Liverpool beat Manchester United way from home very convincingly and then drew with Brighton and Hove Albion a week later with a somewhat anemic outing.
The performance against United was outstanding, but breaking the game down statistically, and the potential (and real) Red Cards aside, Liverpool would have been expected to score 3-4 goals with United notching up 1-2. But United executed poorly and Liverpool were near perfect leaving the impression that the game was more one-sided than it actually was.
Indeed the visitors went the last half hour with the same midfield that was overrun by Brighton a week later, their salvation being that United had a) gone down to 10 men and b) had decided to settle for damage control.
Against Brighton, once Keita had exited the game, that midfield of Henderson – Jones – Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed unable to trouble even a herd of fleas crossing the halfway line and could do even less to stop them asserting their will on the Liverpool defense.
As I know I’ve written repeatedly, since we first examined the departure of Gini Wijnaldum, Liverpool need players who can control their midfield. To control it means holding a shape, protecting the back-four, reading and moving into passing lanes, and recycling possession. The actual skills of jockeying, tackling, tracking runners, pressing and other general defensive duties are preferred while supporting the attacking trio is a plus.
Why these things? Because Liverpool play with 3 full forwards, and 2 full backs who frequent the edge of their opponents penalty area almost as much as their own. When Liverpool’s midfield can’t stop counters, the full backs have to retreat and against Brighton it was not just them – for a time, having completely surrendered the flanks, they went as far as pulling Mane back to make it a midfield quartet.
At the risk of repeating myself, (I think risk is gone actually – I’m just down to the political rule of keep repeating yourself till they believe it) Fabinho, Henderson, Milner and Thiago seem to check more or less all the boxes. Keita is finally showing signs of being effective after 3 years and Elliott looks the same so far in his very short career.
But whereas Jones and Oxlade-Chamberlain do an excellent job supporting the attack, and nobody can accuse them of not putting in a shift, their actual abilities in executing defensive work falls short of what Liverpool require. I the end, both players are better suited to a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 where they have less defensive responsibility and take on more attacking expectations.
Thus Liverpool blazed it with Keita in the mid over those 2 games outscoring their opponents 6-0 while being outscored 2-1 in the same 2 games (and about the same number of minutes) once he was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain. It’s obviously not that simple but it can’t be understated how important it is for Liverpool’s central trio to control the game.
I’ve heard the other comments! Firmino didn’t look sharp! Van Dijk is still not 100%! Other player’s performances were rightly or wrongly criticized but in the end Liverpool didn’t fail against Brighton because of these things; they fell short because their opponents took it to them driving the ball up through the midfield and the Reds had no answers.
It’s likely to be a season long concern! Despite having 8 midfielders we won’t get much out of Elliott this season, Keita and Milner offer limited fitness and availability while Henderson can’t be pressed into playing twice a week non-stop.
A popular poke from two-dimensional supporters at this point is that the club should have replaced Wijnaldum in the transfer window. In truth, a rotation of 8 midfielders (which translates into a squad of 29-30) should be plenty. Only two weeks ago I was writing that Oxlade-Chamberlain was eying the exit door for lack of playing time but for Liverpool it’s not just fit bodies but the right ones.
Gomez, Minamino, Origi, Tsimikas and Williams are all being underused for their talents but only an experimental Tsimikas in midfield might (it’s a big might) offer some relief and control on the left side. Klopp may find himself more compelled to play one of his forwards deeper, or possibly add Matip to holding role.
Young and promising Tyler Morton, who has impressed in both Carabao Cup games this season, may well be pressed into action in other competitions if the availability situation doesn’t improve. For now, with Fabinho and Thiago close to return, Liverpool are replacing midfielders at just about the rate they are injuring them.
It’s not panic time yet, the Reds are still unbeaten, but the way the club has been held and/or conceded goals – to AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Brentford, Brighton (about every third game) – is a major concern. The right midfield can cover the liabilities but as we saw at the tail end of last season it takes at least 2 of the team’s preferred 4 midfielders to start in order for that to happen.