March 5, 2024

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Liverpool thrashed Manchester United at Anfield, and Jurgen Klopp got precisely what he wanted from his midfield

When the Reds’ teamsheet was released ahead of the two clubs’ encounter at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool fans feared the worst, while Manchester United fans rejoiced.

Jurgen Klopp had surprised everyone by benching Stefan Bajcetic, instead recalling captain Jordan Henderson alongside Fabinho and Harvey Elliott. With Liverpool’s midfield struggles this season, fans were bracing themselves for another evening of witnessing their engine-room be overrun.

Jurgen-Klopp
Jurgen-Klopp

After all, Henderson and Fabinho haven’t been at their best this season. As a result, as the Reds struggle through a transitional season, fingers of blame have been aimed in their direction the most.

Meanwhile, there are still worries over Elliott’s long-term future in midfield. While he shined in a larger role last season, the 19-year-engine-room old’s efforts this season have been less impressive.

The fact that there were so many grumbles about the decision to leave out the 18-year-old Bajcetic, who has been a regular since the turn of the year after making the most of an opportunity only granted due to his fellow midfielders’ own inadequacies, says it all.

While the young Spaniard’s breakthrough has been a rare plus for Klopp’s team this season, it does not paint a rosy image of their persistent failure to restructure their midfield. After missing out on Aurelien Tchouameni last summer, Liverpool decided to stick with what they had in preparation for a midfield renovation in 2023.

Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp

Waiting for the proper player, notably first-choice target Jude Bellingham, the Reds have been constantly chastised for such a position, which appears to be costing them this season.

Nevertheless, against Manchester United, following a string of improved performances in recent weeks, everything fell into place. In a 7-0 victory, Klopp got precisely what he needed from his midfield options, with five of his players making significant contributions that led to goals.

Elliott intercepted Luke Shaw’s ball on the halfway line to set up Liverpool’s second goal in the 47th minute. Fabinho muscled his way past Wout Weghorst and Fred before going past Casemiro with the help of Henderson.

The Brazilian then chipped the ball forward to Salah, whose cross was deflected back to Elliott, who crossed for Darwin Nunez to score with the most basic of headers. In reality, it wasn’t the nicest goal the Reds will score this season, but it should bring Klopp enormous joy.

Jurgen-Klopp-Darwin-Nunez
Jurgen-Klopp-Darwin-Nunez

This season, his midfield has frequently been left second-best chasing shadows, with the most recent example being two weeks ago in their 5-2 thrashing at Anfield by Real Madrid. Yet, a new intensity from Liverpool’s midfield was evident as they sought and harassed to seize control of the game. The Reds have reclaimed their identity.

Of course, similar characteristics were not limited to the second goal. When Klopp’s men grabbed control, Henderson was instrumental in the third, fourth, and fifth goals.

The Liverpool captain’s interception of Bruno Fernandes’ cutback in his own area, and subsequent throw forward to Cody Gakpo, led to the Dutchman scoring his second of the evening following a superb combination with Mohamed Salah.

However, in the build-up to the Reds’ fourth goal, the 32-year-old dispossessed Antony before threading the ball to Darwin Nunez, who unwittingly set up Salah’s first goal at the second try.\

Cody Gakpo
Cody Gakpo

Henderson would then get his own direct assist after retrieving a half-cleared Liverpool free-kick and crossing the ball back in for Nunez to head home.

Elliott then played a key role in the Reds’ sixth goal, picking out Roberto Firmino in the box after surging forward before the ball dropped nicely for Salah in front of the Kop.

Bajcetic would intercept Marcel Sabitzer’s pass on the halfway line before finding fellow substitute Curtis Jones for Liverpool’s seventh goal. He then sent the ball to Salah, who assisted Firmino in scoring.

When it came to winning the ball back and distributing it around, the Reds’ midfield caught the eye statistically as well. Only Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson had more touches than Elliott, who also had the most successful passes (45) on the field.

Only Manchester United defender Diogo Dalot had more successful tackles than Elliott. Fabinho also had the most interceptions on the field (three), with substitute Bajcetic tied for second (two).

Of course, Liverpool’s midfield wasn’t flawless, with Klopp pointing out a few flaws after the final whistle.

Fabinho
Fabinho

“Let me tell this: I loved Stefan’s impact when he came on,” the German said. “But he was a six, and he was all over the place!” ‘By the way, you’re the six!’ we had to remind him.

“In the first half, Fabinho and Hendo were half-left in the box. I’m not sure where Harvey was, but he wasn’t in protection. We don’t need these times.”

Of course, they’d still deserve his praise. How could they not after such a dominant effort in a 7-0 victory?

“Harvey played a fantastic game against Wolves the other night,” Klopp stated. “Had the highest counter-pressing outcome of any player in the Premier League this season. If that is not a prerequisite for starting,

“He’s also very crucial for us on the ball. Hendo did not play in the previous game. What an incredible performance you had tonight. (And) Fab has returned!”

Finally, it was a huge step forward for a previously written-off Liverpool midfield, made even sweeter by Fabinho and Henderson defeating Casemiro, who had previously finished second in two Champions League finals against the Brazilian.

Christian Eriksen and Casemiro
Christian Eriksen and Casemiro

So Klopp is in a true pickle with his first-choice trio, but unlike previously in the season, he will have to choose between in-form players rather than out-of-form players. Moreover, when Thiago Alcantara returns from a hip injury after the March international break, his task will be made even more difficult.

Yet, the aforementioned players are not Liverpool’s sole midfielders. After all, with Bajcetic’s emergence, they now have 11 senior alternatives this season.

Yet, James Milner, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Juventus loanee Arthur Melo are all out of contract at the end of the season. The 37-year-old vice-captain came in as a substitute against the Red Devils and could be extended again, but the other three are set to leave.

Given that the trio were all left out of the matchday squad against United, with Jones, Bajcetic, and Fabio Carvalho serving as reserve midfield options alongside Milner, the writing appears to be on the wall for their careers at the club.

Fabinho and Henderson, on the other hand, have just demonstrated that they have a future with the Reds. Elliott, Bajcetic, and Jones are Liverpool’s future, with Klopp evidently prioritizing their participation over that of his departed players.

Jordan Henderson
Jordan Henderson

Reds management will still overhaul their midfield in the summer, and will arguably require two or three new recruits in the engine room as ties with Bellingham, Wolves’ Matheus Nunes, and Chelsea’s Mason Mount remain.

But Liverpool’s midfield performance against Manchester United gave Klopp exactly what he wanted, ensuring that, contrary to previous fears, a full rebuild is not required. On the contrary, such a performance has demonstrated that the German now has something on which to create his next team and new-look engine room.

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