Liverpool have started the season strongly.
Ten points from a possible 12, with tough trips to Mauricio Pochettino’s new-look Chelsea and Champions League bound Newcastle already out the way. They have – to some extent – defied the expectations of many as we head into the international break.
The transfer market was… messy. It started well, with Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai strengthening the midfield early on. Then there was the emergence of the Saudi Pro League, and their strategy of targeting every Liverpool player they possibly could. Fabinho and, more shockingly, Jordan Henderson, took the money on offer – leaving the club short in the midfield department again. There were the botched attempts for Roméo Lavia and Moises Caicedo, before ending the window with Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch arriving at Kirkby.
Despite four additions – and the midfield being strengthened while getting younger and less injured at the slightest breeze-y – most people (myself included) felt it still left us too thin, without a recognised starting quality defensive midfielder and someone to cover in defence that we would fall too short this season.
It may yet all come tumbling down, but the season has started, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive.
Here are two things I’ve liked and two I’ve disliked from this season so far.
Cody Gakpo in Midfield (Negative)
© Proshots – Cody Gakpo
I’m going to file this one firmly in the dislike department.
This is no slight against the player, while at the time I was a bit sceptical of the move, the Netherlands international has been a great addition to the side. Where he doesn’t belong, though, is in the starting XI as a midfielder. Gakpo has started at the left-hand side of a midfield three twice this season, in the games against Chelsea and Bournemouth. While Jürgen Klopp may have felt this was his only option with the lack of numbers in that department, it is something we saw throughout pre-season and even in the home win against Brentford last season.
READ MORE: Cody Gakpo discusses positioning as he aims to become more ‘complete player’
Gakpo is an incredible footballer on the ball, and nimbleness and ability to turn his opponent and drive into space is invaluable to this Liverpool side, especially when he starts in the false nine role of a front three. I can see why the coaching staff thought it would work there in theory. The former PSV man is great in deep areas, why – in a side that is possession dominant – shouldn’t he be able to start in those areas? After all, his defensive frailties wouldn’t be as exposed. But it hasn’t worked like that.
The biggest issue with Gakpo in the left central midfield areas is that he doesn’t know how to defend the space. This was most evident against Chelsea. Time after time at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool were exposed by this. Enzo Fernández would drop deep, Gakpo would do the natural thing to him – press up on the Argentinian. This would leave the (very talented) midfielder able to sweep the ball into Reece James who was in acres of space. This left Chelsea a constant attacking outlet and caused Liverpool problems throughout.
Alexis Mac Allister as a Defensive Midfielder (Negative)
KARLSRUHE, GERMANY – Wednesday, July 19, 2023: Liverpool’s Alexis Mac Allister during a pre-season friendly match between Karlsruher SC and Liverpool FC at the Wildparkstadion. Liverpool won 4-2. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)
I’m talking about the midfield a lot, aren’t I?
Mac Allister can play in deeper roles; he’s even played well there so far this season. Against Aston Villa, he was excellent. He made more tackles than any other Liverpool player, he completed 63 of his 72 passes and had the second most progressive passes. He positioned himself well in deeper areas, especially during build-up – constantly creating separation from opponents and making himself available to receive the pass, in which he’s able to turn and drive the play forward.
READ MORE: Why Ryan Gravenberch signing makes more sense than traditional ‘number six’
It’s not that I don’t like the former Argentinos Juniors midfielder in deep areas, and having midfielders that can fill lots of different roles is a wonderful turn of events to what we’ve had in recent seasons. It’s that it may just feel a bit of a waste that he’s not one of the more advanced eights, as we saw him be to devastating effect for Brighton so many times. When he was used there this season (against Newcastle), Virgil van Dijk was sent off in the first half, changing the entire dynamic of the game.
I’d like to see the Argentinian play as one of the further forward midfielders, alongside Szoboszlai. With a defensive midfielder (whether that be Endo or Stefan Bajčetić) at the base and those two playing between the lines Liverpool could be a frightening prospect going forward. We’ve already seen the evidence of this, albeit in pre-season, with some excellent one touch passing and movement from Mac Allister in advanced areas.
