Monday 25 March 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Mediocrity of midfield may cost Liverpool on title run-in'

Glaring lack of creativity in pivotal area often leaves Klopp's side looking one-dimensional

Central issue: Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp with midfielder Jordan Henderson after yesterday’s 0-0 draw on Merseyside. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Central issue: Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp with midfielder Jordan Henderson after yesterday’s 0-0 draw on Merseyside. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Midfield mediocrity is killing Liverpool's title dream. Unless Jurgen Klopp can find a quick solution the wait for Premier League honours will enter a fourth decade.

When the Reds lost the Champions League final in May all the hullabaloo over Sergio Ramos' foul on Mo Salah could not entirely obscure the main reasons for their defeat. The first was the inadequacy of Loris Karius and the second Liverpool's lack of creativity in midfield, a shortcoming thrown into sharp relief by the performances of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric for the winners.

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Liverpool spent £160 Million in the close season to redress these problems. The £55 Million paid to Roma for Alisson already looks a snip. But not even the Cork County Board or Simon Harris could think the other £105 Million represents value for money so far.

Half of that went on Naby Keita, making him the most expensive outfield player purchased by a Premier League club this season. At Goodison Park yesterday Keita stayed on the bench while Klopp introduced Adam Lallana, normally a peripheral figure these days.

The £39 million man Fabinho did play but yet again failed to impose himself on the game. The third new signing Xherdan Shaqiri was also overlooked by the manager who instead plumped for Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson as starters and James Milner as the first sub to be introduced.

Wijnaldum, Henderson and Milner were the very trio found wanting against Real. They have their virtues but creative genius is not one of them. Yesterday when Milner twice lost control of the ball to give away throw-ins it seemed to sum up the technical limitations of Liverpool's midfield workhorses.

Fabinho (left) has not exactly set the world on fire since joining Liverpool. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Fabinho (left) has not exactly set the world on fire since joining Liverpool. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

It's doubtful Klopp thought he'd still be relying on last season's midfield by now. Yet he has had little option. In his two seasons with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga Keita totalled 14 goals and 12 assists to become one of the continent's most sought after midfielders. This season he's supplied one assist and not scored at all. There are Bitcoin schemes which offer a better return on investment.

Fabinho, who scored 17 goals in the last two seasons with Monaco, has hit the net just once this season while Shaqiri, despite some flashy cameos, doesn't even look the same player he was at Stoke, never mind with Switzerland.

The manager will ship criticism for the exclusion of Keita against Everton but that's largely because the Guinean is benefiting from Diarmuid Connolly Syndrome where his reputation rises with every match he doesn't play. He has shown few reasons why Klopp should trust him at this vital stage of the season. Mourinho v Pogba Mark Two this is not.

Liverpool's lack of midfield quality was glaringly apparent in a one hundred mile an hour Merseyside Derby which evoked memories of a less sophisticated blood and thunder era. For all the cosmopolitan talent on show this was as traditionally English as a Brexiteer's happiest fantasies.

Lacking anyone who could control the tempo Liverpool were swept away with the flow and functioned only in fits and starts. Yet they could still have won. Fabinho's one significant contribution was a through ball which sent Salah clear only for the Egyptian to put his shot straight at Jordan Pickford.

Salah's other big chance was more typical of Liverpool's play coming as it did after a surge forward by centre back Joel Matip. Salah's touch again let him down and he was denied by a last ditch Michael Keane tackle. A similar intervention from Lucas Digne foiled a hesitant Fabinho soon after.

That opportunity had been created by Virgil Van Dijk knocking down an Andy Robertson cross. In the absence of midfield inspiration Liverpool's defenders must shoulder a disproportionate share of the creative burden. Last week at Old Trafford Matip was the visitors' most dangerous attacking player while the club's leading provider of assists this season is Robertson with his fellow full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold ranking third.

Contrast that with Manchester City where Leroy Sane has the same amount of assists as Keita, Fabinho, Shaqiri, Milner, Henderson and Wijnaldum put together. The lack of a quality supply to the front three means a huge premium is placed on the ability of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to make openings for themselves.

Incapable

When they're out of form as Firmino has been lately and Mane was yesterday, or endure the kind of day in front of goal which afflicted Salah at Goodison Liverpool look one-dimensional, depending on Matip to carry the ball forward or Van Dijk to hit long diagonal passes because the team is incapable of a subtle City style build-up.

Liverpool aren't finished yet. The champions are not invulnerable and the challengers will overpower a lot of teams with pace and intensity like they did Watford at Anfield on Wednesday night. Yet it's become clear that the Henderson-Wijnaldum-Milner combination which was not good enough to win the Champions League won't be good enough to win the Premier League either.

Klopp has to bite the bullet and trust Keita, Fabinho and Shaqiri to do the jobs they were bought to perform. It will be a big gamble but he has little choice. Given that he's already down £105m the German might as well go for broke.

Now is the time for the misfit trio to justify those price tags. Next season will be too late. Blow this one and the chance might not come again. Not for the club, not for the manager and maybe not for any of the players either.

Football can be cruel that way.

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