GUEST: A deep dive into Liverpool’s midfield transformation

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By Leo Rutherford 

The following is a guest article by the aforementioned author and is not necessarily representative of opinions held by anyone at Empire of the Kop…

The Reds conducted a major overhaul in their engine room over the summer transfer window, with five Anfield long-stays preceding the four new arrivals of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Ryan Gravenberch and Wataru Endo. Jürgen Klopp publicly admitted that he felt that “it was time” to transform the middle of the park from the oldest midfield in the Premier League to one of the youngest, and the success of ‘Liverpool 2.0’ thus far has certainly been epitomised by their renewed energy in this area of the pitch.

Liverpool recouped north of £50m for the departing Fabinho and Henderson, whilst Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita parted ways at the end of their respective contracts. The quintet were, of course, prominent members of a high-flying side that delivered the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup etc., yet their roles would diminish by the end of last season.

Injury woes in this department are nothing new for a side who have suffered greatly from availability crises in recent seasons; young duo Fabio Carvalho and Harvey Elliot were even thrown into the deep end in last season’s away Merseyside Derby. Significantly, the Reds’ new Hungarian number 8 has already doubled the total combined Premier League minutes that Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain registered last season, also boasting just two hundred fewer minutes to his name than the total of Thiago in the entirety of the previous campaign.

Thus far, Liverpool’s new-look midfield has been the necessary glue between a free-flowing attacking force and a tight defensive unit which has shipped the joint least goals in the division (10), as Klopp’s side sit just one point behind table toppers Manchester City. Let’s take a closer look at how such a transformation has been made possible…

Defensive midfield

Cries for the Reds to bolster their virtually non-existent holding midfield options were as loud as ever in the summer, but the manner in which the problem was addressed was certainly unconventional. Brazilian star Fabinho had reached extraordinary heights in Liverpool red as he elevated himself to the world’s greatest in the position at one stage, being named in the UEFA Champions League team of the season in 2021-22. Yet, the now-Al Ittihad midfielder’s rapid decline in the final twelve months of his tenure was brutal enough to lead to a total rethink in the #6 position behind the walls at the AXA.

The £35m acquisition of Alexis Mac Allister from Brighton back in June led to discourse surrounding whether the World Cup winner could add goals to the Liverpool midfield. Instead, the 24-year-old has begun his Anfield tenure in a deeper area of the pitch, predominantly featuring behind Dominik Szoboszlai and Curtis Jones in the midfield three. 37% of Mac Allister’s minutes on the south coast came as a number six under Graham Potter and Roberto De Zerbi, so it’s certainly not a totally unfamiliar adjustment for the Argentine to make.

Graphic via Sky Sports

The tricky midfielder possesses a wholly different skillset to the mainstays in the DM position from recent years, most notably Fabinho and Henderson. Anfield scouts will have been alerted to Mac Allister’s impressive press-resistance which led to him recording the fourth lowest turnover rate out of all Premier League midfielders last season, being one of the main creative outlets in a possession-comfy De Zerbi team. The former Brighton man has certainly at least brought considerably more on-ball security to the table, despite the clear defensive deficiencies.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mac-allister-vs-fabinho-datamb.png

Graphic created via DataMB tool. Mac Allister 23/24 (blue) vs Fabinho 22/23 (green)

The data certainly supports this view – Mac Allister’s arrival has led to a stark improvement in possession, but is of course led by his predecessor in terms of individual duels. The remarkable disparity between the two in the progressive carries and progressive passes department visualises Liverpool’s idea to utilise a player with immense technical security deeper in the pitch, to effortlessly progress play and break the lines. An ability to carry the ball twenty to thirty yards up the pitch from deep is an invaluable asset for a team, and is evidently a much more consistent aspect of Mac Allister’s game than Fabinho’s.

Eyebrows were certainly raised across the football world when 30-year-old Japan international Wataru Endo traded a Bundesliga relegation dogfight with Stuttgart for the glamour of Liverpool. The failure to land key summer targets Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia clearly led to a rethink in strategy, after which a more traditional and aggressive option was snapped up in Endo.

As expected, the new acquisition has started in all four of the opening Europa League clashes, but has also found his name in the starting eleven of a Premier League team sheet twice, in the absence of suspended seniors. Indisputably, Endo displayed his most complete performance in a Liverpool shirt in the 5-1 hammering of Toulouse: registering a goal, five tackles, three interceptions and two key passes.

Endo’s defensive action map in the recent 3-0 home victory against Brentford.

Right central midfield

The decision for long-serving captain Jordan Henderson to depart was seemingly an event that no one at the club had anticipated, but the Reds have coped just fine in his absence. RB Leipzig star Dominik Szoboszlai’s £60m release clause was triggered in July, and neither he nor Liverpool have looked back since.

