Liverpool’s midfield went from arguably being the weakest part of their squad to their strongest in the space of a single summer.
Jurgen Klopp lost Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita but acquired Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch. The Reds went from having one of the oldest midfield units in the Premier League to one of the youngest.
Liverpool went into the summer needing to rebuild their middle third and they did just that.
However, their transfer business has presented the German tactician with the unenviable task of juggling player development. The former BVB boss now has five midfielders aged 22 or under within the first-team squad.
Szoboszlai (22), Curtis Jones (22), Ryan Gravenberch (21), Harvey Elliott (20) and Stefan Bajcetic (18) all need regular minutes if they’re going to develop into the players that many expect them to become. Ensuring that happens is not going to be easy.
Now, Szoboszlai and Gravenberch are new signings and the former looks to be a key player already for the Reds while the latter is going to get opportunities throughout the campaign to bed in. Bajcetic certainly made quite an impression during his limited minutes last season and, at 18, time is on his side. He doesn’t need to be playing all of the time and will benefit from any first-team exposure.
This leaves Jones and Elliott. Both players have divided opinion on social media and their careers have been oddly similar.
Jones stepped up during the 2020/21 campaign, making 13 Premier League starts and appearing across 1,178 minutes. This was both a blessing and a curse for him. He was given these opportunities in the starting XI as a result of the injury crisis at Anfield. But this skewed expectations. Klopp played the youngster out of necessity and he was used in an unfamiliar role – as a controller on the left side of a three. Not only was he learning on the job, he was also maturing from a boy to a man.
The expectation was that he would kick on during 2021/22 but injuries, the emergence of Elliott and the fact the rest of the midfield remained fit for large periods meant he made just 10 starts in the English top tier and failed to hit the 1,000 mark barrier in the league. He wasn’t given the opportunities and fans seemed to lose patience with him. After all, we do live in a reactive era in which context is overlooked and ignored.
© Proshots – Curtis Jones
The Liverpool number 17 struggled last season too. A stress response sidelined him for large periods and it wasn’t until the final quarter of the campaign that he appeared in the first-team. He made the most of it, adding balance to the the new shape deployed by Klopp.
Jones was an ideal counterweight to Trent Alexander-Arnold inverting.
He bossed it in midfield for England at the Under-21 European Championships as Lee Carsley’s men won the entire tournament. There was hope he would kick on even after the early arrivals of Szoboszlai and Mac Allister but he’s already picked up a few knocks. He was only fit enough for a place on the bench against Chelsea before missing the wins over Bournemouth and Newcastle. He returned to the starting XI for the 3-0 victory against Aston Villa and he put in an impressive showing alongside Liverpool’s new number eight and ten in the middle third.
But with Gravenberch now in the picture and seemingly viewed as another ‘number eight’ by Klopp, Jones knows he needs a string of good performances and luck staying fit to remain in the team.
Another season of limited starts as a 22-year-old isn’t ideal. Not when you see how consistent and reliable Szoboszlai has been at the same age.
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Saturday, August 19, 2023: Liverpool’s Dominik Szoboszlai during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and AFC Bournemouth at Anfield. Liverpool won 3-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)
Elliott caught the eye when he started the 2021/22 season in the starting XI. His stint in the team came to an abrupt end following a dislocated ankle sustained in the win over Leeds United in early September. He didn’t return until the end of January and by that point Liverpool’s pursuit of a historic quadruple was picking up pace. Elliott was used sparingly with many believing he’d be back in the starting XI for the 2022/23 season.
The former Blackburn loanee did make 18 starts last term on his way to racking up a little over 1,600 top-flight minutes but he wasn’t as established as many might’ve assumed he would be. And Elliott is yet to make a start this season, coming off the bench in all four Premier League matches. He’s actually impressed in most of them, showing composure on the ball and a desire to put in hard yards when the Reds need him defensively.
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Despite these encouraging cameos, he’s not been able to force his way into the starting XI. Klopp even favoured Cody Gakpo in a midfield role over the former Fulham youngster. Granted, this was likely to do with Elliott playing in the same role as Szoboszlai, it must be a little worrying for him to see Gravenberch enter the fold on deadline day. He’s now competing for minutes with another multi-functional midfielder and this is before we’ve even talked about the returning Thiago.
This isn’t last chance saloon for Elliott or Jones – the Europa League campaign should see both of them get starts – but both are at stages of their careers where they need to be pushing 2,500 minutes across all competitions to develop as players and as viable options for the Reds.