The Midfield Question

Last night was a bit of a mad one in the end, wasn’t it? The first-half was one in which Liverpool dominated but every time Genk got on the ball they looked as though they could be dangerous. A better attacking team would almost certainly have got on the scoresheet once and, but for the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee, the home side would have done. The problem with offering any sort of analysis of teams in the Champions League this season is that the presence of the VAR means that assistants running the line aren’t flagging offsides unless it’s absolutely blatant. That can give the illusion of a team being open defensively when in actual fact it’s simply holding its line brilliantly but not being rewarded for doing so, giving the impression of being more open than it actually is. Even with that in mind, though, I thought we really did allow the defence to look far too exposed for most of the first forty-five minutes last night.

In the end we made easy work of it, scoring four. All four of them were brilliant goals too, which made it even better. The goal conceded in the end was a frustrating one to let it, but it at least gave the people who love a scapegoat the chance to pun all of our problems on their favourite scapegoat of them all, Dejan Lovren. Don’t get me wrong, he was poor for it. Yet I saw some people in the first-half suggest that it was his fault that we looked so open in the midfield, which I thought was a bit mad. He’s far from the most reliable defender that we’ve got on our books but he walks into the majority of defences in the Premier League, including Manchester City’s just at the moment. The people that have spent the week saying that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita had to start more regularly should whisper their thanks to Lovren that his error means no one is really asking if they’re a good combination.

The Best Midfield Is About Balance

Everything I’m about to say is only my opinion. We’ve all got them and we all bend over backwards to make our own opinions fit even in the face of them rather obviously being wrong. Plenty of people were absolutely desperate for Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to succeed last night, so they spent the first-half praising everything good that they did and ignoring the massive holes in midfield that kept exposing our back four. There’s a reason that Jürgen Klopp, a manager who has taken us to four cup finals since arriving at the club, winning one of them at the same time as racking up ninety-seven points in the Premier League, picks the same midfield for the biggest games. Supporters might not like it, but Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum think more about their defensive duties and about helping Fabinho than Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain ever will be.

That’s totally fine, of course. That’s not part of their natural game. They want to be front-footed and there are definitely times when that will be called for. Personally I would like to see a mix of either of Henderson and Wijnaldum alongside either of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita, rather than the two pairs played together. I think Jürgen Klopp will likely experiment with them when he can to see which of them dovetail the best together. Too many supporters seem to treat real life matches as though they’re games of FIFA, throwing the ‘fun’ players in without any care about the overall balance of the team. There’s a reason managers absolutely love Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum and the supporters you’d rather not be stuck in the pub with don’t. I’m not advocating that Gini and Hendo start every match, just that the balance of the midfield is better.

There Are Plenty Of Options

The really exciting thing from Jürgen Klopp’s point of view is that he has loads of options available to him in terms of what he wants to do with his midfield. I have long believe that the manager has a desire to have a horses for courses approach to matches, picking the players that he thinks are best in any given scenario. The return to form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that we witnessed last night is great news on that front. It’s clear that the manager really rates him and loves the drive he offers us from the middle of the park and it’s also evident that he absolutely knows where the goal is. Both of his finishes last night were excellent, but the second one can be best described by the word ‘filth’. He was a little bit out of the game for periods of the first-half, but that’s not a major surprise considering that the team as a whole failed to control the match as well as the manager would have wanted. The important thing, though, is that he’s looking back to his best.

Now Klopp has any number of options available to him when he sits down to select his team. From the more workmanlike names like Milner, Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum through to the excitement offered by Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keita and Shaqiri, the manager can pick and choose depending on the opposition. I hope he starts to do so more often, too. I’d love to see him play with his formation in order to give the likes of Mo Salah and Sadio Mané a rest, rather than putting Divock Origi on and asking him to impersonate one or the other of them. We saw against Barcelona in last year’s Champions League semi-final that Origi can work well from the start of the team is switched around to accommodate him, it’s just when he’s asked to be a lite-version of one of the others that things don’t tend to work as well. Now the midfield options are fit again, it’s time for the manager to use them.

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