Why Liverpool’s midfield will be pivotal in their title challenge

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After 11 games in the Premier League season, the title challenge is hotting up. The past couple of weekend’s results have put Chelsea in the driver’s seat despite dropping points, with Liverpool four points further back and Manchester City an extra point ahead alongside West Ham.

Whilst Liverpool’s starting XI is easily capable of winning the league, they do not have the same squad depth as City or Chelsea, something that saw their chances of retaining the title last year disappear after injuries ravaged their squad.

Whilst they have bolstered their defence with the signing of Ibrahima Konaté, combined with the return of Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk, questions could be asked about their depth in midfield and attack.

Their attack is less of a concern as they have four top-class forwards competing for three positions, and these options are hardly injury prone. However, their midfield lacks balance despite having plenty of options. Jurgen Klopp’s decisions, plus fortune with injuries, could well make or break Liverpool’s search for a record-equalling 20th top-flight title.

Whilst Liverpool have scored more goals than anyone else, there have been some worrying defensive performances. They conceded three at Brentford, two at home to Brighton, plus conceding a couple against Atletico Madrid and AC Milan.

There have been some worrying defensive performances

In the Champions League, they have been able to outscore their opponents, allowing them to top the group with two games to spare, but in the Premier League, they have dropped crucial points in matches where they should have taken all three.

Fabinho missed the clash against Brighton through injury, and it was evident that the team missed him. Fullbacks Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are notorious for driving high up the pitch and their success is marked by their high numbers of assists and key passes. However, this leaves them vulnerable at the back. 

When Fabinho plays, he is able to sit in front of the centre backs, giving the full-backs and other midfielders time to track back. He is also nicknamed ‘the Dyson’, due to his ability to clean up opposition passes and set his team up for a rapid counterattack. He is a bit injury prone though and his absence in midfield always hurts Liverpool.

When he is unavailable, Jordan deputises, but the Englishman thrives more in a more advanced position where he can link up with the fullbacks. He also simply isn’t as good defensively as Fabinho. Liverpool’s defensive unit as a whole is more vulnerable, shown by how they let a two-goal lead slip against Brighton.

This game was not an exception: Liverpool also threw away leads against Milan, Atletico Madrid, Brentford, and Man City, the last one perhaps being most crucial as they gave their direct rival points. However, Fabinho was present in most of these games, so what else is wrong?

Liverpool have lost two other midfielders to injury this season: Thiago and Elliot. Elliot appears to be out for the majority of the season after an ankle injury against Leeds whilst Thiago has recently resumed full training.

When Liverpool stormed to the title in 2020, their first-choice midfield consisted of Fabinho, and Wijnaldum. Thiago and Elliot had filled in for Wijnaldum after his move to PSG in the summer, but they have been unavailable.

Instead, Klopp has had Jones, Keita, Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain in his arsenal. With the exception of Milner, the other three are more attacking, with Jones and Keita both being involved in the goals.

When it comes to protecting the defence, no one is better than Fabinho

Their goals have almost been damaging for Liverpool, who have developed a system where they do not rely on many goals or assists from their midfield.

In the 2019/20 season, Wijnaldum scored just four goals, with no assists. Did he have a poor season? No. His role was not to grab the headlines but to feed the fullbacks and hold back instead of operating around the penalty area, ensuring that any counterattacks could be stopped. It also helped Liverpool quickly move the ball from side to side, moving around the defence and creating gaps for the front three to exploit. 

Thiago fits this role perfectly as he played a similar position for Bayern Munich. Elliot is young and, in the few games he has played this season, he has shown how he can also play this role, initially keeping Thiago out of the team.

Keita has been the one to fill in recently and has two goals and an assist in his last four games. Yet he has not been as defensively minded and this could be the reason for Liverpool’s poor defensive performances against Brighton, Atletico Madrid and West Ham United.

In the case of Brighton and Atletico Madrid, they gave away a two-goal lead and arguably looked like the second-best team at 2-2. Keita is undoubtedly a talented player but must improve defensively to fit Klopp’s favourite system. 

Liverpool can rely on the forwards to score the goals, and the fullbacks to help create the chances. However, the midfield also need to be there to protect the centre backs and feed the creative players, rather than chipping in with goals and assists like we see in other teams.

When it comes to protecting the defence, no one is better than Fabinho. Should the Brazilian get a long-term injury, Liverpool may as well say goodbye to their title hopes.

Image: I.am.leon via Creative Commons

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