One criticism leveled at Klopp’s Liverpool over the past 12 months has been the lack of creative spark in midfield, but now even this critic – the smallest squabble – is being quelled. Let’s hope the trend continues, writes @sam0007ster.
Uncertain, frustrated and seemingly out of ideas. Old Trafford. 71st minute. Sunday before the last. The Reds are 1-0 down.
Hustled and harried by a determined Manchester United side, Jürgen Klopp decides to go a touch more offensive. Adam Lallana, a player out of favour, out of luck and bereft of conference, replaces captain Jordan Henderson.
Liverpool’s unbeaten run in the league (stretching back to January) is under severe threat, let alone the 17-game winning streak. The eight-point-lead at the top, as it stands, is cut to five.
United still look the more likely. Fred, only a few moments later, fires just wide with Alisson scrambling at his far post. Klopp is agitated and clenching his fists. Liverpool need someone – anyone – to stand up and be counted.
82nd minute. Naby Keita – the Guinean who promised so much – enters the fray. The former RB Leipzig man was a £50million+ pound investment in August 2017 and, thus far, has only shown glimpses of the potential that made Liverpool wait a full year to get him. But the change in personnel begins to bear fruit.
With the introduction of both Lallana and Keita, momentum soon swings. A new impetus is placed on playing between the lines and creating space for the marauding full backs.
Keita soon finds himself with the ball 20 yards from goal and with runners in front of him – lots of them. Andy Robertson barks for the ball on the left, but the midfielder is patient and waits. Keita draws in the onrushing defenders and creates acres of space for the Scotsman to deliver the killer cross.
Robertson duly delivers, Roberto Firmino dummies and Lallana – the forgotten man whose last goal came in May 2017 – is on hand to tap home at the far post. Salvation for Liverpool. Salvation for Lallana.
Liverpool’s goal contributions from midfielders, even from those who are rotated week in week out, are on the up.
“That was the best news of the whole day [referring to the game against United]…,” Jurgen Klopp said in his pre-Genk press conference.
“Not the result, not the goal we scored which was nice, but these guys, which are very important players for us, in a moment when it’s not easy to get rhythm when you don’t play that much…can perform like this in a game. In training I see it a lot, but that’s the best news.”
Only three days later, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – who also played his part off the bench against United – grabbed all the headlines in Belgium. The Reds ran out 4-1 winners in the end, but the difference between the two sides for much of the game was the Ox.
His penetration and invention from midfield was for all to see. His two scintillating finishes from outside the box were not too bad either. In his post-Genk press conference, Klopp said “the (second) goal was sensational and very important for us. Wonderful.”
“On Sunday, Adam (Lallana) scored the goal, and now Ox has scored two goals. It’s really nice. Absolutely great, a great story.”
The front three cannot take all the responsibility. If Liverpool lacked something – if anything – last season, it was an eye for a goal from midfield. Whisper it quietly, but even this critic – the smallest squabble – is being quelled.
Four out of Liverpool’s last six goals in the Premier League have been scored by midfielders.
Gini Wijnaldum against Sheffield United. James Milner’s last-minute penalty at home to a highflying Leicester City side. Lallana versus Manchester United. Jordan Henderson’s equaliser on Sunday (courtesy of Fabinho’s looped diagonal pass). Each goal as crucial as the next.
The Reds are now 27 unbeaten in the league: title winning form.
Rotation in midfield has brought with it a freshness and, cumulatively, a newfound sense of ‘the collective’. Lallana, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keita (whether from the start or off the bench) and the tried and tested trio of Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Henderson have all taken up the mantle over the last two weeks.
The ‘one and for all’ mantra and its implementation, as we all know, is central to any potential championship winning side. Klopp certainly knows it.
“A lot of substitutes we have brought on have had an impact,” he said on Friday. “And that is massive for us. It is key to being successful. Otherwise you have no chance.”
Klopp has such a rich array of midfield talent to choose from. Now more than ever, he can pick and choose as he likes secure in the knowledge each and every player is fighting tooth and nail for – and are capable of filling – a regular starting berth.
The news, as reported by Neil Jones of Goal UK recently, that Keita is now more settled on Merseyside and is comfortable with holding an entire conversation in English can only be good news in that regard.
Irrespective of the fresh injury sustained against Arsenal in the League Cup (which is not expected to be serious), coupled with concerns from fans about his level of peformance on Wednesday night, Liverpool are relaxed about his situation. With a manic month of festive fixtures to follow, opportunities are aplenty.
The packed winter schedule includes a trip to RB Salzburg in the Champions League, the Merseyside derby and the Fifa Club World Cup in Qatar. The date of Liverpool’s League Cup quarterfinal against Aston Villa is yet to be decided.
Of course Klopp will see this spell as an opportunity more than anything else. An opportunity perhaps – at least in part – to showcase further why the midfield conundrum is fast becoming (or has already become) a thing of the past.
Up the Reds.