The midfield amoeba: What’s the best collection of pseudopods?

It is possible to have too much depth in any one area of the field. That’s usually a scenario where you have talent that should be on the pitch but simply isn’t because they don’t do enough of what the manager wants (We’ll discuss Shaq in the next post…) or don’t mesh quite as well with those around them or simply aren’t quite as good as the peak performers. Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson are both good at the #6, but there’s one player who genuinely excels at that spot (Fabinho) so he’s going to be the regular starter. (But, man, Gini is really good…) Clearly, the deepest segment of our current squad is the midfield, where we have no less than seven guys who could easily be starters in what is usually three spots.

Now, one “upside” is that Klopp’s system tends to take a lot out of our midfield players. He expects them to do a ton of running and handle multiple responsibilities. So, having the kind of depth that is available is still a positive thing. But it also creates scenarios where supporters are constantly questioning why X isn’t on the field and Y is. When that situation leaks into the squad itself, you occasionally end up with real trouble. Thankfully, one of the parameters of Klopp’s recruitment is finding guys of exceptional character who are more about the We than the Me. Having this kind of depth of largely equally-talented players also means that we can shift easily between tactical systems and count on almost all of them to handle any of the three typical roles of the 4-3-3: holder, attacker, and recycler, and switch between them in the middle of the game, as required. (Yes, I know we often shift to the 4-2-3-1 and have been doing that a lot in this pre-season. I’ll get to that in the next post, too.)

But if we do have the best depth on the squad in this one area, why are most of the “big player” trade rumors for LFC this summer babbling about one player, Thiago Alcantara, who is… an excellent midfielder? (Not to mention being 29 years old, which is out of the norm for our recruitment strategy under Michael Edwards.) Well, that’s a good question, which has yet to find a decent answer. Most people loudly in favor of such an expenditure are those who often use the phrase “creative midfielder.” Let me state now as I usually do that said phrase has precisely zero meaning to actual football. It’s a buzzphrase that people have leapt onto whenever they think that their team isn’t stomping the bejesus out of whichever bottom-of-the-table side has 11 guys behind the ball. Just as a perfect case example, it’s often applied to players like Philippe Coutinho, whose albatross is that he doesn’t really have a position into which he neatly fits in most modern systems. That phrase is as much of a myth as Phil’s current position on the field. There are all kinds of “creative midfielders” and we already have several on our squad. It doesn’t hurt to have one more, but it’s still kinda strange. If Thiago fits nicely into a new tactical approach by Klopp, such as the 4-2-3-1, in which he was great for Bayern and presumably would be great for us, OK. But let’s talk about the guys already here.

The Gatekeeper or the Keymaster?

Center midfield: Fábio Henrique Tavares (Fabinho) is the obvious choice here. Assuming this role is why we paid Monaco €45m and he’s been easily worth the spend. Part of the reason we can keep the high line that we do, as well as having fullbacks hanging out more in the opponent’s third than ours, is because Fabinho is the lockdown man in front of the CBs, with 53 tackles won, 35 interceptions, and 0 defensive errors leading to a goal in ’19-’20; the vast majority of those happening in our 2/3 of the pitch. But what’s also a frequent aspect of the 4-3-3 is the pivot man triggering the attack. Given that the majority of our attacking impetus comes from the wide areas (aka the fullbacks), Fabinho doesn’t often appear in this role, since our passing into the channels tends to come farther forward. That said, he is an excellent medium (91% success rate) and long (81%) range passer, is extremely sure-footed in possession, and is at least decent in the air (57.7% aerial duel win rate.) He’s also extraordinarily tenacious and, as many 6s are prone to, picked up a half dozen yellow cards last season in the PL and had to sit for a Champions League game to avoid getting suspended. Fab also gives us the advantage of being able to play both CB and RB at a pro level, if needed.

The primary backup is… open to question? My kneejerk response is to say Naby Keita, as listed above, since he actually does provide some of that offensive passing elan in the middle of the field (Shot creation average of 3.53/game) and is an excellent shooter himself. But he’s also a capable defender, having played the 6 for RB Leipzig, and is excellent in possession (dribble success rate of 76%.) The problem we’ve run into since he arrived in England is that he’s seemingly made of glass when it comes to injuries. DM is a, uh, high contact position, so it’s not like he’s going to be able to avoid the roughhousing, either. Post-lockdown, we’d just started to see what we all hoped was the “real Naby” emerging, as some stodgy games were enlivened by his appearance (Creative midfielder!!!), but I’d say it’s still too soon to suggest that he’s more than a backup. That said, he’s one of the first on the list for any position in our midfield, and has most recently been appearing as one half of the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1, alongside Fabinho, so it’s probably more accurate to describe him as the “other #6”, as opposed to the pure backup.

Further backups: Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Both are great at the 6, full stop; Hendo for his field awareness and excellent passing to either side of the field and Gini for his absolute lockdown mode, where basically no one carries the ball past him. This is one position where you basically don’t have any of the concerns about replacing the starter with a backup. DM we got covered.

“He only passes forward!”

