You know, I’d already got this article in my brain long before I saw this tweet from Michael Caley, the brain behind Caley Graphics xG maps. Caley is a brilliant football analyst and the insight that he offers in this tweet backs up other data that I’ve seen in other places, but the simple fact is as follows.
Nevertheless, before I get into some of that data, I want to outline the point of this article. Klopp has been tinkering with the midfield for a few weeks now and I myself wrote an article suggesting that Keita, Gini and Fab was the best possible midfield combination. Since then, we’ve seen the Hendo/Gini/Keita midfield which worked moderately well, the Hendo/Gini/Fab midfield which has not and the Milner/Gini/Fab midfield which was excellent.
So we can start to see that Liverpool’s attacking success over the last few weeks has begun to align with the data as to which midfield structures work and which don’t as well. Obviously, form is important and there’s more going on than just the midfield – see the importance of Trent Alexander-Arnold as an attacking force – but it’s clear that there are real issues with the way that Liverpool have been attacking, and that the midfield plays a huge part in how that’s working.
So the data. James Milner and Naby Keita are Liverpool’s two most progressive midfielders. For me that’s never been a question, it’s just a fact, all of the data supports it.
Moreover, Milner is Liverpool’s second most creative player overall, with 0.30 xA/90. One fair criticism to make of that data is that Milner is primarily a creative force from set-pieces, but his open play xA/90 is still 0.18, which remains the third highest in this Liverpool squad, as he is leapfrogged by Roberto Firmino (0.20 xA/90). He also has the highest xGBuild of any regular players in the squad – at 0.50 xGBuild/90.
Whilst Keita’s underlying attacking numbers aren’t as impressive, he still has the second highest xGBuild at 0.45/90. Moreover, as this data from the Under Pressure lads, and this data from Statsbomb demonstrates, Keita is taking on a fundamentally different role at Liverpool, and a more important role in terms of transitioning.
At this point, I feel it’s really important to highlight that the reason I’m talking about these two players is that their datasets, and more importantly their attributes as players, make them in many respects fundamentally different midfielders to the other three – not necessarily better ones.
Fabinho’s role in this midfield at this point in all but undisputed. He’s turned into one of the best defensive midfielders in the country and moreover, he’s become a useful attacking outlet from defensive midfield too.
Gini Wijnaldum meanwhile is a player who has increasingly made his spot in the starting XI unquestionable too, with a string of strong performances. However, the majority of his best performances have come either with a strong attacking force ahead of him, or just in a defensive role. There is no evidence that Gini has been a good attacking midfielder nearly two seasons under Klopp, a role that is clearly tactical.
And then there’s Jordan Henderson, who I rate higher than a lot of Liverpool fans. Hendo has proven time and again that he’s a reliable player in certain situations and in certain contexts, particularly at the base of the midfield. However, he’s not been an attacking midfielder for half a decade and he shouldn’t be asked to be one.
So here’s the crux. A midfield of Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum is not just fundamentally flawed, but fundamentally broken. Not because any of them are bad midfielders, but because all three of them for varying periods of time have become fundamentally defensive midfielders, or safe midfielders, whichever term you prefer. None of them take risks in their passing, none of them are particularly strong in terms of dribbling and just to be blunt, none of them are attacking midfielders.
That’s the issue for me at the crux of goalless draws against Everton and Manchester United, and why I find Klopp’s response that we aren’t playing PlayStation so incredibly infuriating and disingenuous – although I should by now start practising what I preach regarding Klopp in that he rarely has anything insightful to say in press conferences because he doesn’t really respect the English media circuits.
Klopp didn’t just pick a three-man midfield, he picked a fundamentally defensive three man midfield. He picked three defensive midfielders, knowing that the attacker most important to dropping deep and linking attack and midfield wasn’t going to start, and also leaving Xherdan Shaqiri out of the game completely. Then, when he did bring on subs, he brought on Milner whom he admitted beforehand wasn’t 100% fit and then, most infuriatingly of all, he introduced Adam Lallana for Sadio Mané.
Shaqiri, of course, is out of form, which is a fair point as to why he wasn’t introduced. But he’s a talented attacking option and he’s simply not going to find form sitting on the bench. More to the point, Klopp criticised the suggestion that he could have been more attacking in his team selection, or thrown on an extra attacker, saying that we weren’t playing PlayStation.
Now I’m not going to dig into this one too much as it’s patently rubbish, but I will point out that Klopp played a 4-2-3-1 formation against Everton in the Anfield leg, instead of the 4-3-3 here and we created three times as many expected goals and five big chances instead of one. Moreover, that day the game was won by an attacking substitute, as Klopp threw on both Daniel Sturridge and goalscorer Divock Origi.
The more pressing point is that Liverpool have gone into multiple away games where there was scope for a win, and more importantly where a win was necessary, where the reward of three points far outweighed the negative impact of losing instead of drawing. And on both occasions, Klopp played defensively and watched his team fail miserably to break down weaker opposition.
Now things will probably be different against Burnley and beyond. Klopp has shown that he’s prepared to be more aggressive at Anfield, especially against weaker opposition, but nevertheless, the time for caution is long since past. Tactically, there is some logic to what Klopp is doing throwing in Henderson, Fabinho and Gini, but ultimately, it’s a midfield that simply isn’t fit for task. Fabinho, playing the most defensive role in that midfield, is the most creative and progressive player in it, a damning indictment on the attacking contributions of Gini and Hendo, who between them have an xG of 0.12/90, an xA of 0.08 and have created just one big chance between them, scoring two goals between them, only one from open play, with zero assists in 3500 collective minutes.
Again, this isn’t to slate Gini or Hendo, both of whom are fine players who have made big contributions to our season. But playing them as attacking midfielders, when neither of them is suitably to the role, isn’t going to work, any more than it is trying to play them as left-backs. And trying to share the creative burden between three fundamentally defensive and not very creative player is madness, especially when your four most progressive players, and two of your five most creative players are all sat on the bench, admittedly for various reasons.
Klopp needs to find a way to fix the balance of the midfield, and we’ve been saying that all season. What’s incredibly frustrating is that the answer has been staring him in the face all season too, and he’s being too cautious to take advantage.
Now the advantage is lost, the room for error is lost, and Klopp needs to stop playing it safe with his midfield. We aren’t playing PlayStation, but if we want to win the Premier League, then playing three defensive midfielders simply isn’t going to cut it.