Liverpool’s midfield is a divisive topic. Despite sitting top of the Premier League, the Reds struggle to impose themselves in the middle third of the pitch.
They may average 58.3 per cent of the possession, the third highest in the English top flight, but at times it feels sterile and many believe the players are too conservative when on the ball.
The trio – harshly labelled the ‘Brexit midfield’ – of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner lacks creativity but is selected in big games for its solidity. Their energy stifles the opposition for large parts of the game and can, at times, work perfectly. But it’s when Liverpool need a goal that their limitations are exposed and there for all to see.
But against Chelsea, one of the biggest games of the season, Jürgen Klopp went with something different. Wijnaldum and Milner settled for a place on the bench and for a second successive match, the German tactician went with Henderson, Fabinho and Naby Keïta.
It was a brave move. Especially given how earlier on in the season, whenever the latter two were paired together in midfield, the team looked exposed during transitions. The Brazilian destroyer was left with too much to do with Keita vacating his position and pressing when it perhaps would’ve made more sense to sit deeper.
Until recently, it felt like Liverpool had a midfield for the extreme ends of the spectrum but were struggling to find a balance.
However, against Maurizio Sarri’s men, the Liverpool boss struck gold. Yes, Chelsea had opportunities but playing the way they did, looking to hit the Reds on the break with their pace, it was always going to happen.
⭐️Man of the Match, Jordan Henderson
🅰️ Assist for Mane goal
2️⃣ Chances created
8️⃣5️⃣% Passing accuracy opp. half
🅰️ Has an assist in each of the last 2️⃣ PL games pic.twitter.com/OdRZRKAVOK
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) April 14, 2019
It was a similar story at Stamford Bridge in September and that was with a midfield made up of Milner, Henderson and Wijnaldum.
This time around, though, Liverpool looked a genuine threat throughout and managed the game and away side admirably. A big part of that was how the midfield three complimented one another.
Not only did the trio put out fires and keep Chelsea hemmed in due to their intelligent positioning during transitions, but they also added to the goal threat the home side posed.
Henderson looks reborn playing in his more natural box-to-box role. He’s always had this in his locker but, credit to him, he’s been putting the team ahead of himself for the past couple of season. He tweaked his game to be what Klopp wanted him to be.
But now, with Fabinho in the holding role, Henderson can be himself again and he’s seemingly relishing this opportunity. He came off the bench against Southampton to turn the game on its head and the Liverpool captain was aggressive and pro-active against Porto in the Champions League quarter-final.
The No.14 continued his fine form against Chelsea with another man-of-the-match showing. He chipped in with an assist, something he’s now managed in back to back matches, and just generally imposed himself on proceedings.
He’s now playing with a purpose. He’s seeing less of the ball but doing more with it, as shown in the graphic above. More of his passes are going forward, he’s having more touches in the area and because of this he’s much more of a threat.
Yes, it’s not a large sample size but you can’t just ignore it because of that. The opposition he’s come up kind of nullify that argument with all three teams being good in their own right.
Henderson’s willingness to get beyond the last man and make runs into the channel is what makes him such a valuable weapon to this Liverpool arsenal. He creates space for others and because of this, the Reds look more dangerous than they have for a while.
He’s doing that on the right flank and Keïta is doing it on the left.
The Liverpool No.8 has struggled to adapt to the Premier League. Until recently, he’d shown glimpses of the player fans witnessed in Germany but wasn’t able to sustain that level for the entire 90 minutes.
But he’s now beginning to impose himself both on and off the ball. The goals in back to back games will no doubt have helped his confidence and maybe that is all he needed.
But the subtle change in Liverpool’s style has aided him. With the Reds now needing to win every single game, Klopp’s set his team up in much more of aggressive way. More bodies are being committed forward, the tempo us much quicker and this chaos suits the former RB Leipzig man.
In his last three starts, he’s averaged fewer passes per 90 but he’s had more touches in the opposition’s box, he’s attempting more dribbles and his expected goals and expected assists numbers have doubled.
Keïta and Henderson offer the same work rate as Wijnaldum and Milner but both have more of an attacking edge to them in better areas. But they’re only able to be this expressive because of Fabinho.
The Brazilian offers a platform for others. He’s been one of the signings of the summer in the Premier League and with every passing game, he seems to improve.
Liverpool have been more open over recent matches and while some have said the former Monaco man hasn’t looked as solid, the above stats all better his season averages to date.
He’s making 11 more passes in the opposition’s half on a per 90 minute basis, highlighting how aggressive the Reds have been. With him not being deployed in a single pivot, he’s seeing more of the ball, averaging nine more passes in general while his pass success rate remains fairly consistent at around 85 per cent.
The 4.5 possessions won in the middle third is more than double his season average while he’s making more interceptions and tackles. These stats highlight how he’s not just adapting to his new role in a midfield three, he’s really stepping up in that role.
He’s the counterweight. Keïta’s the progressive midfielder capable of slaloming his way through the gears in the blink of an eye and getting Liverpool into dangerous areas while Henderson’s the selfless runner creating opportunities for others. On paper, It’s the ideal blend and in practice, it seems to be just as effective.