Back in February I wrote an article That looked at the state of Liverpool’s defence moving forward. Now in the second of a three-part series I’m going to discuss the midfield options that Jürgen Klopp has in front of him, pondering which players he might want to consider keeping and who is likely to be moving on.
Much like with the defence I’m really only interested in the players that have already notched up a number of performances for Klopp’s Liverpool, so whilst the likes of Jordan Rossiter and Pedro Chirivella might well be considered the future of the Reds midfield, they’re unlikely to make the break-through within the next 12 months. Equally Sheyi Ojo looks an incredible talent, but he’s too young for Klopp to consider him to be an integral part of his squad just at the moment.
Lucas Leiva & Kevin Stewart
The only exception I think it’s worth making to the ‘too young and inexperienced to consider’ rule is for Kevin Stewart. The 22-year-old has now made five appearances for the Reds, but more important than that he looks to be the ideal replacement for Lucas Leiva in the long-term.
Leiva is a difficult player to consider. On the one hand he has been an excellent servant to Liverpool Football Club, pushing through the difficult early years when he was reviled by many as the personification on the field of Rafa Benitez’s more defensive-minded qualities. He’s consistently bounced back from adversity, never quite going gently into the good night of the transfer market without resurrecting his career at the last minute.
In fact, he was reportedly just hours away from being sold to Galatasaray during the summer before an injury to Jordan Henderson forced Brendan Rodgers to re-consider and keep him at Anfield. His recent conversion from defensive midfielder to centre-back under Klopp also means that there’s no way to tell whether the German considers Lucas to be a midfielder in his system for the foreseeable future.
Update on the remarkable “#LFC start without Lucas in 2015/16″ stat:
P23 W12 D11 L0
Clean Sheets 14
Goals Conceded 14
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) March 11, 2016
Despite Lucas’ status within the squad and even bearing in mind his recent excellent performances at centre-back, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Liverpool are better when he’s not on the pitch. His age means that if Klopp doesn’t seriously consider him to be a possible centre-half moving forward then the likelihood is that his time as a first-team starter at Anfield is now coming to a close. Perhaps he might last another season as a squad player, especially if he’s able to help Stewart grow into the defensive midfield position that the Brazilian called his own for so long.
Milner & Allen
In some ways it’s odd to discuss Milner and Allen together because they’re completely different players. Allen is technically excellent, with the ability to hold on to the ball and dictate play being a crucial part of his game. Milner, meanwhile, is a workhorse who is unlikely to turn a game on its head but who will forever be the chief piano carrier in a midfield full of them. Yet they’re also worth talking about together because both could see their time at Anfield limited if Klopp gets his way moving forward. The development of Emre Can has been nothing short of astonishing in recent months, as I’ll come to talk about later, whilst the fact that Henderson is the club captain means that he’ll likely be one of the first names on the team sheet if Klopp keeps him past this season. With Coutinho and Lallana both impressing in the creative role and Roberto Firmino sometimes being used to bulk out the midfield as well as support the attack, it’s difficult to figure out where either Milner or Allen fit in to Liverpool’s best and most exciting XI. The fact that Milner & Allen sounds like a great folk band aside, what do they offer the Reds that we can’t get from elsewhere?
— Moataz (@Moatazzmostafa) March 10, 2016
Joe Allen’s situation will, to a large extent, depend on whether or not he is happy to remain at Anfield as a squad player. He has been excellent when coming off the bench and his intelligence means that he’s able to get up to speed with the game he’s entering very quickly. He’s maturing all the time, too, developing his play to the point that he is now a real battler. The manner in which he took the game to Manchester United during the first-leg of the Europa League game last week was great to see, even winning headers against the forever flailing elbows of Marouane Fellaini.
The departure of Brendan Rodgers from the manager’s seat means that the Welshman has been able to come out from the Northern Irishman’s shadow. For some on the Kop the man dubbed ‘The Welsh Xavi’ was a personification of Rodgers’ worst attributes. He was seen as little more than Head Boy, only in the team because teacher loved him.
He’s proven his critics wrong, though, with some assured displays in the middle of the park. I for one would be delighted if he was still around at the start of next season, bulking up Klopp’s squad and perhaps acting as captain for the ‘cup team’, should the manager decide to go down the route of having one team for the most important games and another for the League Cup and Europa League, should we be in it again.
As for Milner, it’s difficult to see how he remains an important part of Klopp’s plans. He is now thirty and he has a huge amount of miles on the clock, playing regular football since he was sixteen. He is the ultimate grafter, never stopping running and refusing to give in no matter what’s going on. But his legs surely won’t last much longer in the high-intensity world of the Premier League, especially given Klopp’s propensity for playing a pressing game that would challenge even the fittest of players.