The Spacing (Positive)
Spacing is a term mainly associated with basketball, with the theory that players should always aim to be 12 to 15 yards away from each other on offence. Spacing is less of a defined theory within football, and each manager will have their own view on where they want their players to be positioned on the pitch.
For Liverpool, this was an issue last season. The two advanced ‘eights’ are asked to push wide in build-up play, as Alexander-Arnold comes in alongside the defensive midfielder to form a double pivot. Jordan Henderson was not good at this. He was uncomfortable in receiving the ball out wide, despite being a right midfielder in his early development.
This season, it’s been fantastic – especially in the game against Aston Villa. Let’s look at Liverpool’s two starting advanced midfielder, Szoboszlai and Jones (heatmaps via SofaScore):
Dominik Szoboszlai (number eight) vs. Aston Villa
Curtis Jones (number 17) vs, Aston Villa
As we can see from the above, both Szoboszlai and Jones’ actions predominantly take place in the wider of areas of the pitch.
They drift into these areas and pick up the ball, allowing Mohamed Salah and Luis Díaz to move into central areas and closer to the goal – exactly where you want them to be.
Both the Hungarian and Scouser have experience starting out wide, with Szoboszlai comfortable across the entire width of the pitch and Jones playing a lot of youth football as a left-winger. The entire attacking unit looks much smoother, everyone playing their own part and role in Klopp’s orchestra (or, as he’d prefer, heavy metal band).
Role Players (Positive)
Squad depth is so important in modern football, especially at the elite level. Players are playing an unsustainable number of minutes. Last season’s underperformance at Liverpool was, according to many, down to the players playing every single game possible to them in the 2021/22 season. Players like Fabinho looked burnt out, and injuries to others made rotation difficult.
This season was the first-time players have had a proper full pre-season in years. Instead of an extended tour in the United States or Asia, Klopp opted to keep his players in Europe (bar games against Leicester and Bayern Munich in the far east).
This has given everyone A) a much-needed rest and B) time on the training pitch. The squad has already seen injuries and suspensions, especially in central defence. Joe Gomez and Joël Matip have been on a decline form wise for some time, and the prospect of one of them, let alone both, starting may have scared even the most optimistic Liverpool fan. But, in games against Newcastle and Aston Villa, they’ve excelled. There have been shaky moments, with Matip’s loose pass back resulting in a corner and Gomez not dealing with a ball leading to a John McGinn chance coming to mind, but, particularly against Villa, they were solid.
READ MORE: 5 talking points from Liverpool’s win over Aston Villa
Unai Emery’s side were limited to very little chances, creating just 0.66 expected goals on Sunday. Gomez was excellent, hunting down Moussa Diaby who was, as described by Klopp, as “hiding in midfield”, trying to come deeper to receive the ball. The former Charlton man didn’t let Villa’s new singing do anything of note, cutting out attacks before they could develop. He was also excellent in build-up, with more touches of the ball than anyone else on the pitch. His carrying and passing was sharp, and he looked like pre-injury after injury after injury Joe Gomez.
It would probably be unfair to call Darwin Núñez a role player. After all, he was signed for an initial £64m and considered one of the best young strikers on the market. Yet last season was a huge learning curve for the Uruguayan, he was patchy at best, and periods of good were followed by periods of bad. He, in particular, didn’t look like he understood pressing patterns, and this influenced the massive amount of space in midfield areas Liverpool allowed. He also didn’t speak English, something Klopp highlighted as having a huge influence.
This season, he looks different. Pre-season was great for Núñez, he looked sharp and more composed in front of goal, and this has continued into the Premier League season. The way he took his two goals against Newcastle was a man filled with confidence. He may have looked a little less sharp in front of goal against Villa, but he caused chance after chance throughout.
The most impressive thing though, is how he is defending from the front. He looks like he knows when to press and when to not, the angles he needs to be cutting out and the rhythm of Klopp’s coordinated system.
He even seems to have developed some of the English language as evidenced in the above clip…
If Liverpool can get a tune out of all of their squad, they will be able to go far this season.