Much of the debate surrounding Liverpool during the early stages of the season fixated on the midfield picture. Why was it not clicking? Why were the players bereft of any drive? Where was the ingenuity and freneticism of last season?
For all the depth in the middle of the park, no-one could offer what Oxlade-Chamberlain brought in the business end of the 2017/18 campaign. The former-Arsenal man was a key factor in breaking into the final third, particularly against Manchester City where he shone in a central midfield role. Contributing at both ends of the field, instigating the press before driving at the heart of the opposition with the ball, Chamberlain produced some real belters to endear himself to fans. His absence has therefore been a real loss to Klopp’s side, causing an obvious depletion in the drive from midfield.
Jurgen Klopp has made use of the vast range of options at his disposal in a bid to find the perfect combination to the conundrum, with Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum particularly prominent. However, they’ve failed to offer the creative nous necessary to underpin the front three, emphasised by their bleak tally of four goals in a combined 148 appearances last season. None of the trio are known for their attacking prowess and their similar styles have acted as a barrier to the intricate, fast-paced, transitional play observed last season, thereby placing a greater emphasis on the individual brilliance of Salah, Mane and Firmino.
How do you solve a problem like Maria, then?
Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Keita, of course.
Liverpool fans have had to sit in waiting to see the first glimpses of Fabinho in action, with Klopp using the patient tactic on the Brazilian, giving him time to adapt to his new surroundings and get up to speed with the rigorous demands of the team’s philosophy. Keita too has needed time to familiarise himself on Merseyside, struggling to get up to speed with the levels many became accustomed to seeing in the Bundesliga and while there remains much more to come from the duo, they’ve already helped to answer Klopp’s biggest puzzle.
Indeed, the dramatic 1-0 win against Everton represented a stark improvement to the midfield picture, largely due to a strong partnership between Wijnaldum and Fabinho. The former-Monaco man showed exactly what Liverpool had been lacking, bursting quickly into the tackle to provide a base for several attacks while playing vertical, incisive balls in between the lines to deliver chances for his teammates. Meanwhile, Wijnaldum burst through in support of the front three, offering another vital body in and around the six-yard box – an embodiment of the team’s surge in attacking drive.
A familiar story against Bournemouth, the trio of Fabinho, Keita and Wijnaldum all featured together for the first time in one of the best midfield performance of the season. Gone was the absence of a link between midfield and attack, replaced by free-flowing combinations and a visible improvement in the press.
Keita’s arrival and recent uptake in form has brought a new depth to Liverpool’s attack, fuelled by ingenuity and on-the-ball intelligence. Meanwhile, Gini Wijnaldum deserves equal appreciation for his performances this season, upping his game massively across the board. One of the main criticisms the Dutchman has faced has been a lack of goals, failing to get into the danger area and make a direct impact. Yet, he’s now beginning to do just that and on a consistent basis; another key factor in the team’s overall improvement.
The recent 3-1 win against Manchester United, a first home win against the Red Devils since 2015, is a testament to the fact, representing the gulf in class between Mourinho’s lacklustre midfield and the renewed dynamism of Klopp’s engine. For all their struggles at the start of the season, the midfield is now growing from strength to strength as a budding new partnership forms.
Gini-Fabinho-Keita appears to have solved the German’s perennial problem, bringing a strong balance to the side while delivering the perfect combination of defensive intelligence and attacking creativity.
Klopp’s puzzle could well be a mystery of the past.