The issue is that he’s on high wages that amount to roughly £7.8 million per year, with around three years left to run on his contract. Even if Klopp decided he wanted rid of the former Manchester City man he might struggle to find a team that’s interested in taking him off our hands.
His experience, intelligence and maturity all mean that he won’t be the worst player to have in the dressing room next season, should we be unable to find a team willing to take on his high wages. It’s doubtful that he’ll be an automatic starter in our strongest XI, though, so don’t be surprised if rumours of his departure from Anfield surface in the summer.
Emre Can & Jordan Henderson
If Allen and Milner are the players that it’s difficult to see a place for in the Liverpool team from next season then Can and Henderson are the exact opposite. Unless one or both of them are sold for big money in the summer it’s difficult to imagine them anywhere other than in Jürgen Klopp’s strongest XI.
Jordan Henderson may not be the best captain that Liverpool FC have ever had, but he’s also a lot better at the role than he’s given credit for. He is always a vocal presence on the pitch, guiding his fellow team-mates through the game and getting in the face of referees from the first whistle until the last. He’s also shown tremendous maturity in recent months, giving brilliantly sensible performances against both Manchester clubs despite receiving early yellow cards in each game.
Rumours have emerged recently about a possible £25 million bid from Spurs in the summer so it will be interesting to see what happens there. Klopp may not consider Henderson to be his ideal captain or even the sort of midfielder he’d like in his long-term team spine, so negotiations with the London club could well offer both player and manager with a face-saving way of removing him from the team without him having to become a squad player.
Can, meanwhile, seems to have come on leaps and bounds since the arrival of his compatriot in the Anfield dug-out. He’s the sort of player that has shown great promise in the past but whose inconsistency has let him down. Since Klopp’s arrival it appears as if he’s no longer being asked to do lots of jobs in a mediocre manner but is instead having his game focussed enough to improve it exponentially.
Can is the sort of player who seems to learn incredibly quickly, never likely to make the same mistake more than once if it’s brought to his attention by someone he likes and respects. Whilst Henderson might not be a player that Klopp would consider an integral part of his team’s spine Emre Can very much is. The pair play well together, though, so unless Spurs’ offer is spectacular or Klopp buys someone that is a huge improvement on Hendo, expect them to be the mainstays of the Liverpool team next season.
Coutinho, Lallana & Ibe
Last but not least comes the attacking flair. Jordon Ibe has scraped into this conversation more by virtue of the fact that he’s not good enough than because he’s such an important player we couldn’t possibly do without him. Granted he’s still young and he’s got a great attitude, but it’s a shame that he hasn’t come on in the way that many people thought he would when he showed such early promise.
It goes without saying that anyone who thought he would be able to take over from Raheem Sterling when he departed for Manchester City in the summer was dead wrong, but even so his performances for Liverpool suggested he might be able to develop into a great attacking threat. That promise hasn’t been realised and it will be interesting to see if Klopp decides to keep him around next year or move him on should a decent bid come in for him.
Adam Lallana, meanwhile, has developed brilliantly under the new manager. If Ibe has failed to kick on then the former Southampton captain has done the opposite, scoring and assisting goals at a greater rate than at any other time during his Liverpool career. For some he’ll forever be the poor man’s Coutinho, but he still offers everything in the way of graft and work-rate that Klopp considers to be the most important attributes of his players.
The interesting thing with Klopp is figuring out whether he genuinely loves the likes of Lallana or whether he’s doing the best he can with the materials he’s got in front of him. He’s revitalised Lallana’s career at a time when it looked like the challenge of playing for Liverpool was one step too far for him, but whether he considers him to be a long-term option remains to be seen.
As for Philippe Coutinho, he remains one of Liverpool’s best players. He has exceptional vision, a great passing range and the ability to put the ball in the back of the net from virtually anywhere. It’s difficult to see a Liverpool team in the future without the Brazilian magician as an integral part of it.
Coutinho’s performances may well be good enough to attract interest from the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid, with the latter having used their players to bat their eyelids at him recently. Klopp won’t want him to go anywhere but will he be able to hold onto him if the big guns come calling in the summer? My instinct is that Coutinho’s disappointing experience at Inter Milan means that he’ll be wary of going for a ‘big’ move when he’s so happy where he is. I expect him to still be at Anfield next season, but not before we’ve had to work hard to persuade him he can achieve what he wants with us.