Liverpool’s squad anatomy reads like this: problems at the back, potent up front but thick in the middle.
Manager Jurgen Klopp has a gluttony of options in midfield and the £35million acquisition of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal has added more meat to the spine.
The 24-year-old is committed to fighting for a place in Klopp’s three-man midfield but with seven standout options to fit into trio of spots, competition is tough and the boss will have headache keeping all his stars happy.
With that in mind, we’ve looked at those seven players and with all of them fit assessed their chances of regular first-team action in Liverpool’s central nervous system.
Of course, the opposition dictates the type of midfield the Reds will opt for, balancing between the need for athleticism or creativity but there are three players who will more or less be consistently chosen.
A debilitating foot injury kept the club captain out of action for the final three months of last season and curtailed his transition into a defensive midfielder.
But a summer recovery effort has allowed Henderson to emerge as Klopp’s first choice at the base of his midfield.
Few thought dropping deep would see the best from the England international but he has embraced and flourished in the holding role providing the platform for Liverpool’s fast and furious attack.
He’s also been a creative force from deep, biting into tackles and winning back possession to catapult the Reds forward and the 27-year-old has not only justified his place in the team but the captain’s armband as well, his influence stretching beyond the pitch.
There’s no doubting his place in the side.
A thigh injury is keeping the England international out of action until October at the earliest meaning for now, at least, he’s the easiest to discount.
The 29-year-old, however, is perhaps the best example of Klopp’s ability to develop and extrapolate talent from individual players with Lallana’s personal evolution under the German one of his success stories.
His relentless energy means he is usually the first man out of the midfield three to press the ball while his technical ability has never been in question.
Much to the delight of supporters, he’s added an end product and when he returns to fitness he’ll be battling for the attacking midfield role giving the Reds plenty of energy and no shortage of creativity.
Arguably, though, Lallana is the odd man out of the group, in that he’s not suited to a central role in a three, given his defensive weakness. That means he will have to occupy either the right or left-hand side or be pushed forward into the attacking three. Klopp’s bountiful resources means he’s a little stuck in the middle because he’s a more natural centre-midfielder rather than a No10.
The big question then, is will Oxlade-Chamberlain be a squad player or genuine first-team regular? Well, a bit of both really.
Realistically, the 24-year-old is likely going to be competing with Georginio Wijnaldum for a first-team spot although the idea of playing both Coutinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain is a little concerning as it probably leaves the midfield lightweight, putting a lot of pressure on Henderson.
It’s not as rigid as this but Klopp is basically looking for his three to be one of a box-to-box mid, attack-mid and a defensive mid.
Like Lallana, the ex-Arsenal man falls into the former two categories and the dynamism of Liverpool’s midfielders means most of Klopp’s options can switch between at least two of the roles.
His marriage of energy in counter pressing and technical ability will mean against sides who will attack he’ll be an idea fit, against the smaller teams who sit back he’ll likely be used from the bench. Watch for him to mainly get his starts away from Anfield.
Liverpool’s little magician couldn’t conjure a disappearing act to Barcelona this summer but with the transfer window shut the shambolic affair is considered closed.
Now, with the ‘back injury’ which has kept him out of action for Liverpool so far this season – although he’s been perfectly fine for Brazil – clearly subsiding it’s time to reintegrate Coutinho back into the first team.
While the Reds prospered in his absence against Arsenal and Hoffenheim it has to be noted those performances came against two offensive-minded teams with a style suited and susceptible to their own attacking capabilities.
They are are complete contrast to the sit-deep nature of sides like Crystal Palace who ultimately made Liverpool look blunt without Coutinho in the side.
Klopp’s men monopolised possession but lacked the end product and it’s in those games the Brazilian’s importance at the tip of a midfield three is obvious.
Indeed, it’s borderline negligible to suggest Coutinho shouldn’t be a regular feature in Liverpool’s midfield and his tricks and treats will soon heal wounds of his summer courting of Barcelona.
The Dutchman didn’t have the best start to the season with two disappointing displays against Watford and then in the first-leg tie with Hoffenheim.
But he showed improvement against Crystal Palace and then shone in the second-leg at Anfield and then in the demolition of Arsenal.
Of all Liverpool’s options, Wijnaldum is perhaps the most controlled. He doesn’t possess the natural offence of Oxlade-Chamberlain but he does provide authority and athleticism, a total midfielder if you will.
Against the bigger sides, he offers more solidity to Oxlade-Chamberlain but again depending on the opposition Klopp will probably use Wijnaldum in the home games and the England man away from Anfield.
Wijnaldum holds the ball well, displayed against Arsenal his great vision and makes superb runs from midfield, with Lallana the creative alternative to Coutinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain is the more rounded option to the Dutch international.
Against Hoffenheim and Arsenal Klopp retained a midfield three of Can, Henderson and Wijnaldum to steamroll both sides.
The emergence of Can in 2017 has been vastly impressive. Creatively he is contributing and crucially defensively he’s looked far more assured, a far cry from the out-of-position, out-of-his-depth prospect of previous seasons.
His performances have not only underlined why Klopp is desperate to ensure the Germany international doesn’t leave on a free next summer but also accentuated his claim for first-team regularity.
The 23-year-old is beginning to show the promise which pinned him as the heir apparent to Steven Gerrard but it’s exactly this rapid development which provides Klopp with his biggest selection headache.
Ultimately, it’s the reason why he’s stalled on signing a new deal and it’ll be fascinating to see how the manager balances his first-team opportunities but ultimately the Reds boss will hope to swap out Henderson and insert Can into the anchor role.
Milner has shifted from the left-back position he was stationed in last season to replacing Henderson as the defensive midfielder from the bench.
It’s clear that Klopp is throwing the 31-year-old back into the midfield mix but of course, out of the seven, he’s the one likely to see the least game time in the middle.
The Kop boss talked up Milner as a “new midfielder” during pre-season and he’ll be variable sub capable of being deployed in all three roles.
A first-team regular maybe not but certainly a top quality option from the bench.
The midfield three options will more or less read: Henderson/Can, Wijnaldum/Oxlade-Chamberlain and Coutinho/Lallana with Milner as the variable sub.
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