It is the most-maligned part of Liverpool’s starting line-up, the only area where Jurgen Klopp’s selections are constantly up for debate, the only one where it was argued he had a decision to make before Sunday.
Some said Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s match-winning performance against Genk in midweek warranted a starting spot. Naby Keita offers something entirely different to those further up the pecking order and has his advocates too. But Liverpool’s first-choice midfield – Fabinho, with Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson paired in front of him – was always going to be the one that started against Manchester City and, over the course of a breathless 90 minutes, they demonstrated why.
Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, the idea that football is a game won by playing your most attacking, creative and adventurous players in their best positions is still a persuasive one. It becomes particularly alluring when the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keita and Adam Lallana are introduced and immediately offer more imagination and guile in the final third than their more conservative peers had for the previous hour, as all three did at Old Trafford only a few weeks ago.
Against opponents like the modern-day Manchester United who are content at sitting deep and frustrating your attacks, it makes sense to play those who can break through the lines. But against others, it does not.
For example, against one of the most efficient pressing teams in European football in Pep Guardiola’s City, you want players in the middle of the park who are comfortable navigating their way out of tight situations. You do not want a player who needs three seconds to find the best pass, but one who needs two seconds to find a good one. They need nerveless composure, total spatial awareness and almost immaculate decision-making. They also need tireless stamina, to be able to press opponents and recover possession themselves.
Perhaps theirs is not the most inventive three-man midfield imaginable but at their very best, Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Henderson have all these attributes.
Fabinho was named man-of-the-match by Sky Sports’ commentary team because he displayed all of the aforementioned qualities in yet another excellent display but, crucially, he also scored the game’s breakthrough goal, emphatically driving from range past the helpless and often hapless Claudio Bravo. It preceded the type of influential performance which should confirm him as the country’s best holding midfielder over the past year. Even after this visit from the reigning champions, Liverpool are yet to lose a Premier League game which he has started.
There is no shame in being less consistent than Fabinho – but Henderson is less consistent than Fabinho. That was certainly the case in recent victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, when Henderson’s contributions veered from the calamitous to the critical, though not on Sunday. Having raised himself from his sick bed only a few days earlier, Henderson was a model of consistency, in command of that central area, and it was no coincidence that Liverpool lost some control over proceedings once he departed after the hour mark. By then though, he had already crowned his performance with the exquisite cross for Sadio Mané’s goal, Liverpool’s killer third.
With no goal or assist, it was easier to overlook the work of Klopp’s other starter in midfield but he was arguably the most impressive of all. There was, for instance, a moment midway through the second half where a poor touch meant the ball escaped Wijnaldum, went back towards his own half and to the feet of Gabriel Jesus. Anfield audibly gasped, only sucking the air back into its collective lungs once he had dashed to collect the loose ball, shield it away from Jesus and, while under pressure, lay it off to team-mate in safer territory. It was one of the few mistakes he made all game, though one that his steady ability to keep and recycle the ball allowed him to correct.
The performances of all three – particularly Fabinho and Wijnaldum – came in stark contrast to those of Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan in City’s midfield. While Kevin De Bruyne fell well below his usual impeccable standards, he was always likely to play and can be excused the odd bad day. His partners in City’s three-man midfield were the ones who needed to justify their selections but Rodri is wholly unfamiliar with the role he is tasked to carry out and Gundogan fails to do any one thing better than his rivals for a starting place. Though much post-match attention fell on Bravo and City’s defence, there is an argument they lost this game in midfield.
And if City did lose this game in midfield, it was also where Liverpool won it. Without Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum, a player with the adventure and athleticism of Andrew Robertson probably isn’t your left-back. Someone with the vision and passing range of Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t your right-back. You may even be forced to go without one of Mané, Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino in attack. Klopp’s Liverpool is a fine, delicate equilibrium, in which the toil of his three midfielders gives the full-backs and forwards a platform to win games.
On Sunday, that supporting cast deserved the plaudits. And if the midfield make-up was the only decision Klopp had to make, he got it right.
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