Dubbed the ‘complete midfielder’ that hasn’t been present in the Anfield ranks since the legendary Steven Gerrard, Szoboszlai has proved his worth as an all-action midfielder with the genuine ability to dictate the game at his spectacular best. Two stunning piledrivers against Aston Villa and Leicester City have provided hope that the Hungarian can become the first Liverpool midfielder to register double figures in the goal charts since Phillipe Coutinho in 2017/18, with the goalscoring numbers plummeting hugely in this department since the Brazilian’s departure.

Despite his clear contributions in the pinnacle years of the Klopp era, the former Reds skipper endured one of the toughest seasons of his spell at the club last season, on the right of the midfield three. Defensively, the ageing Henderson struggled to maintain the strong engine required to cover for the offensive Trent Alexander-Arnold, and, offensively, there was a scarce amount of creativity or precision in his attempts to create chances in his final season in Merseyside.

Graph created using MCLach Bot

It’s perhaps unsurprising to learn that Hungary have gone 12 matches unbeaten, the longest current streak in European international football, since the 23-year-old was appointed as captain. His capacity to break the lines and unlock defences has paid dividends for Liverpool so far, creating countless chances for the record-breaking Mo Salah who has relished the early months of his time spent with the new-look midfield. For a large portion of last season, the Reds’ midfield was often labelled as ‘sluggish’ and ‘predictable’; two traits which certainly cannot be attributed to the in-form Hungarian.

The very best of Szoboszlai was unleashed in last month’s comfortable home victory over Nottingham Forest, where he registered two assists and four key passes, as well as the typically reliable off-the-ball performance.

Left central midfield

Dutch youth international Ryan Gravenberch was a player on Liverpool’s radar for a number of years before his switch to Bayern Munich on a free last summer, but the 21-year-old was quickly discarded in Bavaria by Thomas Tuchel. A £34m deal to bring the midfielder to Anfield was agreed on Deadline Day despite late drama surrounding Bayern’s inability to sign replacement target Joao Palhinha from Fulham.

When fit, Thiago has certainly added another dimension or two to his role on the left of the two ‘eight’ roles, and evolved Liverpool’s midfield into a more technically secure unit.

Gravenberch’s remarkable athleticism has undoubtedly made a difference in the middle of the park in his opening appearances this season, but it’s his on-ball prowess that provided a very welcome surprise for Liverpool supporters this season. The summer arrival possesses great ball-carrying talent, can break the lines with his incisive passing and dribbling, whilst being able to comfortably drop into the No.6 position to progress the play from deep. Already, Gravenberch’s profile has attracted premature comparisons to the likes of Yaya Toure and Paul Pogba for his elegance on the ball despite being one of the tallest midfielders in the Premier League.

Goals against Union Saint-Gilloise and Toulouse in the Europa League have served as a breath of fresh air for a side who have deeply struggled for goals from the centre of the pitch for a number of years. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, as the youngster was averaging 2.73 shot-creating actions per 90 during his time in the Eredivisie; most of the Dutchman’s tenure was spent playing in a double pivot under Erik Ten Hag.

Comparison graph – Ryan Gravenberch (blue) vs Curtis Jones (red). 2023/24 stats, created using MCLach Bot

Before the contentious red card offence in September’s defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Curtis Jones was relishing his opportunity as a mainstay on the left of Liverpool’s midfield three. Jones had unarguably turned a corner when presented with a regular advanced midfield role in the starting lineup towards the end of last season, coinciding with an upturn in results as the Reds ended the season unbeaten in their last 11 Premier League games. Healthy competition is beneficial for every successful team, and Liverpool finally seem to have that in abundance this season.

As shown in the data, the 22-year-old Scouser holds up fairly well in most metrics against the newly arriving Gravenberch, yet there are notable differences in terms of chance creation and progressive dribbling. The Dutchman leads in ball-carrying as well as both key and progressive passing, reaffirming his rare technical profile for a player of his size. Inevitably, there are areas of Gravenberch’s name which still need to be ironed out; he is averaging almost double the amount of turnovers as Jones this season – perhaps emphasising the need to be safer in possession on occasions.

On the defensive end, the capped Netherlands midfielder naturally leads Jones in most metrics due to his years of experience playing in a double pivot, boasting impressive interception and aerial numbers. However, and perhaps surprisingly, it is the young Englishman who holds the considerably higher percentage of dribblers tackled as he continues to evolve from a left-sided attacking academy prodigy to a technically safe all-action midfielder with the total trust of the manager, as it would seem.

In short, despite some noticeable shortfalls in defending transitions, Liverpool’s transformed midfield is performing exceptionally stronger than that of last season, where the Reds recorded their lowest league finish since 2015-16. The talented Spanish pair of Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago Alcantara are yet to feature for the Reds in the Premier League this season, and yet Klopp’s side find themselves in a position with genuine aspirations of their 20th title. Whether another defensive-minded midfielder enters the doors of the AXA Training Centre in January remains to be seen, but the once inescapable plethora of rumours surrounding the potential signing of Andre Trindade from Fluminense have certainly dissolved since the Copa Libertadores final.

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