While I don’t particularly advocate for pitting our players against each other in positional battles, it appears as though Jürgen Klopp may have a selection headache on his hands in regards to how he prefers to set up his midfield trio once football comes back.
In the past Klopp has embraced a more balanced approach to his midfield, but what will he do should he opt for a midfield with a bit more flair to it? Who will he turn to when a little more end-product is needed from his midfield when our front three are off the mark?
Assuming Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Georginio Wijnaldum will continue to provide the much needed “utility” aspect of the midfield — the legwork, pressing, tackling, and tracking back — it appears one of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Naby Keïta will need to step up in the odd game when the boss opts for a midfield with a bit more of an attacking bite to it.
With the former just about back to full fitness following his horrendous ligament injury almost two years ago now, and the latter who hasn’t lived up to expectations since joining the Reds last summer, this really is about as subjective an argument as it gets.
Going solely off of the eye test, and judging on what we’ve seen thus far from both men, I’d argue Oxlade-Chamberlain has done just enough to earn the nod over his Guinean counterpart to start in midfield. Both midfielders have had their fair share of setbacks in a Liverpool shirt, but they are the attacking options we have.
Although it’s probably still too soon to call Keïta a flop, the 25-year-old is dangerously close to falling out of the good graces of some supporters following his rather stop-start career in a Liverpool shirt so far. The Guinea international has certainly impressed when he’s been on top of his game.
But you never know which Naby you’re going to get — he has been wildly inconsistent when he does manage to get a string of two or three consecutive games under his belt. He could be the best player on the pitch one day, and then in other matches it looks as though the game has completely passed him by.
When he has shown flashes of brilliance, he has picked up a knock that sees him sidelined for a few weeks — he’s been quite the tease.
The quality is certainly there, which is the silver lining to all this. It’s the frequency in which Keïta showcases that undoubted talent which brings about major concern. He has proven he can absolutely dominate games, but we need to start seeing it more regularly.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the other hand, has been slowly building his fitness back up since fully re-joining the first team at the beginning of this season. The 26-year-old had a slight ankle issue in late December that saw him out for a couple of weeks, but since then he’s been quite impressive when he has featured.
The England international has scored eight in all competitions this season, the most in his his career in a single season — all while arguably still not featuring as much as he would like.
He is perhaps our best option in midfield should the manager be looking for someone willing to pick up the ball in the middle of the field and drive at a defence, something we’ve lacked consistently since he was at the peak of his powers in 2017. Despite his injury history, Oxlade-Chamberlain still appears to have that explosiveness and curiosity in the final third that makes him so dangerous from a midfield position.
Klopp himself has weighed in on this debate, stating: “They don’t compete against each other. Hopefully they don’t see it like this, it’s not like this, they just offer naturally different things.”
While they’re certainly not too similar in terms of stature and expertise, this Liverpool side needs only one of them to provide that bit of creativity in midfield, with Fabinho acting as cover for the back four while Wijnaldum and Henderson operate in more of a box-to-box role.
Either the Englishman or the Guinean must provide that offensive spark in a midfield that already has an abundance of structure and discipline to it when Henderson, Fabinho, and Wijnaldum feature.
This debate really is just a matter of personal preference. After all, Klopp will choose whoever he thinks gives his team the best chance to win any given match, dependent on the circumstances and the opposition.
The boss sees these boys train every single day and will certainly give the nod to the player most deserving. One of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Naby Keïta will be given the opportunity to impress and get their Anfield careers back on track.
Whichever it is, let’s hope they take it.