Liverpool light in midfield but problems lie elsewhere ahead of Atletico Madrid meeting

Jurgen Klopp’s midfield is a tightrope, but not their sole concern in structural failures

Melissa Reddy
Wednesday 03 November 2021 10:17
‘A lot of challenges’ to stop Suarez as he returns to Anfield with Atletico - Henderson

There is a more valuable commodity than winning in football for an increasing sphere of fan and that is the “told you so”. This phenomenon is weirdly more pronounced the more successful a team are, when the opportunity to pull out those three words is limited.

So when the chance does materialise, you better believe it is maximised. Which leads us to Liverpool, their ravaged midfield, and the screams of “should have brought in a replacement for Gini Wijnaldum”.

“Told you so!”

Perhaps it didn’t help that the Merseysiders recruited their new first choice a summer early in Thiago to evolve the team, nor that he has hardly illustrated his capabilities due to a catalogue of injury absences.

Midfield, in any case, is not a standalone issue, but we’ll get there.

Liverpool, as they have habitually done during the Jurgen Klopp era, opted to solve a dilemma with an internal move: promoting Harvey Elliott.

That decision was in part due to the youngster’s growing brilliance, but also the numbers that were in play. Liverpool had eight candidates to fill three roles in the centre of the pitch, and without being able to shift anyone in a Covid-depressed market, they needed to stick.

The faith in Elliott was broadcast with him being preferred to the pedigreed Thiago, plus Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner and Curtis Jones in the opening fixtures.

Liverpool looked stocked and strong in that department, which Fabinho anchors, but it always had the potential to be a tightrope – most especially if the Brazilian was sidelined as has been the case of late.

Half of Liverpool’s midfield options – Jordan Henderson, Keita, Thiago, Oxlade-Chamberlain – going into the season were injury prone, Milner’s 35, and the other two 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 Liverpool’s other issues there can be considered a great shock.

The club knew it was a risk not adding a banker to midfield in the way Wijnaldum was. They have always preferred to gamble, to find solutions from within, rather than bloat the group.

“If you say ‘OK, [sign] another four or five players, then you will never have that problem again in any position’, that’s maybe true,” Klopp explained last week.

“But you can never have the atmosphere in the squad, which is much more important to win something than with a squad with 40 players. It’s just not possible.

“We spoke about it, you have to keep the players happy, the players need to see that they have the chance to get in the team if they perform on their highest level. With 40 players, that’s obviously not the case, and that’s probably the only solution for injury crises.”

Whether is it appreciated or actively hated, this has proven to be quite a successful approach from Liverpool in the main. And the good news ahead of the Champions League fight with Atletico Madrid is that Fabinho and Thiago are back in contention.

The availability of the former, with his all-important positional intelligence, would erase some of the most pressing problems at present, as seen in the reverse fixture against Diego Simeone’s men and in the home draw to Brighton on Saturday.

It might seem overblown to use the “p” word for a side that could win their opening four matches of a Champions League group for the first time ever, while also remaining unbeaten across all competitions this season.

But there have unequivocally been structural concerns for Liverpool and some individual dips.

Klopp has acknowledged this along with senior members of the squad. “We are not perfect, I knew that before, and we have to defend situations better,” the German said.

“Most of the goals conceded happen because something is not right and that is what we are working on.

“Unfortunately, there is not a massive pattern now that the goals always happen in the same way.

“We have some things which we recognised, saw and hopefully stopped. But then, sometimes in football, in the next game a different problem.

“You have the ball, that doesn’t mean you are only offensive, you need people in protection. 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, all these kind of things.”

Fabinho trains ahead of the Atletico Madrid game

One of Liverpool’s issues has been the inability to control the space and a large gap between defence and midfield that shouldn’t exist, negating the strength of condensing the pitch. Part of this has been the last line dropping deeper, which cannot function with a high press.

The midfield – not at full-strength – is given too much distance to cover, too many fires to put out and end up getting burned in the half-spaces as Brighton smartly executed.

Virgil van Dijk recently said he is “not a robot” and there have been glimpses of the supreme centre-back still shaking off the effects of suffering an ACL tear in his right knee. As the leader of the rearguard, a deeper defensive line is on him. Klopp pulled the Dutchman up on his positioning – “being too far away” – against Brighton.

Henderson has been struggling in duels and has been caught ahead of the ball too often as the No 6, failing to offer protection. There has been a lack of balance and control in the centre, obviously sparked by the missing players. Keita’s withdrawal from the right side of the pitch due to a hamstring injury on Saturday spoke to that.

Andy Robertson has also endured a difficult period in terms of winning duels and performing to his incredible standards in and out of possession.

As Klopp preaches, none of Liverpool’s concerns can ever be pinned down to one department or individual: it is a collective failing of the structure.

The huge positive is that the club have ridden out a taxing period very well, despite clearly having improvements to make all over the pitch. Importantly, they are not blindly ignoring problems but actively admitting to them.

Liverpool won’t mind the influx of “told you so”s if they continue to win on the continent and remain unbeaten domestically while they fully find their structural stride.

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