Opinion: This could be the ideal midfield combination for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool in 2019/20
There's no doubt that Liverpool possess the Premier League’s most lethal attack and its most influential defender. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino scored a staggering 56 goals between them in the Reds’ hard-fought pursuit of the title last season. And their powerhouse centre-back Virgil van Dijk bagged the coveted PFA Player of the Year award over Manchester City’s high-flying Raheem Sterling for his exploits in defense. Not to forget Alisson, who won the Golden Glove beating his Brazilian compatriot Ederson.
However, if you are to ask somebody to find an underlying weakness in this Jurgen Klopp team, the answer you are most likely to get is their midfield. Though Liverpool boast an array of talented players in the middle of the park with the likes of Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana all ready-made options, the German manager has still not found the perfect balance.
Last season, his go-to midfield was Henderson, who was deployed in a deeper, regista-like role, with the tireless Wijnaldum and Milner in front of him, feeding the Reds’ ravenous front-three. This system was often effective for the Reds, as Henderson would allow the two blistering full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to maraud the wings. He would primarily protect the back four, initiate attacks, dictate the game’s tempo, spray long passes to the pacy Salah and Mane and also do the job of slowing things down when the opponent is constantly posing a threat.
James Milner would complement his club captain as the ball-winning box-to-box midfielder, whose game is not the prettiest but hugely effective. And Gini Wijnaldium would often undertake the job of a roaming play-maker, one who leads Liverpool’s high press from midfield, creates chances for the attack and also bulldozes his way into the box to score the odd goal. The Dutchman’s contributions in Liverpool’s last two domestic and Champions League seasons have often gone under the radar and it won’t be an understatement to say that he has been Klopp’s secret trump card.
The signings of Naby Keita and Fabinho last summer excited Liverpool fans after the duo put themselves on the footballing map with their 2016/17 campaigns at RB Leipzig and Monaco, respectively. The Guinean midfielder spearheaded the then-newly-promoted German outfit to a second-place finish behind Bayern Munich with 15 goal contributions in 31 appearances. Fabinho, on the other hand, partnered Timoue Bakayoko under Leonardo Jardim in what was a spectacular season for Monaco where they won the Ligue 1 over Paris Saint-Germain and also reached the Champions League semi-finals beating the likes of Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund on the way.
Both players, still 24 and 25 and supremely gifted, could finally work their way into Klopp’s ideal midfield trio this season. Fabinho was far from convincing in Liverpool’s UEFA Super Cup victory over Chelsea earlier this month, however, there are only few players in the world who could rattle a fit N’golo Kante.
The Brazilian showed glimpses of what he is capable of last season with his efficient tackling and excellent composure on the ball, but played second fiddle to Henderson for the majority of the season. He announced himself this season in the league opener against Norwich producing eight tackles, two interceptions and ten recoveries in an impressive performance. Consistency and effectiveness could make Fabinho indispensable in Liverpool’s midfield this season.
Naby Keita, meanwhile, has had limited opportunities to showcase his worth after injury troubles plagued the midfielder’s debut season at Anfield. However, if he is to replicate his Bundesliga form at Merseyside, Jurgen Klopp will have a dynamite player on his hands. He had brilliant cameo appearances during the business-end of last season, showing glimpses of his world-class potential. Klopp is optimistic that Keita will justify his €50m price-tag this season and his changed body language will be key for his game when he’s back to full fitness. A clever play-maker, Keita carefully finds pockets and covers large distances throughout 90 minutes helping the team maintain their shape and attacking fluidity. Goals from midfield have been scarce for Liverpool since the Steven Gerrard days but a revitalised Naby Keita could do significant damage.
Though Milner and Wijnaldum could both be suitable competitors to complete the midfield set alongside Fabinho and Keita, Liverpool fans will urge Klopp to utilise the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The 26-year old Englishman was nursing a brutal knee injury throughout last season, however, his availability could give a serious boost to Jurgen Klopp’s title aspirations.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is fast, dynamic and versatile, and could be the perfect man to have between the two central midfielders and the three attackers. His pile-drivers from outside the box against Manchester City last-to-last season were reminders of his worth, and he could prove to be a great asset for Klopp given that he can also play on either of the flanks.
Another injury-stricken midfielder is Adam Lallana, who was once a star among the Liverpool midfielders, however, the 31-year old has not been a regular under Klopp due to form and fitness concerns. Lallana, on his day, is one of the most creative and impactful play-makers among the crop and has bailed out the Reds on several occasions in the past. His link-up play with Roberto Firmino could be mouth-watering for Liverpool fans but a string of decent games is needed for the England international to regain a starting spot under Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool’s first two games has seen the former Borussia Dortmund manager deploy two completely different systems with Henderson, Fabinho and Wijnaldum starting against the Canaries and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Milner partnering the Dutchman away to Southampton last week. The plethora of options at Klopp’s disposal will force him to rotate his midfield trio each week, however, his strongest and most direct midfield trinity should be that of Keita, Fabinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain.