There are no two ways about it, Liverpool have had a poor season.
Going from winning the league by an eighteen-point margin to fretting about your prospects of finishing in the top four ahead of West Ham United and Leicester City has been a hell of a comedown for the Reds.
Criticism has inevitably followed and the playing personnel and the coaching staff alike have all been questioned by an increasingly frustrated fanbase.
One area of Liverpool’s play that has been honed in on for disapproval has been their lack of goals from midfield. At the time of writing, the Anfield club’s midfield stock has only scored five goals all season. For context, runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City’s engine room options have chipped in with 28, goals depending on whether you consider Phil Foden as an attacker or not. Either, the distance is sizeable.
But this isn’t a new “issue” for Liverpool, given that last season — a campaign which ended a 30-year wait for a league title — the Reds’ highest scoring midfielders in the league were Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, whose goalscoring exploits mostly came when he was stationed in the front three, tied on four apiece.
This is a far cry from the 2016/2017 season, Jurgen Klopp’s first season at the helm, when goals from the middle third were plentiful. Adam Lallana, who was moved from a more advanced into central midfield, added eight league goals to their tally. Emre Can(5), Georginio Wijnaldum(6), and James Milner(7, a figure inflated by penalties) all pitched in goals as Liverpool qualified for Champions League football by finishing fourth in the league.
From that highwater mark of midfield goals, gradually Klopp changed his approach and made the midfield more defensively robust and resolute and the creative responsibility was passed onto the full-backs, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold. The highest scoring midfielders in the 2017/2018 season — a year that culminated with the Anfield club reaching a Europe Cup final — were Can and Oxlade Chamberlain on three goals.
The duo of full-backs, covered by the imperious Virgil van Dijk and marshalled by Fabinho’s dominance of the defensive midfield zone, responded to their newfound attacking freedoms with aplomb and broke Premier League assist records for full-backs in consecutive seasons.
Overall, though, with the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah brilliant, Liverpool actually scored more goals in the season’s after the tactical pivot to a more solid midfield. The Reds goal scoring figures from the following season’s shows this.
2016/2017: 78 goals
2017/2018: 84 goals
2018/2019: 89 goals
2019/2020: 85 goals
While more goals is always helpful in football — Duh! — criticising the Reds’ midfielders for not chipping in with more goals is pointless because they are following doctors orders and playing in a manner that will allow the full-backs to thrive in a creative sense.
Alexander Arnold boasts 31 assists in 126 league appearances, while Robertson has 37 assists to his name in 186 top flight showings. The defence has suffered this season, but the issue has been the myriad of injuries and the instability it has caused the team, not the system of play in and of itself.
Liverpool, meanwhile, had the best defence in the league in the 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 seasons, despite the fact that the team — best shown by their ambitious full-backs — played attacking, front-foot football.
This solidity and strong balance is a justification of Klopp’s decision to play a more functional trio in the centre of the pitch and an indication of the player’s tactical comprehension and discipline.
While more goals — whatever the source — would definitely help the Reds’ cause, at present that’s not what’s being asked of the players in the midfield department and criticising them for doing what’s asked of them is a waste of time.