Right midfield: In a lot of other 4-3-3 setups, you’d see something like “attacking mid” listed here, since traditionally, one midfielder was more responsible for enabling the attack of the front three; usually identified as a #8. Since, again, that is largely the province of our fullbacks, the role of “attacking” and “recycling” mid can largely be swapped from one side to the other with aplomb, since one of the main tenets of Klopp’s system is similar to Dutch Total Football, in that everyone in their area should be able to assume the role of everyone else. Thus, on the right side, we most often see O Captain, Our Captain, Jordan Henderson. Hendo’s direct offensive contributions (4 goals, 5 assists) don’t really tell the story of an “attacking mid”, nor does his shot creation (1.4/90.) It’s really his pinpoint passing and excellent field vision that contribute to the more telling stat: 181 progressive passes (i.e. into the box.) That’s an average of 6/game with an A-xA (goals to expected assists) ratio of 2.0. In other words, he’s contributing markedly to moving the team forward and to its scoring activity. He also outperformed his xG by 2.6, which is a first in the last three seasons (i.e. he hit some bangers in those 4 goals, but we knew that.)

But the real key to Henderson’s presence is his ability to smoothly cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold. As mentioned in the previous post, Trent tends to drift farther forward (and, uh, so does Mo) so it’s a bit more important for someone to cover that gap behind him. Hendo, with his experience at both DM and RB, is perfectly suited to the task. His defensive actions (tackles and pressures) are heavily weighted toward the middle of the pitch (just under 50% for tackles, well over 50% for pressures.) Plus, in his role as constant voice of the team (i.e. captain), moving box-to-box gives him direct input on most of what’s happening on the field. His intensity and leadership are crucial to getting this team to perform at its best and his absence has been keenly felt in many recent games.

Here’s where the backup situation gets a little murkier. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is, for some, the most obvious replacement for his offensive quality, although with 4 goals and only 1 assist last season (still slightly outperforming his xG), it’s less than you’d probably assume. You have to go back to his first season with the club (’17-’18) to see another significant direct contribution on that front (3 goals, 7 assists), although the devastating knee injury near the end of that season made a significant impact, of course. He also does a great job of disrupting opposing defenses with his movement, which doesn’t always show up in the stats. However, part of that movement is an issue, since Ox also demonstrates a tendency to drift inside, where his offensive presence is often pronounced, but which leaves Trent and Joe Gomez harder pressed on that side. It’s certainly fair to say that, like Naby, Ox’s career has been kind of stalled by injuries (the latest coming just a couple weeks ago, which will keep him out of the first three or four games of this season) and you’d like to see him get a string of regular time to get into more of a rhythm. But removing the starter on the right or the left is a tall task.

One real bright spot from the academy is the other recent regular backup candidate, Curtis “Curtinho” Jones. In the post-lockdown games and in the pre-season matches, Jones demonstrated some real savvy, with precise passing and good presence on the ball and awareness of the motion around him. That was one of two things that made me think that shelling out for another midfielder might not be the wisest course of action… since that other thing is, again, Naby Keita. But we’ll touch on this a bit more heavily on the left side. Xherdan Shaqiri can also play an attacking role on the right, but Klopp doesn’t seem fond of that move.

Second verse, same as the first

Left midfield: Georginio Wijnaldum. He’s taken over the role of most reviled of our midfielders by the people who don’t understand football. Gini nominally has the “recycler” role in the 4-3-3. He’s the one tasked with keeping the ball in our possession and there’s basically no one better at it on the squad. Gini’s retention abilities should be reaching near-legendary status at this point, but all anyone wants to talk about are his lack of goals and seeming lack of progressive passes. On the latter, they may have a point (103), but that’s also not his primary role in the midfield. On the former, they don’t really have a point, since he had as many goals as the captain (4.) The contrast is mostly with himself in the Dutch national side and years ago at Newcastle, where he was deployed in a much more forward role. Except for, you know, the times he charges into the box and things happen…

Gini

Do I think Gini is the best midfielder in Europe? No. Do I think he’s one of the best on our squad, which is among the best in Europe? Yes. Gini does what he’s supposed to do in the gaffer’s system. He keeps the whole machine running in the same way that Roberto Firmino does for the front line. It’s a needed role. His SCA is roughly the same as Hendo’s (1.38) and his number of defensive actions (tackles and pressures) is also similar. He also outperformed his xG (1.0), just like Hendo. So, why is the captain one of the players of the year and Gini is on the trading block, much to the delight of a segment of our so-called fans? Contract issues are what they are and Gini is 29 (the, uh, same age as his prospective superstar replacement, by the by.) But one of the main attributes always cited about Hendo is his leadership ability. Well, after him, Milner, and Virg, you know who’s next in line for the captaincy? Gini.

The immediate backup? Well, I have James Milner, Robot Warrior listed because he’s typically the best at filling the role that Gini does. He controls the midfield, covers for Robertson, and tries to help Fabinho and feed Mané. A lot of the time this past season, he started in that role for the cup games with the younger/bench players and he’s usually first off the bench when Klopp wants to protect a lead. Howevah, when Naby is subbed in to push the offense forward a bit more, he’s usually on the left and this is the typical result:

Yeah. He’s some good and analysis like the above are why so many have been champing at the bit to get him a regular slot in the starting XI. As long as he can stay healthy, I think he’ll finally get that slot this season. But, keep in mind that there is a difference between ball winning and ball keeping. As good as Naby is, again, there’s still no one better than Gini at the latter. The difference that Naby usually makes is that he wins the ball and then moves it somewhere quite quickly, which is the one drawback that can be aimed at Gini, as he’s a bit slower on the turn than others on our midfield roster.

Further backups: Both Ox and Curtinho can function on that side, as well, with the same attributes as noted above. Ox’s tendency to drift inside from the left is, in fact, better served on that side because of his right-footedness. It’s also fair to note that Takumi Minamino can serve as an attacking mid on the left.

So, that’s the overloaded group. We’ll wrap things up with the front line next.

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