Liverpool’s dysfunctional midfield at heart of their problems
The bedrock of every great team is the midfield, which is why Jurgen Klopp’s outstanding Liverpool side of the past five years are beginning to lose pace with their rivals both in the Premier League and the Champions League.
Klopp’s midfield no longer has the legs or fitness to protect Liverpool’s defence or feed the forwards. Thus, it explains why their Premier League title hopes are over and why they are heading for a runners-up spot in their Champions League group.
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Liverpool need to win by four or more goals against Serie A leaders Napoli in Tuesday’s clash to finish top of Group A, with Napoli’s 4-1 win against Klopp’s team in Italy in September giving them a healthy cushion at Anfield. If they don’t accomplish that, then last season’s beaten finalists will be at the mercy of the draw for the round of 16 as an unseeded team and face the possibility of a tie against Bayern Munich or reigning champions Real Madrid. The flipside could result in a more favourable pairing with Club Brugge, who will top Group B as long as they match Porto‘s result, but Liverpool’s inability to cope with Napoli two months ago has left them with a much more hazardous path to the latter stages.
On that humbling night in the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, Liverpool defenders Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold bore the brunt of the criticism for the heavy defeat to Napoli. But while the pair made mistakes and were punished for lapses in concentration, it was the midfield that was the problem. The trio of Fabinho, James Milner and Harvey Elliott was completely overrun by the home team and was just as culpable as Liverpool’s defenders for the end result.
It has been a common theme this season, during which Liverpool have lurched from one bad result to another, with some incredible victories along the way, just to remind us that they still possess the ability to turn it on when everything comes together.
Bournemouth (9-0), Rangers (7-1) and Ajax (3-0) have all been comprehensively beaten by Klopp’s team, and Liverpool also produced their best performance of the season to inflict Manchester City‘s only defeat so far this campaign. But they have now lost five games in all competitions and suffered their first home defeat against Leeds United since 2001 when losing 2-1 at Anfield on Saturday. Jesse Marsch’s team, who started the game second from bottom, collectively ran 11 kilometers more than Klopp’s side, and that statistic alone points to the problems at the heart of Liverpool’s team.
Many top managers, notably Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, would say that the most important element of any team is the defence. Others, such as Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola, have overloaded their great teams with attacking talent to simply blow their opponents away. Think of United’s 1999 midfield of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham, the power and class of Arsenal‘s Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires or Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in Barcelona‘s two-time Champions League-winning team. And today, City are dominant thanks to their midfield of Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri and Bernardo Silva.
Klopp’s Liverpool team, which has won every major trophy bar the Europa League since 2019, had both a resolute defence and great attacking quality, but it also had a formidable midfield — just as the great Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid sides have had over the years. A strong midfield eases the pressure on the defence and also ensures a team dominates possession in order to keep the forwards in service. When a team dictates the tempo of a game, it is the midfield that does that crucial job. But right now, Liverpool’s midfield can no longer be relied upon to do what it did when winning the Champions League in 2019 or lifting the Premier League trophy a year later.
That is largely because the personnel hasn’t really changed throughout that period. Georginio Wijnaldum left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2021 and hasn’t been replaced, while Thiago Alcantara (31 years old) was added to the title-winning squad in 2020. Curtis Jones (21), Harvey Elliott (19) and Fabio Carvalho (20) are the young faces being asked to become the next generation, but all are still some way short of what Liverpool need.
Yet Jordan Henderson (32), James Milner (36) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (29) are no longer able to provide consistent availability, and the least said about Arthur Melo (26), whose loan spell from Juventus has been a tale of one injury problem after another, the better. With Naby Keita (27) too often injured and unavailable, Fabinho (29) is the one midfielder Klopp can rely upon, but the Brazil international is nowhere near his best this season.
The consequence of having such problems in midfield is that Liverpool are beginning to be overrun by opponents, who are creating more chances to score as a result. And up front, service to the forwards has become sporadic.
As reported by ESPN last month, Borussia Dortmund‘s Jude Bellingham tops Liverpool’s list of potential midfield signings, but Real Madrid and Manchester City have emerged as rivals for the England player. Bellingham, 19, would be a major boost for Liverpool’s midfield, but for a club often credited as being ahead of the curve in terms of player recruitment, they have allowed themselves to create a problem in midfield. Had Liverpool paid more attention to planning for the future in midfield, they could have avoided the predicament they now find themselves in.
But with age catching up with all of their key midfielders, Bellingham alone would not be the answer. Liverpool now need at least two top midfielders, but they cost big money and their rivals are also in the race. If Liverpool are to get back to where they were, however, they need to prioritise the midfield before it is too late.