By Hani Na’eem – @hani_eem
Liverpool’s midfield has received the largest share of an unfair criticism, but a bigger-picture problem is still refusing to go away
It is rarely, if at all, that a team’s season proceeds linearly from start to finish; more often than not, teams have to see out a run of poor performances and/or results at various points during the season.
Yet, we still find harsh assessments from fans or media of a team’s credentials after even the slightest hint of a dip in performance levels. Arsenal are a good example of this, as I cannot remember the number of times I listened to pundits pointing out glaring issues in their side only for them to produce a stellar performance the next week.
Liverpool’s midfield started the season very well, with both Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner producing arguably some of their best performances in a Reds shirt; however, a couple of below par performances against Arsenal and Red Star Belgrade have paved the way for very critical assessments of the Liverpool midfield.
There is a particularly strong opinion among the fans that Liverpool are missing the direct and forward playstyle of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the middle of the park. Former midfield maestro Jan Molby also believes “something isn’t right at Liverpool” and – in his Liverpool Echo column – calls for exerting more energy in the middle of the park.
While any concerns over Liverpool’s recent performances are not unwarranted, there is reason to believe these concerns have been blown out of proportion. Jurgen Klopp himself has said that his team has been “unfairly judged” this season. In the Arsenal game, for example, despite Liverpool seeing much less of the ball – 38% makes it the lowest record for possession this season – they still haven’t conceded many chances.
In fact, they registered the same number of shots on target as an Arsenal side that had 62% of the ball. In the same vein, while it’s admittedly difficult to point out positives from the loss at Belgrade, the Liverpool midfield managed to come into the game more in the second half, creating a number of chances and seeing much more of the ball.
The point being made here is that creativity is not the issue. Despite not looking convincing in recent games, the Liverpool midfield still managed to create chances for the frontline. This point has indeed been raised by Jurgen Klopp on more than one occasion.
What is most concerning at this point is the prospect of the team losing their core identity from last season. In a previous article, I echoed a popular opinion that Liverpool’s attacking timidity was due to a more solid, defensively astute approach by the manager.
However, in an excellent article published on JOE, Melissa Reddy points out that this simply isn’t the case. Reddy states: “Liverpool still have the desire to be an explosive attacking juggernaut, but just haven’t been.” She believes Klopp’s comments during the post-Red Star press conference are a clear indication of this. Klopp was obviously frustrated after the loss and admitted that it was difficult to rediscover last seasons supposed ‘mojo’.
So far Liverpool are in a great position in the league after beating Fulham which helped in keeping up the pressure on the seemingly unstoppable Manchester City side, with Everton also doing the Reds a favour by taking points from fellow title rivals Chelsea, putting Klopp’s side in a respectable second place just two points from the summit. Liverpool’s chances in qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages are also far from over despite the loss to Red Star.
All of this suggests the harsh criticism directed towards the midfield is perhaps unfair, especially given that the midfield started the season extremely brightly.
However, the frequent talk of Liverpool losing their attacking brilliance has resurfaced, and fans will be hoping the team which built on impressive victories to reach the Champions League final last season will not lose its attacking identity this time out.