It’s fair to say that heading into the start of the new season, the midfield was by far the most stacked department in Liverpool’s squad.
Now, with Thiago Alcântara on board, Jürgen Klopp has eight established, quality midfielders to pick from once they’re all fit and available. And with the impressive performances of both Marko Grujic and Xherdan Shaqiri (who tends to float around somewhere between midfield and attack) in the Carabao Cup in midweek, that midfield number can arguably be extended to 10.
That’s a lot of options for any manager to have, and although it remains to be seen whether one or two of them move on before the transfer deadline on October 6, it gives Klopp a huge amount of tactical flexibility and scope for rotation as Liverpool look to mount a serious assault on all fronts in 2020/21.
Here, we tackle some of the big questions around Liverpool’s midfield and how it might shape up over the coming weeks and months.
Out of the 10 senior midfielders in the squad, who would you class as the core group who’ll be expected to start the bulk of Premier League and Champions League fixtures?
Ollie Connolly: Thiago’s injury record and integration into a new league and style dictates that he should not be relied upon for each and every game. If there’s an opportunity to spare his legs, I think Klopp will take it. Regardless of the third piece — Thiago-Fabinho, Thiago-Keita — I still think Klopp will want both Jordan Henderson and Wijnaldum in the side. Henderson brings intensity and organisation to the team as a whole and has often been responsible for setting the team’s tempo. Thiago will subsume some of those responsibilities, but Klopp will still look to rely on his captain.
Joel Rabinowitz: I’d expect Klopp will want at least two (if not three) out of Henderson, Thiago, Fabinho and Wijnaldum on the pitch in the vast majority of games. I’d also throw Naby Keita into that mix now as well. It’s an incredibly strong core group of five with a great blend of defensive and offensive attributes which can be tweaked to suit all different kinds of game situations and types of opposition.
Rank them all, 1-10, in pecking order.
OC: Thiago, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, Milner, Grujic, Shaqiri
JR: Henderson, Thiago, Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain (once he’s fit again), Jones, Milner, Shaqiri, Grujic.
Injuries aside, who is now your big-game/cup final trio?
OC: This is really hard. Thiago ahead of Fabinho and Henderson makes the most sense. But based on how Arsenal, Man City and other big sides have set up , dropping Thiago into the six role is likely the team’s best way of breaking the shadow press. I’ll go with Thiago, Henderson, Wijnaldum: plenty of positional discipline, passing, and pressing intensity.
JR: Tricky one, this. Fabinho anchoring in the No.6 role, Henderson and Thiago just ahead of him on either side. Not a huge amount of natural goal threat, I suppose, but just imagine trying to get the ball off them. There’s so much defensive steel and passing quality there. They’d dominate virtually any opponent they came up against.
Feels a bit harsh on Wijnaldum and Keita, but that’s how strong the competition is now. There will be so many options to change things from the bench in any given situation.
What kind of midfield configuration would you like to see start against lower calibre opposition, particularly at Anfield?
OC: I think Keita is a must here. He brings an oomph to the midfield that is often lacking against deep-lying, low blocks. Once again, breaking a deep block is as much about the build-up play from the very back, so I’d prefer Thiago in the six role, but I’m not sure Klopp would agree. A double-pivot with Thiago alongside Fabinho would be spicy, something that would allow you to play all four of Liverpool’s forwards. I’ll take Thiago, Keita, Henderson — with the former and latter freely interchanging between the six and eight spots depending on the opponents set-up.
JR: I’d like to see Keita on the pitch as much as possible this season, especially against sides who sit back and pack numbers behind the ball. Having him and Thiago in those types of games just makes Liverpool so dangerous in all areas, because teams won’t just be able to double-up out wide and focus on stopping the full-backs.
Thiago, Keita and one more from pretty much any of the others. I’m also hoping we’ll see a fair bit of 4-2-3-1, with a double pivot of Thiago and Henderson/Fabinho, Firmino or Minamino in the No.10 role, which then allows Klopp to play Jota as part of a four-pronged attack.
Which, if any of them, would you ideally look to shift on this transfer window?
OC: Given how much football is being stuffed into such a short time period, I’d keep them all. Generating funds is clearly important, but that can come from other areas: Rhian Brewster (gulp), Harry Wilson et al. If you have to sell one, I’d plump for Grujic. I have an extremely high opinion of Grujic and think he can be a top-level combo shielder/creator for a side in the Bundesliga or Premier League. But it seems evident based on reports that he isn’t considered a long-term fit in Klopp’s setup. If the club can generate £25 million-plus, that would be a decent deal.
JR: Reluctantly, Grujic. I know it was only League One opposition, but I was so impressed with how he played against Lincoln the other night. He’s got a little bit of everything about him and like Ollie says, there’s so much potential there to be unlocked.
I definitely wouldn’t be averse to keeping him round at least until January if no decent offers come in this window and would like to see him given more opportunities. Liverpool are quietly racking up quite a few injuries already, and as the fixtures become even more intense in the weeks ahead, having Grujic as an option is absolutely no bad thing.
That said, the guy deserves to be playing regular first team football somewhere, and it’s virtually impossible to see how he gets that at Liverpool. Cashing in for £20-25m would seem reasonable.
I’d also definitely like to see Shaqiri stay for another season. If he can stay fit, he’s such an effective game-changer who brings real quality and unpredictability. Against certain types of opposition, that’s ideal.
Who are you most concerned and excited about watching this season?
OC: I’m most excited about Thiago, duh. But I’m also fascinated to see how Jones evolves. He really is a bag of everything and could be anything at this point. That slippery, drifting from out-to-in style has some echoes of Philippe Coutinho, while the through-the-middle drives and long-range antics have a whiff of the young, shaven-headed Gerrard about them. High praise, I know, but after being on-the-fence about Jones’ prospects, I have been well and truly won over.
In terms of concerns, they’re mild. I think Oxlade-Chamberlain is more essential to Klopp than he’s given credit for, and his fitness and form will still play a crucial role this season. Mostly I’m concerned about Milner: The injuries are starting to rack up. He’s unlikely to be needed a ton this season, but if Klopp and co. no longer feel they can rely on him then it will have knock-on implications for those who might look to move elsewhere for first team football.
JR: Excited? Thiago, of course. Jones and Keita too, but mainly Thiago. For obvious reasons. I still don’t think I’ve quite processed the fact he plays for Liverpool now. He’s going to be so much fun for us, not so much teams who have to play against him.
Concerned? Milner does worry me somewhat, I must admit. It’s gone under the radar just how many muscular injuries he’s routinely picking up now, and while he clearly remains a pivotal presence in the dressing room, I do think we’re at a point whereby even as an option off the bench to close games out, Liverpool have better, more dynamic alternatives.
Sure, as someone to guide the youngsters and fringe players through in the domestic cups, he’s perfect, but in the league and Champions League, I’d rather see Jones and Keita get more game time.
I understand why some would have concerns about Oxlade-Chamberlain too, but I’m still really optimistic that he can have a significant role to play not just this season but over the next few years as well.