An Oxlade-Chamberlain Shaped Hole
Man City’s record-breaking title win last season saw them break the 100 point barrier, scoring 106 goals and falling to just two defeats. Liverpool though proved a barrier too big to overcome.
Jurgen Klopp’s side won three of the four meetings between the two sides last season – with an emphatic 5-0 defeat at the Etihad being the exception.
A 4-3 league win in January was followed up by a romping 3-0 win in the Champions League quarter-final first-leg before the Reds held firm to record a 2-1 away win in Manchester and continue their journey towards Kiev.
Those games were built on a ten-to-twenty-minute blitz that underpinned Liverpool’s season, with three goals scored in nine minutes and three in nineteen respectively.
At the heart of that blitz, an English dynamo.
The only midfielder to start in all three games against the Citizens, Oxlade-Chamberlain thrived in a central midfield role, contributing at both ends to instigate the press and show drive to push on in the final third.
Endearing himself to the Anfield faithful with two belters in front of the Kop, he produced a low driven shot from outside the area in the 4-3 win, bettered only by his rip-roaring strike from 25 yards in the Champions League clash.
There was to be no such excitement on Sunday, however. This season has seen a tactical tweak from Klopp, who’s aligned to Ferguson’s ‘attacks win you games, but defences win you titles’ ethos. Yet to display their usual verve in attack, Liverpool haven’t been blowing teams away in short bursts as they did previously, instead display more control due to improvements in their defensive foundations.
A role reversal from 2017/18, Liverpool actually failed to register a single shot on target in the first half of their clash with City – a feat they managed for the first time since November 2017 against Chelsea.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s absence was a key factor in their failure to break into the final third. The exact type of game where his importance is emphasised, Liverpool desperately lacked an explosive drive from midfield.
Naby Keita was supposed to be that presence when coming on for James Milner in the first half but with the exception of the West Ham game earlier in the season, he’s yet to show the drive and confidence to carry the ball forward as in his Leipzig days.
As to be expected from a player who’s still learning Klopp’s system, he’s not replicated the exhilarating displays seen in the Bundesliga. We’ve all seen just how influential he can be when given licence to roam with the ball, breaking through low blocks to provide a cutting edge. Thus, when he does get himself up to speed, he’d be the prime candidate to fill the Ox-shaped hole.
Alternatively, Xherdan Shaqiri. Impressing in a No.10 role during the 3-0 win over Southampton, his inclusion behind Salah, Mane and Firmino brought an extra edge to the attack, forcing the opener with a whipped shot cannoning in off Wesley Hoedt. A sumptuous 30-yard free-kick later set up Salah in a very positive first start for the Swiss international.
Flushed with creativity and industry, he could help bring the best out of the front three, driving forward in possession to supply a link-up between midfield and attack that’s currently lacking.
With games against Huddersfield, Cardiff and Red Star Belgrade to come, Liverpool will be crying out for a dynamic midfield runner to break down the low block.
Whatever the answer, Keita or Shaqiri, Klopp must find one.