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The Midfield Changes Liverpool Need to Win the League

After their Merseyside derby draw, Liverpool have dropped into second place in the Premier League table. Tensions are high within the LFC fanbase – here’s LFC Transfer Room’s @Hormiz_LFC with his take on what the Reds must do to snatch the title. 

Contrary to the opinions swirling around social media, it’s been one hell of a season for Liverpool. To be just one point behind Manchester City after 29 games – the same Manchester City that tallied 100 points last season – is truly remarkable.

Liverpool finished 25 points behind the champions last season, so to be within touching distance of the title with nine games to go is nothing short of amazing. But of course, why stop there?

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The ultimate goal is to win the whole thing and this is Liverpool’s most clearcut chance to do so in decades. Manchester City will drop points from now until the end of the season. Liverpool will drop points from now until the end of the season. It’s all to fight for with nine games left.

If Liverpool want to be champions in May, Jürgen Klopp might have to make a slight change to finally topple Pep’s men.

Lack of attack?

Since Klopp’s arrival, Liverpool have been known for their free-flowing, all guns blazing, attacking football. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino have been firing from all cylinders. Their teamwork has catapulted Liverpool to the Champions League final and into second place in the EPL with nine games to go. But recently the goals have seemingly dried out.

Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have only scored more than two goals in a game three times in 11 games in all competitions. The Reds have also failed to score in four of their last five games. Those stats hardly read like that of an aggressively attacking side.

The players expected to score the goals have hit a rough patch. Mané has been in excellent form scoring 6 in his last 8, but his partners haven’t been as hot. Firmino has only scored twice since the beginning of the year.

While Salah – after scoring ten in ten – has only scored once in the following seven games and not at all in the last four. It’s fair to say, apart from a few outliers, Liverpool haven’t been in top goalscoring form so far this year.

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After experiencing a goal drought, you’d expect a title challenge to fall apart. But Liverpool’s defence has been the key factor in their ongoing fight.

In those 11 games since the turn of the year, Liverpool have only conceded nine goals and have kept a clean sheet in their last five matches. Truly title winning stuff.

Liverpool for years have had their attack bail out the defence – but for the first time in a long time it’s now the other way around.

No Coutinho replacement

It’s unfair to rely solely on a team’s front three to create all the goal-scoring action. A lot has been said recently about Liverpool’s lack of creativity in midfield and the need for a Philippe Coutinho replacement. But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Liverpool have fared very well without Coutinho since his departure to Barcelona in January 2018. So I think it lazy to always use this excuse when things don’t go to plan.

Maybe in the summer that will be something Klopp addresses, but right now I think he already has the tools to get the job done.

So what’s the problem? Well apart from not being creative enough, Liverpool’s midfielders aren’t scoring enough either…

Liverpool across all competitions: 

  • Fabinho – one goal, two assists
  • James Milner – five goals, five assists
  • Jordan Henderson – zero goals, zero assists
  • Georginio Wijnaldum – two goals, zero assists
  • Naby Keïta – zero goals, one assist

Now obviously not all of their jobs are to attack and not all of them have gotten equal opportunities. However these figures are woeful from a side who are challenging for the title.

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Compare Liverpool’s midfield stats to that of City’s, who display much more attacking responsibility…

Man City across all competitions:

  • Fernandinho – one goal, three assists
  • İlkay Gündoğan – five goals, two assists
  • David Silva – nine goals, seven assists
  • Bernardo Silva – eight goals, six assists
  • Kevin De Bruyne – four goals, one assist (despite being injured for the majority of this season)

In total, Liverpool midfielders have eight goals and eight assists between them. While their Man City counterparts have 27 goals and 19 assists combined.

On paper, it looks as though the reigning champions are being compared to a mid-table side. Not the Liverpool that are breathing down City’s neck. 

If you look into big chances created, the comparison is even worse. In this 2018/19 campaign, Guardiola’s midfield five have created 31 goal-scoring opportunities with Liverpool only mustering up ten. 

This lack of midfield creativity has really shown in recent games. The attacking trio have become increasingly isolated, forced to drop deep and essentially create for themselves.

Midfield options

Klopp’s favoured midfield right now seems to be Fabinho at the base, with Wijnaldum and either Henderson or Milner ahead of the Brazilian. This simply doesn’t work.

Wijnaldum, Henderson and Milner are all solid players, but the three are too similar and lack any real creative spark. None of them are known for picking up the ball and bursting forward, or playing defence-splitting passes.

However this type of attack isn’t really their role. Judging by his comments after the Everton game, Klopp clearly has prioritized midfield solidity and having a more forward-thinking player might compromise that.

