Editor’s Column: The Midfield Glow-Up is beautiful

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Naby Keita was injured and never played. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a crock and Jurgen Klopp didn’t like him as an option centrally. James Milner was a loyal servant but 37-years-old. Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, both in decline. Arthur played 13 minutes of football last season.

Liverpool lost six midfielders this summer, but only two of them started regularly; both of whom had poor individual seasons. £52m for Fabinho and Henderson, even if it was unplanned and risky, is looking like increasingly good business.

Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister have come in as automatic starters and on their own are basically replacing the minutes we’ve lost from the departing six. Obviously, they need to stay fit, but both are in incredible shape and young at 22 and 24 respectively.

What’s more, they’ve fitted into the team and apparently the squad seamlessly. They just feel like Liverpool players.

Mac Allister has had it slightly harder so far for a few reasons. Firstly, his unfair red-card cost him a happy debut versus Bournemouth. Rightly, it was overturned so no suspension followed, but he’s also had to play in different positions; both the no.6 and no.8.

Long-term, his future will surely be at no.8, but he proved against Aston Villa at the weekend he can perform admirably at no.6, thanks to his composure, tenacity and ability to see a longer pass. He plays the role more as a deep-lying playmaker than a destroyer, but it’s a nice option to have, especially at home in matches we should dominate.

While Mac Allister has been promising, Szoboszlai has been a revelation. It’s crazy to think he’s only 22-years-old. He won’t peak for another three to four years. The Hungarian scored his first goal at the weekend but it’s his overall contribution that has fans worldwide purring. He is an animal off the ball; pressing, running, tackling. He is physical; big, strong and fast. And his technical skills are incredible. He can pass, dribble and shoot. He is the closest midfielder to Steven Gerrard we’ve had since the talismanic no.8 departed in 2015, and it’s fitting Szoboszlai has inherited that number.

The expectation is these two will start most Premier League games, meaning there’s a plethora of options for the remaining spot. Wataru Endo is a specialist defensive midfielder with experience and battling qualities. His start has been a tough one since his arrival from Stuttgart, but he looked much more assured against Villa when Klopp brought him on. It probably helps playing alongside 11 men instead of 10!

Thiago is injured and should be considered a luxury option, really, given his constant unavailability. But what a luxury to have. At full fitness, surely he walks into any side in the country, including ours. The thought of Thiago at no.6 with Szoboszlai and Mac Allister either side is mouthwatering. It won’t happen often, but surely there aren’t many better midfield trios in Europe. Thankfully, we don’t need to rely on the Spaniard anymore. He can play when healthy and rest when not. It’s unlikely his contract will be renewed as he’s one of our highest paid players, but we can get one more season out of him and enjoy the class he oozes and the depth he offers as much as we can.

Like Thiago, Stefan Bajcetic is coming back from an injury and we expect to see the Serbian starting League Cup and Europa League games before Christmas. He burst onto the scene last season and was our best player in our really horrible period. Bajcetic is phenomenally talented and a natural no.6. We have Endo, Thiago, Bajcetic, Mac Allister and possibly new signing Ryan Gravenberch as options for the holding role, so perhaps the demand for a new anchorman was exaggerated.

Gravenberch is only 21, but a huge talent. Klopp hinted he would be used as a no.8 in the 4-3-3, providing competition for Szoboszlai and Mac Allister. He demanded an exit from Bayern Munich though due to a lack of minutes, so perhaps he will be retrained as a controlling no.6 in a similar manner to how Gini Wijnaldum’s attacking instincts were culled. The fact he’s similar in frame to Fabinho and technically exceptional makes this an interesting possibility.

But we’re not done yet. Curtis Jones returned at the weekend and was solid. He looks so much more mature nowadays. A genuine starting option. He carries himself like a player who knows this. He’ll get plenty more starts than some outside observers realise this season.

Harvey Elliott has come off the bench in our past two matches and looked excellent. The youngster can drive through central areas, pick passes and play off one and two touches. He also looks more tenacious nowadays, willing to put a tackle in, as it was previously his defensive side that made him a liability in midfield. Not anymore, it seems.

So, that’s Szoboszlai, Mac Allister, Endo, Thiago, Gravenberch, Jones, Elliott and Bajcetic competing for three positions. That’s plenty of options. For comparison, Manchester City have six central midfielders, one of which is Kevin de Bruyne who will miss half the season.

Last term our options were: Henderson, Fabinho, Thiago, Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Milner, Jones, Elliott, Bajcetic and Arthur. Ten players, but no balance, lots of crocks and the wrong age profile.

We messed up by not strengthening the defence, but the work done on the midfield appears exceptional and providing the best players stay fit, there’s no reason we cannot continue this excellent start to the season following the international break.

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