To say that Liverpool’s transfer business has been superb in recent years might almost be an insult.
Mohamed Salah for £34million is just the tip of the iceberg, and floating beneath the surface are Virgil van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andy Robertson and Sadio Mané. And now they’re adding Fabinho and Naby Keïta.
The only problem, and what a wonderful problem it is for Jürgen Klopp to have, is what to do with his central midfield.
Liverpool have played with a three in central midfield for most of the past two seasons. It’s subtly changed depending on personnel available, but generally it’s consisted of: one man holding their position in the middle with an eye on defending; one free to link-up with the attack; and one whose role is somewhere in between the two.
Last season, these three were typically Jordan Henderson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Wijnaldum. But neither Fabinho nor Keïta fit easily into these like-for-like roles.
It’s possible that Keita could fit into the ‘tweener role that Wijnaldum has filled, the link between Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Their Football Whispers persona radars, above, look pretty similar, and it could make sense for Keïta to play a slightly deeper role, from which he can embark on the long, central dribbles that he’s become famous for.
But how to fit in Fabinho and Henderson, who are both more characterised by build-up play – the Englishman especially so, and Fabinho with defensive workload joining his game – into the same midfield three?
Perhaps the two could form a sort of double pivot, each able to support attacks when appropriate, with Keïta as the primary attacking energy in front of them.
This could lack a certain incisiveness in attack, a final ball against deep defences, but one advantage of playing Keïta that far up the pitch is his counter-pressing ability.
As someone who’s come through the ranks at two Red Bull clubs (Salzburg and Leipzig), Keïta is well versed in how to press.
This knowledge and understanding of when and how to pressure opponents could bring back the heavy-metal intensity that Klopp seemed to have dialled down in 2017/18, and winning the ball regularly in the opponent’s half removes a lot of the need for a player who can unlock deep defences.
The two, and the captain
However, a central midfield duo of Fabinho and Keïta would make a lot of sense on its own. Together, they have everything that a midfield needs – defensive solidity and workrate, the ability to keep hold of the ball under pressure, and the ability to get it up the pitch.
This would, of course, involve the big decision of dropping club captain Jordan Henderson. Klopp was adamant earlier this year that the 28-year-old would keep the armband this season which, it seems, would suggest that the Englishman would keep his place in the starting line-up. Captains don’t tend to spend much time on the bench.
Playing a two in the middle would allow for an extra attacking midfielder or striker to play behind, or alongside, Roberto Firmino, solving the creativity problem that a Henderson-Fabinho-Keïta might have. It could be an opportunity to give Daniel Sturridge more game time too, with the extra attacking slot available.
Alternatively, if Klopp feels comfortable dropping Henderson, then he could keep a midfield three, with one of Oxlade-Chamberlain or Wijnaldum joining Keïta ahead of Fabinho.
What will Klopp do?
It feels like too big a step, particularly after the public support in March, for Klopp to drop Henderson from the starting line-up. Perhaps there could be some rotation, depending on the opponent and as the new signings find their feet, but a nominal starting XI surely still has the captain’s name on it.
That would then leave a three of Henderson, Fabinho, and Keïta; the Guinean as the furthest forward, leaving Fabinho and Henderson to fight it out as the base of the triangle.
It would still seem to make the most sense for the new midfield to be an inverted version of the previous one – Henderson and Fabinho forming a base, with each going on occasional jaunts forward to join Keïta and co, as opposed to one of them playing the Wijnaldum role from last year.
With so many names, all of whom are very tactically savvy, it’s not like Klopp is short of options though.