Earlier on in the week I wrote a blog about our defensive unit, exploring the different players in our main squad and having a look at which ones of them should still be here and which ones will hopefully be moved on in the summer. Obviously a team is more than merely a defence, even if it’s the players at the back that have been found wanting the most often so far this season. It’s only right, then, that I also have a wee look at our midfield and attack to see which players are underperforming and which ones are likely to be around for the long haul.
To an extent I’ve limited this purely to the first-team squad. There’s little point in discussing players such as Sheyi Ojo or Ovie Ejaria considering their relative youth and inexperience. Equally I didn’t mention Mamadou Sakho in the defensive piece because he’s almost certainly on his way out of the club and it’s unlikely that the likes of Lazar Markovic will be able to force his way back in in the future. Klopp knew that we were lacking pace in the absence of Sadio Mané in January, yet he decided to allow the Serbian to go to Hull when his loan at Sporting Lisbon was cancelled. Let’s get started, then.
The Central Midfielders
I’m a massive fan of Jordan Henderson. I honestly can’t understand people who don’t rate him and care even less for those who say he shouldn’t be the club captain. The former Sunderland man had a difficult start to life at Anfield, thrust out onto the wing by Kenny Dalglish in order to simply get him onto the pitch at all. Yet he came through all of that with aplomb and has shown real character in doing so. Criticism of him appears to be based on little more than the idea that he’s not Steven Gerrard, which is absolutely bonkers. Gerrard was one of the best players ever to wear the shirt, so the fact that Henderson doesn’t live up to that standard is nothing to judge him for.
Under Jürgen Klopp’s management the midfielder has not only changed his position but has almost redefined what we understand a defensive midfielder’s job to be. He is a dynamo and his range of passing is nothing to be sniffed at. He keeps possession ticking over and starts our attacks as well as protects the defence. We are a significantly weaker team without him in the starting line-up and if you haven’t noticed that what he’s been missing this season then I’m not sure you ever will. In short, I hope our captain remains at the club for a long time. Yes he has bad games, but who doesn’t? He always responds to poor performances magnificently.
The way Henderson moves the ball with speed and intelligence is in direct contrast to Emre Can’s style of play. The German is still only young, even if it feels like he’s been at the club forever. That youth is the main reason that I think he’ll be around for a while longer, with Klopp seeming to favour his countryman for the ‘big’ games against the likes of United and Chelsea. He may well develop into a brilliant player, but I’m not sure that he’ll ever really fit Jürgen’s fast-paced style of play. When he runs it’s almost like he needs to be given a push-start. I think he’s got at least a season left in him, but I won’t be disappointed if he’s sold in the summer. In truth, my heart always sinks when I see his name on the team sheet.
The exact opposite is true of Gini Wijnaldum. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I don’t really watch other football teams. I care about Liverpool and Liverpool alone, so I couldn’t tell you about the best talent in the Premier League, let alone La Liga or the like. That’s why I didn’t know what to expect when we signed Wijnaldum from Newcastle in the summer. I’d heard about him ‘going missing’ in big games and I knew he had a decent goalscoring record at St. James’ Park but that was about it. Sufficed to say I’ve been blown away since his arrival. Strong on the ball, intelligent with his passing and quick to turn possession over, the Dutchman has made a real difference to the side. His performance against Spurs was a touchstone for all the other midfielders to look to. Brilliant.
Another player I’ve been really impressed with is Adam Lallana. Obviously Jürgen Klopp agrees as the midfielder has just signed a new contract at the club, so he’s going nowhere any time soon. My only gripe is when the manager decides to play him in the front three. He’s at his weakest there, performing much more successfully when he’s coming from the middle of the park and joining play. The more often he plays there the better we’ll be as a team. When he left the pitch exhausted and fell into Klopp’s arms at the end of the German’s first game in charge we were given a taste of what to expect under his management. His new contract is surely a sign of what the manager expects from his players moving forward.
Should Philippe Coutinho count as a midfielder or a forward? To a real extent, that’s part of the Brazilian’s problem at Liverpool. Don’t get me wrong, he’s quite obviously one of the best players we’ve got. Yet some supporters think he’d be better further back, like how Adam Lallana’s being used. For other’s it’s all about how threatening he is in front of goal and the further forward he’d used the better. I come down somewhere in the middle. When players on his wavelength are on the pitch his passing can be painfully incisive. When they’re not, though, he soon cuts a frustrated figure and starts having ridiculous shots from everywhere. Less of that, please, and more of pulling the strings from midfield.
