the most impressive campaigns in modern football history.
But then you’re probably tired of hearing about the problem at this point and if anything are more interested in the why behind it all. So, how exactly did Liverpool get here? Where did it go wrong? And what comes next?
To figure out why things went so wrong, I think we need to look at what the initial plan appears to have been. To do so, we should look at two midfielders: Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlande-Chamberlin. Both players were bought in the summer of 2017, even if Keïta arrived a year later due to the structure of the deal with RB Leipzig. Now, both players are likely to see their Liverpool careers end this summer despite on paper being in the prime of their careers.
Five years ago, Keita and Ox were both young, dynamic, exciting midfield eights. It was almost universally believed at the time of his signing that Keita was the hottest rising star midfielder in all of Europe, a stats darling and massive get for the Reds. Meanwhile, Oxlade-Chamberlain hit the ground running at Liverpool with an impressive 2017-18 campaign that was brutally cut short by a serious knee injury in the semi-final of the Champions League. He hasn’t been the same since, while Keita has had almost constant injury issues, having missed 84 matches over four and a half seasons.
By now we know these two are on their way out, but they are 27 and 29 respectively, and without their injury struggles we would expect them to be anchoring Liverpool’s midfield in the present. It seems a near certainty that was the long-term expectation when they were signed.
That hasn’t happened, though, and there have been knock-on effects. One of the biggest has been the minutes that have had to be taken on by more senior players like captain Jordan Henderson. With his legs starting to go, he has increasingly found himself maligned by rival and Liverpool fans alike. Yet given the inability to select anyone else much of the time due to injuries to the club’s prime age midfielders, the 32-year-old Captain has likely played more minutes for Klopp than originally planed.
Another midfielder with rotten injury luck is Curtis Jones. The Scouser turns 22 this month. Klopp has named him a phenomenal prospect and clearly carved out a place for him from early on, but this is his fourth season as a first team player and he has only played 280 minutes so far. More often than not, the spot he takes in the squad might as well have been left empty, and his development appears to have stagnated. Things may still come good for Jones, but much of the past four seasons have been frustrating—through no fault of his own—and he seems another player Klopp would have expected to have a bigger role by the time the 2022-23 season arrived.
You might be thinking this is all something of a pity party of Liverpool’s rotten luck with injuries to three midfielders who would have been projected to have significant roles in the current squad, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. There are some self-inflicted issues at play here as well.
Fabinho is easily one of the most successful transfers in the Klopp era, however the failure to identify a clear understudy or deputy for him has had negative effects. Nearing 15,000 minutes played for Liverpool in just four-and-a-half seasons is a lot of mileage, and it’s clearly begun to wear on a player who’s not getting any younger. Even had injuries not derailed Keïta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jones there would have been no obvious alternative for Fabinho in the six.
The midfield is the in vogue issue to discuss for Liverpool fans and pundits, but too often there’s a lack of context in the debate—and part of that context is that the club did at least try to make signings that appeared to be about refreshing the midfield in recent seasons. There was a plan, even if in retrospect it clearly hasn’t worked out. But hopefully knowing more about where this issue came from will provide a fuller context on how to solve it.