This tactic has worked wonders for keeping clean sheets, but greatly stifles the attack down the other end. 

Naby Keïta

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Keïta last month was finally able to string a few starts together. For the first time in his Liverpool career he demonstrated what fans have been hoping to see from him since his arrival.

His standout performance came against Bournemouth at Anfield, where he was heavily involved in all three goals. That game signalled the true arrival of Keïta at Liverpool. After this, you’d expect Klopp to keep Keïta in the side, as he did with Fabinho earlier in the season, but no.

Instead, he only started in one of the following four games and didn’t feature at all in both 0-0 draws against Manchester United and Everton. Truly baffling considering the circumstance.

If Liverpool are to win the league Keïta must play a huge role. Klopp did the right thing by easing him into the side, but over the last month or so Keïta has proven he is ready to be relied on and make an impact.

If Klopp is reluctant to give Keïta a more important role in the side then that could spell the end for Liverpool.

Xherdan Shaqiri

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Another player who hasn’t been used as much as expected is Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss had a great start to his Liverpool career, making game-changing impacts off the bench. He was also deployed when Klopp played the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Recently though, Shaqiri has been a ghost. The No.23 has not started a match since Leicester City on January 30. Since then has only featured in two other games out of six, playing 39 minutes out of a possible 540.

Shaqiri so far this season has six goals and two assists with his limited game time. He may not have impressed too much recently with the little time he has been given, but surely with the attack misfiring, Shaqiri should be brought in to add something a little different.

Combining the two?

Something that could be an option – although highly unlikely – is playing both Keïta and Shaqiri in a midfield three. On paper, this may look terrible and with Klopp’s recent comments about stability it would likely never happen, but there is some evidence that shows it may work.

During a spell in November and December, the Reds played their best football of the season. After Arsenal away on November 3 to Arsenal at home on December 29, Liverpool played nine league games. They won all nine with a combined score of 28-3.

28 goals scored in nine games. It can’t be a coincidence that one of Keïta or Shaqiri started in every one of those fixtures. 

During this winning streak, Salah scored eight goals and bagged four assists, while Firmino scored five and assisted one. In the following nine matches, Salah scored four and assisted none, while Firmino scored two and assisted just one.

Only Mané has fared better off, scoring six in the last nine games, compared to three in the previous nine.

Keïta and Shaqiri are both attack-minded players and neither can provide the protection that Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum bring. Is that really needed, though?

Liverpool have the best defence in the country – with a spine of Alisson, Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho. Surely with a solid defence, Klopp can afford to have a few more luxury player’s further forward. Manchester City are the perfect example of this.

Guardiola also deploys a 4-3-3 and has a brilliant screen in front of his defence in the form of Fernandinho. Instead of then having an engine room in front of him, he has two fluent, eye-catching playmakers.

Liverpool and Manchester City both have impenetrable defences and terrifying attacks, but what separates the two sides is in midfield. City’s midfield is head and shoulders above Liverpool’s and if something doesn’t change soon that could be the deciding factor in who is crowned champions in May.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

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Someone who can still aid Liverpool’s midfield this season is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Ox recently returned to action after 11 months on the sidelines as he completed 40 minutes for the U23s.

If Chamberlain can get fit for the final few games of the season, he can still play a massive role in deciding the title. Liverpool’s creative problems most likely would have never been an issue had Oxlade-Chamberlain been fit this season.

When Coutinho left he didn’t leave too much of hole in the side because his departure coincided with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s rise. He was the Coutinho replacement everyone wanted but no one knew we had.

Ox’s five goals and seven assists coupled with the bridge he built between the midfield to attack was the catalyst that sent Liverpool to the Champions League final. The Reds have been sorely missing his creative influence lately. 

It may be easy to point fingers at a lack of transfer business, but Klopp needs to find a solution right now. Giving Keïta a more prominent role, deploying Shaqiri as a midfielder and having a fully fit Oxlade-Chamberlain can be the difference in finishing 2nd and finally ending the near 30-year title drought.

In any other campaign, the title would be done and dusted as Liverpool run away from the competition. But this isn’t any other campaign, this is a campaign where arguably the greatest ever Premier League Liverpool side have to compete against arguably the greatest ever Premier League side period.

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With nine games to go, it’s going to take a lot of skill, passion, hard work, determination and a bit of luck to win the league. To keep up with the world’s most expensively assembled side you may need to take a risk or two along the way.

Liverpool have the opportunity of a lifetime which might prompt Klopp to look away from a safe, compact midfield and try to match City’s firepower. It may come at the expense of defence solidity but it is definitely a risk that is needed and worth taking.

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