International Break: Squad Assessment Part II

Earlier in the week I wrote a piece looking at the goalkeepers and the defence in the Liverpool squad, so before you wonder why I haven’t spoken about the difference that Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk have made, pop over and have a look at that. This, of course, is the second-half or the companion piece, taking a look over our midfield and attacking options. It’s a timely piece for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that our players appear to be dropping like flies whilst on international duty. Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita have all reportedly picked up knocks whilst representing their respective countries, so Jürgen Klopp might find himself needing to turn to his backups quicker than he was planning to. That being said, it’s also entirely fair to point to the relative ‘easing up’ of our fixtures over the next few weeks, during which we face Red Star Belgrade twice in the Champions League and Arsenal are the toughest Premier League opposition we need to cope with, and suggest that the manager might well have rotated a bit more anyway.

Whilst we’re on the subject of the international break, I’m really starting to think that Liverpool Football Club needs to get much better at persuading players to be ‘injured’ for more pointless matches. During his prime, Alex Ferguson was brilliant and getting his big name stars to sack off international football when it gave his team an advantage. Pep Guardiola appears to have adopted the same tactic, with players from rival clubs called up by their national team managers at the same time that Manchester City’s players happily remain in the north-west and train with their boss. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I can’t believe that every single City player who gets to stay at home is genuinely injured, nor can I believe that the managers of those that aren’t even called up haven’t had some sort of conversation with the Spaniard. Meanwhile I genuinely can’t remember the last international break when not one of our players came back without some form of injury or problem. It might sound silly, but they’re the sort of things that can make a difference in a title race. As, I suppose, can the squad in general…

The Midfield

On the face of it, Liverpool’s midfield is arguably the strongest part of the squad. When you write down the names of those that are classed as midfielders on the club’s website, it appears as though Jürgen Klopp has an abundance of talent to choose from. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to ignore the youth players and Lazar Markovic:

  • Jordan Henderson
  • James Milner
  • Georginio Wijnaldum
  • Naby Keita
  • Fabinho
  • Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
  • Xherdan Shaqiri
  • Adam Lallana

The wealth of talent soon whittles away, however, when you realise that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is out for the rest of the season, with no guarantees of him being the same player when he returns, Adam Lallana is essentially a permanent sick note and there’s debate over whether or not you’d call Xherdan Shaqiri a midfielder or a backup for the front three. That leaves five players that the manager can realistically call on for three positions. What further reduces the options genuinely available to the German is the fact that James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are very similar players in terms of what they offer. Don’t get me wrong, if I was looking for a players who would go crashing into tackles then it would be the vice-captain I’d look to, whilst Henderson would be my pick for a man to keep the game ticking over whilst spraying passes around the pitch and Gini my selection if I was looking for a cultured player to maintain possession under pressure.

Yet it’s also true that the three of them are grafters that lack a creative spark, a trio that you’d want to go into battle with you but not to help you compose a symphony. They are brilliant people to have in the team and I like all three of them for what they offer, but when the three play together I do think that it stifles us going forward. We need someone to offer what Oxlade-Chamberlain did once he was settled into the team; breaking through the lines and joining midfield and attack. All three of the captain, vice-captain and the Dutchman think about the defence first, which might explain why we’ve been looking so solid at the back at the same time as our front three have been misfiring. Many of us thought that Naby Keita would be the player to help with the lack of creativity, but he’s so far struggled to make the same sort of impact over here as he did in the Bundesliga.

He’s only been here for a couple of months, though, so panicking about him at this stage is almost certainly jumping the gun. Yet many of us can’t escape the feeling that something’s not quite right with the Guinean and we’re waiting for him to click into gear. Him doing just that will be vital for our season, given the lack of creativity coming from the other midfielders in our ranks. Perhaps if Adam Lallana actually manages to stay fit for longer than about an hour we might get some of that from him, especially if the manager avoids the temptation to play him in the front three, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I love Lallana, but he’s now picked up too many injuries to be relied upon in any real sense. We saw during the game between Holland and Germany that Gini Wijnaldum has it in his locker to cause defences problems and help out his attack, but Jürgen Klopp seems determined not to use him like that, so we might as well stop hoping.

