Football News

Short and long term fixes to Liverpool’s midfield issues: Embrace a back-three, find Henderson’s heir

By Andrew Francis

Embrace a back-three, find Henderson's heir copy

Published: 21:16, 18 February 2023

Liverpool have had a difficult season, especially in midfield, where injuries and poor form have blighted them. What can be done to fix The Reds‘ midfield dilemma?

It’s been no secret that Liverpool have encountered plenty of problems this season, none more so than in the middle of the park where they’ve failed to dominate proceedings in the same way as in recent seasons. Injuries haven’t helped them, but their play has lacked the intensity and dynamism seen during their 68-match unbeaten run at Anfield between 2017 and 2021.

It’s going to be a huge summer for the club and Jurgen Klopp. And we’ve had a look at how the German might be able to fix the midfield issues they have experienced this season.

Short Term Fixes

Play three at the back

Flexibility, perhaps, isn’t one of the things you’d most associate with Klopp’s time at Anfield. The German has stuck to his 4-3-3 formation for the vast majority of his time in charge but, with this season not exactly yielding consistent results, could a shift to 3-4-3 breathe new life into Liverpool? Recent wins over Everton and Newcastle may suggest Liverpool have turned a corner, but if the upturn proves to be a false dawn, could a tweak, therefore, be needed?

It’s not just been a lack of points, or goals, that have hampered Liverpool across the entire season but also their inability to keep the opposition from creating chances. Last season, Liverpool faced a total of 111 shots on target, an average of 2.9 per game. But, that figure pales in comparison to the equivalent figures for this season. The Reds are facing an average of 4.5 shots on target per game this year. Could a change in shape bring some solidity back to their defence?

A move further forward would also certainly benefit Trent Alexander-Arnold, who would be relieved of some of the defensive pressure he’s felt, as well as taking on a key role further up the pitch, where his ability to find his teammates would be truly appreciated. Joe Gomez, who has experience playing at right-back, would be the perfect person to play on the right side of a defensive three, whilst Virgil van Dijk, and his ability to progress with the ball would work well on the opposite side of Joel Matip.

Give Thiago a rest (even when he returns)

There’s no doubt that Thiago is vital to the way Liverpool play. His ability to collect the ball and find a man in space with a progressive pass is second to none. As illustrated by the graphic below, Thiago is one of the Premier League’s leading midfield operators and precision passers.

Given Thiago’s importance to Klopp’s midfield composition, you can understand his manager’s reluctance to rest him. But, that has recently been to Liverpool’s detriment, with the 31-year-old metronome sustaining a hip injury that is expected to keep him out for a few weeks. The key, of course, will be how Liverpool cater to his return and handle his minutes.

When he does come back from a stint on the treatment tables, Liverpool may find it beneficiary to keep the Spaniard on ice for the odd game here and there, preserving his legs for the crunch clashes when his press-resistant dominance can really boost the Reds’ midfield authority.

Long term solutions

Long term, the first thing that Klopp will have to do is move some players on. Not only is this the ‘FSG way’ but it’s probably time to accept that some players in the squad haven’t had the impact they would’ve expected to on Merseyside.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita are both out of contract this summer, and indications are that they will be leaving the club. Whilst both have been solid enough since their arrival at the club, neither have pushed on to establish themselves as true first-team players. With both players on sky-high wages as well, it would certainly free up some funds for new arrivals.

The same can probably be said of James Milner, who will also likely leave the club at the end of his contract this summer, freeing up even more funds to spend on wages. That seriously depletes the midfield options available to Klopp, but he will have a lot of financial wiggle room to bolster where he sees fit.

Let’s take a look at some of the contenders to bring the glory days back to Anfield.

Adrien Rabiot

One of the main issues with the Liverpool midfield this season has been the reliance on players who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Fabinho (29), Thiago (31) and Jordan Henderson (32) have each been called on to play 15 or more games this season, and it’s certainly led to a lack of energy in midfield at times.

