Szoboszlai’s Recent Form
From the moment he arrived at Liverpool, Dominik Szoboszlai brought a great wave of excitement. The Hungarian was unlike any midfielder Jürgen Klopp had signed before – capable of scoring goals and contributing with assists. His arrival was going to herald a new era in Liverpool’s evolving midfield.
During his first few months at the club, that is exactly what Liverpool fans witnessed.
Szoboszlai excelled and did all the things Liverpool had lacked from their previous midfielders. He created chances, got into dangerous goal-scoring situations and even contributed with goals, assists and winning penalties.
But in the last couple of weeks, Szoboszlai’s impact has wilted for Liverpool. Especially, in the final third. So what has gone ‘wrong’?
What went well?
During his initial start at Liverpool, Dominik Szoboszlai created a whole new dimension in Liverpool’s midfield. He brought a wave of energy and was regularly making an impact in dangerous areas on the pitch.
In his first four Premier League games, no one made more carries into the box than the Hungarian for Liverpool (6). He also completed the most dribbles (7) and the most shot-creating-actions (18).
Up until the November international break, only Mohamed Salah created more chances than Szoboszlai for Liverpool (28).
Given those numbers, and Szoboszlai’s goal involvements (whether through goals or assists, or winning penalties) it was hard not to be excited by Liverpool’s new no.8.
What’s gone wrong?
However, since returning from international duty in November, Szoboszlai came back looking like a completely different player.
Since then, he’s created just 4 chances in 5 games, made just 4 carries into the box and completed a total of 3 dribbles. Creatively, in the last five Premier League games Szoboszlai averaged 2.4 shot-creating-actions per game as per FBref. But that average before the November break was 4.58 per game.
Partly his reduction in output will be down to the fact that he’s less involved. In his first 10 Premier League games, Szoboszlai made more than 100 touches in four games. In his last 7, he hasn’t been able to do that once. A lot of that will be down to being substituted. In his first 10 games, Klopp didn’t sub off Szoboszlai on a single occasion – in his subsequent seven games, he’s played the full 90 minutes just once.
Why have things gone awry?
A simple explanation will be to blame Szoboszlai’s recent performances on fatigue. Someone coming from the Bundesliga isn’t necessarily used to the intensity of the Premier League – especially in the lead-up to the festive period.
But that isn’t really backed-up by the numbers nor the data. Szoboszlai was only beaten by Mohamed Salah in the lactate tests in pre-season, and he is still covering a lot of ground in midfield.
His recoveries in the last 5 games have averaged out at 6.29 per 90 minutes, which is only marginally fewer, than his 7.33 in his first 12 games.
Instead, what has changed is Szoboszlai’s positioning on the pitch.
A new role?
Since the November international break, Liverpool has slightly tweaked the system. Whereas in the first 12 games, Trent Alexander-Arnold (when fit) was playing a more ‘traditional’ right-back role, in the last 5, he’s been inverting into central areas on a regular basis – sometimes even moving into midfield.
This has had an impact on how Szoboszlai has had to position himself on the pitch. Often times, when Alexander-Arnold inverts, the Hungarian has to drop back and cover his teammate.
Just take a look at Szoboszlai’s heatmap as per Sofascore against Manchester United.
Based on his hotspots, he looks more like a full-back than a midfielder, with his most common area on the pitch being just on the by-line. That becomes even more apparent if you compare Szoboszlai’s positioning with Alexander-Arnold’s in the same game.
The Liverpool vice-captain is getting into a lot more central areas, and as a result he understandably leaves gaps in behind. Gaps which his teammate needs to fill, and that task has often fallen to Szoboszlai.
Making Szoboszlai ‘great again’
Naturally, based on Szoboszlai’s new role in the system, it makes perfect sense that his creative and offensive numbers have dwindled in recent weeks. He’s become a key cog in the machine. However, making him a mere cog in the system is a waste of his talent.
At his best, Szoboszlai is capable of dictating and winning games single-handedly for Liverpool – just like fans saw at the beginning of the season.
But in order for him to flourish, he needs to be given the license to go forward.
One of his best games in a Liverpool shirt so far was his performance against Nottingham Forest. In that game Szoboszlai registered two assists and produced a Man of the Match display.
What stands-out from his heatmap against Forest is how much further forward he was on the pitch.
If Liverpool wants to bring the best out of Szoboszlai again, Klopp needs to find a system where the Hungarian has the freedom to position himself in similar situations on the pitch.
Last season for RB Leipzig, Szoboszlai thrived offensively in exactly the same positions and was one of the best creators in the Bundesliga. He’s already shown he can do the same in the Premier League.
But he cannot be expected to produce the creative numbers he did before, if he’s playing as deep as he has been for Liverpool recently.
No quick fix
Getting the best out of the trio of Szoboszlai, Alexander-Arnold and Salah in Liverpool’s current system was never going to be easy for Klopp. Alexander-Arnold and Szoboszlai are two players in particular who thrive in very similar positions on the pitch.
Right now, Klopp’s solution has been to ‘sacrifice’ Szoboszlai in order to allow Alexander-Arnold to thrive. But that doesn’t have to be the case. One option could be to shift the Hungarian to the left-side.
Doing that may tackle the current imbalance between Liverpool’s right and left flank that was evident against Manchester United. On Sunday, Liverpool relied far too much on creating and instigating attacks from the right. That made them easy to read and too predictable.
Moving Szoboszlai to the left and pushing him further up the pitch could ‘fix’ that problem. In the process, it may also create more balance in this Liverpool team.