The final piece of the jigsaw when it comes to the midfield is Fabinho. Apart from in the League Cup match against Chelsea and a brief appearance as a substitute, we haven’t really seen much of the Brazilian yet. Klopp has demonstrated time and again that he likes to give players time to get used to his system, doing so with both Andy Robertson and Oxlade-Chamberlain last season, so I’m confident we’re seeing a repeat of that here. The big question comes down to whether or not the former Monaco man can adapt well enough to be used as a defensive midfielder on a regular basis. If he can then we might well see Wijnaldum given the freedom that he enjoys with the Dutch team or Jordan Henderson return to the box-to-box midfielder that was such a difference maker in the 2013-2014 campaign. If not, we’ll have five midfielders and four of them will be more concerned with the defence than assisting the attack. A shopping trip in January strikes me as vital to any title hopes.

The Attack

You’ll notice that a resolutely refused to discuss Xherdan Shaqiri as a midfielder, despite that being the position that the Liverpool website claims he plays. He’s definitely an attacking midfielder, however, with an eye for goal and causing defences problems. For me, he’s the first player that we’re likely to turn to when either Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah are unavailable. For that reason, I’m including him in this section rather than the former one. I’m relatively sure that we’re going to see more of him in the coming weeks than we have up until now, especially as the fitness of both the Egyptian and the Senegal internationals have been called into question before we even begin to think about fatigue. I’m happy enough with that, believing that he’s a solid addition to our attacking line-up provided that he’s joining two of the others rather than having to work with an entirely new front three. He’s exciting, unpredictable and offers the team something of a difference maker when he’s called into the team.

There’s no point talking too much about Mané, Salah and Roberto Firmino, considering that they’re arguably the most exciting front three in the Premier League. I’ll confess to being slightly concerned about the Brazilian’s drop off in form so far this season, believing that when he’s not at his best the other two suffer, but I’m also aware that we’ve played four very good teams over the past month that know exactly how to stifle players. It’s the alternatives to the attack that we’re really looking at here, with Shaqiri offering something out wide but the next ones down the list not being quite so able to come in without much of a change to the way we work. We’ve all been impressed with Daniel Sturridge so far this season and I don’t mind admitting that I was wrong about him being finished at the club. His goalscoring ability has never been in doubt, with just his speed being the thing that’s missing from his locker now he’s seemingly got over his injury nightmares. He seems to be operating more like Coutinho than Firmino when he comes into the side, which is fine but definitely means we’re lacking a true number nine when the Brazilian still at the club can’t play.

Firmino

That means that we have to look further down the list of attackers and neither Dominic Solanke nor Divock Origi are players that make the heart sing. Rhian Brewster might well be that man when he’s fit, but we don’t really know when that will be nor how he’ll cope with the step up to the first team. I actually don’t dislike Solanke, for the record, believing that he was often given short shrift unnecessarily last season. That said, I can absolutely understand why we haven’t seen him as much this term and why many people wouldn’t be heart-broken if he was sold in January. That would, in my opinion, be acting rather hastily when you consider that he was bought as a prospect and he’s still young enough to develop. I don’t think the same can be said of Origi, though. The Belgian looked like he could develop into a real talent when he was being played regularly during the 2015-2016 campaign, but since then he’s gone back into his shell and not impressed during any of the outings that he’s been given by the manager.

That Origi is reportedly being considered by both Newcastle and Everton probably tells you his true level. It also points to a Liverpool squad this is an attacker or two light, despite the strength of the three first-team players that are most regularly going to be used in the position. Of course, I’m always of the belief that there’s nothing wrong with buying one more striker, so I don’t imagine that my position on this matter will come as a shock to anyone. The reality is that we are genuinely going to be in a title race this season, bar any sort of collapse in form or ludicrous injury crisis, but we can mitigate the possibility of the latter by bringing someone else in in January. A lot of that will depend on the form of both Fabinho and Shaqiri in the coming weeks, with both having a chance to put their names at the forefront of the manager’s thoughts.

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