Rabiot, who turns 28 in April, doesn’t bring the age bracket down too much but would offer an upgrade on Henderson in certain midfield aspects, shown using the Squawka Comparison Matrix below:

Despite his experience at two of Europe’s biggest clubs, and 24 trophies to his name, it still feels like Rabiot has more to give. The Frenchman, whose left foot would offer some balance to the Liverpool midfield, has experience in playing as a single pivot in a 4-3-3 formation, something that would match well with the way Liverpool prefer to line up.

Another benefit to the Frenchman arriving at Anfield would be a potential partnership with Thiago. Rabiot doesn’t often look to break lines with his passing, arguably Thiago’s biggest skill, but instead looks to penetrate off the ball. That ability to find space is reminiscent of the man he’d be most likely to replace in the Liverpool side: Henderson. Both players like to move into the inside channel, albeit on opposite sides of the pitch, as well as offer cover on the transition.

Those factors could mean Rabiot is the perfect man to take over from Henderson in the centre of the pitch.

Nicolo Barella

A box-to-box midfielder who prefers to play on the right side of a central three, Barella might be able to single-handedly add one of those key issues we mentioned that Liverpool’s side have been missing this season: dynamism.

As we can see from Barella’s player radar below, he offers a bit of everything in midfield, and the Liverpool style of dominating possession could be hugely benefitted from his influence. He’s performing above the average in Serie A in most of the key categories for a box-to-box player and would offer Liverpool a different option, especially when they are finding it hard to break sides down.

It’s Barella’s range of passing, particularly from within the right channel, that sets him apart, though. His link-up play with Matteo Darmian down the right side for Inter shows the potential of things to come with Alexander-Arnold and, when adding Mo Salah into the mix, an arrival at Anfield could reinvigorate that side of the pitch.

Barella has just turned 26, meaning he could give Liverpool at least five years of top level service and, whilst he isn’t a long-term option in the same way as some of our other choices, the Italian midfielder could make himself a lynchpin in the centre of the pitch at Anfield.

Jude Bellingham

By far the man most linked with a move to Liverpool, and it’s easy to see why.

Bellingham has enjoyed a meteoric rise, moving from Birmingham City to Borussia Dortmund, without ever looking out of place. He’s emerged as one of the best all-round midfielders in world football and links to the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool have been circulating for the past 18 months.

Liverpool should, if the finances allow, do all they can to bring Bellingham to Anfield. At just 19 years old, he could be their midfield lynchpin for the next decade and, perhaps the scariest thing, can improve even more as he develops as a player. Able to run at defenders, find a pass and put a tackle in, there isn’t much stopping Bellingham from becoming truly elite for many years to come.

When compared to the rest of the Premier League and the Bundesliga, Bellingham is one of the standout players both with and without the ball, especially when compared to the current options available to Klopp. He has completed more take-ons than of any other midfielder in both leagues combined (46), and also ranks seventh for tackles among midfielders (55). Bellingham is the complete player, and one that would improve Liverpool’s midfield immeasurably.

Khephren Thuram

Perhaps not the first name you would’ve thought of when going over this list but hear us out.

Thuram is the son of 1998 World Cup winner, Lilian (yes, we feel old too!) and has emerged at Nice over the past three seasons. His ability to play as a number eight has become abundantly clear and he’s been a league leader in Ligue 1 in several key areas. A lovely footballer to watch, he seems to skate across the pitch without much effort and can turn in tight spaces so quickly that his opponent is often left chasing his shadow.

Standing at 6ft 2in, Thuram is physically imposing in the middle of the pitch but able to move the ball really well and create opportunities in the final third. He’s a bit more of a work in progress than some of the others on our list but, if Liverpool are looking for a youngster that can provide a bit of everything and Bellingham turns out to be unobtainable, they could do a lot worse than bringing in Thuram and moulding him into the player they need.