Last week’s victory over Sheffield United represented perhaps the clearest of recent reminders of why Liverpool’s midfield are steadily getting more of the credit they deserve.
There are times when Jürgen Klopp’s side feels like a succession of reliably secure safety nets, particularly upon a turnover in possession.
Yet they don’t just wait to catch the ball as it progresses towards the middle and then the defensive third. More often than not, they come and get it.
They see the ball; they see an opponent on it; they race towards it; surround it; squeeze it; regularly win it.
The midfield is the region that tends to epitomise that the most. Playing there — for anyone, in truth, but especially for Liverpool — requires a healthy mix of attributes that tends to equate to aggressive intuition.
Or intuitive aggression. Take your pick.
Like what you see? Get it for free!
Get all of our content delivered straight to your inbox — completely free of charge.
Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and the swiftly drafted in James Milner provided a superb example against Sheffield United.
So much of the good work was done on the ball, of course. 74% possession and 264 completed passes between the triumvirate somewhat necessitated that. All three were patient yet purposeful and simplistic but intelligent in their use of the extensive possession the hosts enjoyed.
They rotated impressively smoothly, with one — most often Henderson — dropping in to create a de facto back-three in possession at times, likely in an attempt to overload United’s front-two in the earlier phases of buildup play.
Slightly different than usual, but a good show of the Reds’ subtle flexibility. Flexibility that can be required to answer some of the unique questions Chris Wilder’s side ask of their opponents.
Then there were the third-man runs — utilised nicely by Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané’s intelligent link-up play — that helped take a number of those nicely constructed moves up through the gears.
It could take the overload from the backline to the frontline in moments.
Perhaps, even then, where they came into their own to the greatest extent was when such moves broke down, as inevitably happened at times — especially given the Blades’ own pressing and counter-pressing capabilities.
If the ball was lost and the visitors looked to counter, so often they’d either be closed down or see one of the midfield-three cover one or more potential avenues of attack.
Henderson, in particular, nicked possession back just as it had been surrendered on a number of occasions. Often when it felt like he had no right to. Wijnaldum felt similarly magnetic at times, somehow stationing himself perfectly to intercept attempted passes out of defence or looking to release Lys Mousset and co. More often than not, he’d kill said pass and set the Reds back on their way in his familiarly understated manner.
There’s ‘press resistant’ and then, in the Dutchman’s case, it feels like you could also justifiably apply the phrase ‘counter-press resistant’ at times. He continues to astonish with his ability retain possession when surrounded, particularly when he himself has just won it. In a tight corner, Gini keeps the coolest, clearest of heads. It feels like he’d make a more than solid crisis manager, in truth.
Back to the task at hand, and those oh so familiar wide channels of opportunity were arguably even more important in terms of the cover they required against the Blades. Sheffield United specialise, amongst other things, in overloading them with two, three or sometimes even more men.
With outside centre-backs — Chris Basham on their right and Jack O’Connell on their left — often advancing in support of wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens, aided by the more commonly seen form of wide support offered from central midfield, Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner were clearly all too aware of the additional support Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson would require.
It did feel like the Liverpool captain acted as a temporary second right-back — as much as a third centre-back — in moments, especially if United looked to advance down that channel. The same could be said for Milner, who floated mostly around that side of the pitch. Even so, it was still a route — with O’Connell underlapping and crossing — which led to Oli McBurnie’s excellent late chance.
Wijnaldum covered the space, when it was necessary, between and in-front of Virgil van Dijk and Robertson down the other side with his familiar efficiency.
The injuries, in truth, could do with drying up in that area of the park (and others). Particularly given the one sustained by Naby Keïta, who was originally due to start, in the pre-match warmup. These don’t tend to be circumstances we get to choose though, of course. It’s primarily about responding, and doing so positively.
Liverpool’s midfield continued to be as much a firm foundation as a smooth springboard — all the more impressive given the circumstances, and all the more important given the opposition.
That value is now getting more of the recognition it is worthy of. It will likely only get greater as winter creeps towards and into spring.