In the discussion about how Liverpool overcome the sterility in midfield that has affected performances over the course of the season and specifically in Belgrade, many have offered Jordan Henderson as the solution.
Melissa Reddy brilliantly diagnosed Liverpool’s problems. In elaborating a point on “midfield balance” she makes the following key points:
Liverpool plays predictable football, arguing that the player on the ball only has a short or no passing option.
No link between midfield and attack; highlighting Chamberlain’s absence and the importance of a ‘line breaker’ in midfield.
Gini- Milner- Lallana trio too laboured, noting one of the midfielders has to be ‘quick-thinking and a progressive force’.
In essence, Liverpool’s midfield issues are down to a lack of dynamism, creativity and incision. And it is also too reliant on endeavour rather than technical ability. This brings to mind a quote by Real Betis coach, Quique Setien:
“In these days when people say you have to run, work, fight, compete, I ask my players to think”
Other writers on Liverpool largely agree with Reddy’s views. But despite their diagnosis, they all suggest Henderson was amiss in Belgrade and most would have him starting against Fulham. This mirrors the view of most Henderson admirers. This is essentially is a case of offering a square peg as a fit for a round hole. Even for Henderson’s biggest admirers, dynamism, incision and creativity are not attributes they associate with him.
Fabinho’s impressive display against Red Star was scoffed on the grounds of inferior opposition. However, in those ninety minutes, the quality of attacking and defensive input by the Brazilian should be replicated in a lot of matches if Liverpool is to succeed this season.
Does Henderson have such a performance in him? For years, his position – as captain and a starter – has been justified by his passion, good work ethic, the key to Klopp’s pressing system and importance to the dressing room. His importance to Klopp’s pressing system, in particular, is held up as a key justification for having him in the team. But if any lesson was learnt from Belgrade, Napoli and Huddersfield it was how toothless the team looks when the pressing is not working.
Pep Guardiola’s comment after the draw at Anfield was celebrated as the Spaniard showing respect for Klopp’s team.
“If it’s an open game against Liverpool, you don’t have a chance, not even one per cent. They are built for that ”
On the flip side, the comment mocks Liverpool’s inability to deploy other tools when the opposition’s set-up frustrates effective pressing. Pep choosing to go cautiously was all that was needed to suffocate Liverpool’s game. Red Star clogged the midfield denying Liverpool any space to carry out effective pressing. Napoli had technically gifted players to dribble and pass through the press. This had Liverpool’s players chasing shadows. Liverpool’s ineffectiveness in midfield when they are denied opportunities to effectively press is not lost on the opposition. As Carlos Carvahal, former Swansea manager colourfully illustrated, “Liverpool’s Formula One car can’t run fast in London traffic”
The Liverpool captain’s skill set means he would not have offered any improvement on the performance in Belgrade. Neither can he solve the lack of creativity or incision in midfield. In Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri, Klopp has the players with the skill sets to offer him all that his midfield lacks. Of course, he can choose to play Henderson. But as Belgrade showed, a midfield without balance and creativity will be found out sooner or later.