Joseph Kavaloski explores the possibility of Kevin Stewart becoming an important player for Liverpool next season.
Over the past week, developments in the transfer market have significantly changed the complexion of Liverpool’s midfield. The arrival of Georginio Wijnaldum promises to bring another forward thinking player to the Reds’ central midfield, while Joe Allen’s departure opens up the potential of more playing time for some of the squad’s younger players. One of these younger players is Kevin Stewart.
Last season, Stewart came out of nowhere to become a regular in Jürgen Klopp’s ‘second-team’ that played extensively in the Premier League over the last part of the season while key players were rested for the Europa League. A converted full back, Stewart was previously released by Tottenham after the 2013/14 season. He made a free transfer to Liverpool two months later where he has since been converted to a defensive midfielder, and an effective one at that.
In seven Premier League appearances in 2015-16, Stewart averaged 2.7 tackles, 2.1 interceptions, and 2 clearances per match. In comparison, Emre Can recorded 2.6 tackles, 2.1 interceptions, and 1.4 clearances per 90 minutes. Stewart is different from Can in that he prefers to sit in front of the back four breaking up play and protecting the defense rather than Can’s box to box mentality. This midfield destroyer role had previously been occupied by Lucas Leiva, but the Brazilian’s decline in performance and constant injury problems have seen Stewart overtake him in the midfield pecking order.
Stewart is not a creative holding midfielder that can dictate play with his passing. Instead, he often chooses the conservative pass to retain possession. As a result, his 88% passing accuracy is very high compared to most midfielders, but this is largely due to Stewart’s pass selection. This can be considered a weakness compared to Liverpool’s other well-rounded midfielders such as Can, James Milner, and Jordan Henderson, but the arrival of Wijnaldum may end up benefiting Stewart’s conservative mentality.
Wijnaldum is arriving at Anfield as a player that has recorded double digit goal totals each of the past two seasons. The Dutchman has a keen eye for goal that was effective last season for Newcastle in an attacking midfield role, but Wijnaldum looks poised to slide back into a box to box position for the Reds. This would see Wijnaldum line up as a part of a midfield two in Klopp’s favorite 4-2-3-1 formation. While Can is widely believed to be Wijnaldum’s partner in the double pivot, Wijnaldum’s attacking mindset combined with Can occasionally lacking positional awareness could see the Liverpool defense left wide open for counter-attacks.
This weakness could open the door for Stewart to see an increased role.
Stewart’s presence in the midfield would allow Wijnaldum to push forward into the final third without having to worry as much about Can’s positioning. Can is considered a defensive midfielder, but he is well known for making runs into attacking areas. With Wijnaldum likely to be spending a lot more time around the opposition’s penalty box than his own, Stewart’s presence as a stalwart in front of the defense could allow Wijnaldum to keep his focus on the attack while knowing he has cover in the event of a counter attack.
For a Liverpool team that has leaked goals at an alarming rate over the past few seasons, Stewart’s defensive presence could be vital in ensuring the defense is not left open on the counter.
Stewart is not likely to be a starter every week as he does not have the all-around ability to be a top class midfielder quite yet. However, he could certainly fill Lucas’ role as a specialty defensive midfielder that can be utilized in certain matches where his capabilities fit the tactics that Klopp wants to employ. Stewart is more than capable of doing a job that could prevent Liverpool from conceding an easy goal or two that can be the difference between three points and one.
Last season, the Reds dropped more points from winning positions than any other team in the Premier League. With Klopp adding more to an already strong attack through the additions of Wijnaldum and Sadio Mané, the Reds’ problem will not be scoring goals. It will be making sure the team does not concede easy goals that could prevent the side from making the top four.
Replacing Simon Mignolet with Loris Karius is a good step towards accomplishing this, but having Stewart play as an enforcer in front of the defense in certain matches could also be very effective. The Reds look poised to be a dynamic attacking side, but ensuring that the defensive unit is comparable to Manchester United and Spurs rather than Swansea and Watford could be the difference between a top four finish and another season in the Europa League. Putting Stewart in situations where his skill set can help accomplish this goal could be an emerging possibility for Liverpool.