When you’re writing something it’s often handy to have a bridge that links one section of the piece to another. In this instance that job falls to Roberto Firmino, with the Brazilian being signed as an attacking midfielder but arguably at his best for the side when he’s played up front. The tricky thing with Firmino is that he’s probably not clinical enough in front of goal to lead our attack long-term, but we lose so much from his game when he’s played anywhere but through the middle. To an extent that may well be because of the players who move into the middle in his stead, but I’ll come on to talk about them shortly. Firmino is an incredible talent and his work off the ball is a sight to see. In a perfect world in the future he’ll operate behind a clinical striker that he dovetails well with. Can he? We’ll see.
Another player who could have been the bridge in this piece is Sadio Mané. Technically a winger, the Senegalese international essentially operates as a striker who comes in from the right at times. If Jürgen Klopp was looking for a blueprint of what sort of players he should be trying to sign in the summer then he was surely given it when Mané disappeared off to the Africa Cup of Nations in January. We were nowhere near as exciting a team without the pacy forward in our starting XI, so speed and clinical finishing should be right at the top of the manager’s list when he hits the shops. I’ve been blown away by how well Mané has stepped up to the plate and he’ll almost certainly finish the season as our Player Of The Year.
So far in this piece it’s been largely positivity. As I mentioned earlier, the issues haven’t been in the last two-thirds of the pitch this season, instead coming at the back and in between the sticks. Now things will take a slightly more negative turn, sadly. The elephant in the Liverpool dressing room right now is almost certainly going to be Daniel Sturridge. The striker still has one of the best goals per game ratio of any attacker in the club’s history. When he makes it onto the pitch he is a constant threat and defenders don’t want to come up against him. Yet his fitness record speaks for itself and certainly doesn’t paint him in a favourable light.
If I was Sturridge’s agent I’d point to the fact that the player has actually been fit for most of this season but simply hasn’t been picked. Yes he’s under-performed when he has started games, but he’s been coming in cold and more often that not he’s been lumped in with the ‘squad players’ in cup matches or the like. The game that he started alongside most of the first XI against Stoke at the start of 2017 he scored in. Is it fair to write him off when he’s not really been given a decent crack of the whip?
Unfortunately the answer to that question is probably ‘yes’. Despite what some supporters say about him, the England striker is not ‘lazy’. He puts in a decent shift every time he plays and part of what makes him seem like he doesn’t is that he understands the game and knows his own limitations. The problem is that his style of football doesn’t correspond well enough to the way that Klopp wants his team to play football. He’ll never be the sort of non-stop presser that Firmino is, for example, and he doesn’t offer enough to mean that the manager can turn a blind eye to that.
Sturridge deserves to be remembered as one of the classiest forwards to play for Liverpool. Sadly he’ll never get that recognition from some sections of our fanbase and they should be ashamed of themselves for that sort of snooty attitude. I would be very surprised indeed if he was still at Anfield at the start of next season, but whichever club he does move on to will be getting one hell of a player. Despite the fact that they’re not even remotely similar, I actually put him into the same bracket as Emre Can. Both seem to me to be excellent players, but neither are right for this current Liverpool team.
A player that the fans have taken to more readily, despite the fact that he’s actually done less, is Divock Origi. He is an embodiment of the idea that the main thing you need to do to impress certain Liverpool supporters is run around like a headless chicken for a bit. Much like Can, Origi is still young and certainly has the base ability to develop into a brilliant attacker. If any manager can get the most out of him then it’s Jürgen Klopp. Indeed, the German appears to have more faith in him than in Daniel Sturridge, opting to start him in more games than his teammate so far this season. He started him at Old Trafford when many would have thought that Sturridge would get the nod.
Origi’s not yet good enough to tie down a regular starting berth and it remains to be seen whether he can develop his game enough in that sense. Firmino looks decidedly worse when he’s pushed out wide to accommodate Origi and I think we fell apart against Swansea at Anfield when the striker came on. I’m reasonably confident he’ll still be here next season, but whether he’s got more than a year left to prove himself is up for debate.
Liverpool’s midfield and striking options need some additions in the summer, but I think it’s fair to say that there are unlikely to be too many moves out of Anfield from these parts of the pitch. Can might well look around at any incomings with a sense of dread and Daniel Sturridge will probably want to move elsewhere for his own career, but other than that it’s about supplementation rather than replacement when the transfer window opens.