Saturday 25 May 2019

Analysis: Is Liverpool's midfield really better this season or is it just a Jurgen Klopp trick?

Naby Keita made an extremely impressive debut. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire.
Naby Keita made an extremely impressive debut. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire.

Simon Hughes

When every player expected to be available for Liverpool this season is fit and free of suspension, Jürgen Klopp has three midfields to choose from.

There is the one that started on Sunday that included Naby Keita, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. There is another that featured on the bench: Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Fabinho. Klopp believes Xherdan Shaqiri can play as a No 8, so there is him, Curtis Jones and Marko Grujic to consider, though Grujic might leave on loan to a foreign club in the next few weeks. Inside the club, it is also believed that Trent Alexander-Arnold will evolve from full-back and into midfield. By the time he plays there, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is expected to have returned from injury.

It might seem like Klopp’s options have never been richer but it is a credit to his management and the progression made under him that he has probably only made it seem that way. This time last year, he was recruiting Oxlade-Chamberlain to go with Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho – both of whom have since left for Juventus and Barcelona.

Effectively, then, a combination of Keita and Shaqiri have been signed to make up for the loss of Coutinho, Fabinho has replaced Can, and Lallana – who was injured for most of the last campaign – makes up for the loss of Oxlade-Chamberlain.

It is fair to conclude that Liverpool’s chances of beating Real Madrid in May’s Champions League final would have increased with Coutinho’s presence, so maybe Liverpool did end up missing him when it really mattered but by then – such had been the team’s unlikely achievements – his absence did not feature much in cold analysis.

Klopp and Liverpool have, however, since been criticised for not pursuing other targets after a deal for Nabil Fekir collapsed. Yet Klopp had recognised last summer that Coutinho would more than likely leave and this explains why he was willing to pay a premium to get Keita so far in advance of his arrival.

It is possible that Klopp could have signed Fekir and Shaqiri in the same week back at the start of June but when it became clear that Fekir was not happening, he remained calm having done his research on Shaqiri.

Andreas Kornmayer, Liverpool’s head of fitness, had previously worked at Bayern Munich for fifteen years and for two and a half of those years, Shaqiri was there too. While Liverpool’s scouting department assessed that Shaqiri deserved better recognition for the decisiveness of his passing before concluding that his explosive shooting ability will see him score the sort of goals Liverpool will need from distance when opposition defences sit deep, Kornmayer offered reassurances about the player’s character. In signing Shaqiri, Klopp realised he was getting someone whose personality and ability would ensure his heralded front three don’t ease up while also giving added flexibility to his midfield.

In the midst of this, it was suggested by Turkish media outlets that Wijnaldum might be sold to Fenerbahce, a club that had just appointed Phillip Cocu as manager – someone who coached Wijnaldum at PSV Eindhoven where they won the Eredivisie together.

Wijnaldum, though, is valued by Klopp more than many might think. While Keita and Milner were widely credited for outstanding performances in the crushing victory over West Ham, the first player Klopp embraced at the final whistle was Wijnaldum. The Dutchman is a respected figure at Anfield – not only for his versatility and consistency but his intelligence. As the players later filtered through the main stand’s mixed zone, waiting in the corner was Kenny Dalglish with two of his grandchildren. Dalglish would engage with Wijnaldum for ten minutes, sharing stories and jokes, before the pair hugged and said their goodbyes.

"I don’t know who put it in the media but it wasn’t me," Wijnaldum responded when it was suggested to him that it would be a strange time to leave Liverpool considering the possibilities. "I laugh about it. I also read that I asked the club if I could leave. I never had a conversation with the club.

"People from the outside just see Liverpool is buying players, so players who are already here are going to leave. Liverpool will always buy good players, even if they already have good players. That's normal. I think it has to be normal for a club like Liverpool because that means you're a big club."

Wijnaldum was reminded about the number of options Klopp currently has before the pressures and the strain of the campaign kick in, impacting upon numbers. One of the key differences between this season and last is that Klopp is unlikely to lose any players in January – particularly one as influential as Coutinho.

"I always want to play," Wijnaldum said. "I think that kind of competition you have to get it in a team like Liverpool. I think Manchester City and Chelsea, with the new signings that they've made, have it also. I think each position there is competition and it's good at Liverpool. Back in the day it was not different."

Wijnaldum would speak about the talents of Keita before considering what Liverpool might achieve.

"He [Keita] has a lot of qualities. He can provide assists, he can score goals. He showed it in Germany. He can keep the ball and give us - I don't want to say time to rest - time to keep the ball as a team. I think he can regain the ball, his counter-pressing is good. I think he's a good signing for us.

"We feel that we can do something special. We felt it last year also. But feeling is one thing, doing it is the second one. If City's going to play like they did last season then it will be really hard because they only lost two games and a few draws. If you want to compete with them you can barely drop points. That's really difficult but something we look forward to. So we will go for it."

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