Improvement of central midfield key to Liverpool’s strong start

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Divock Origi (2nd R) of Liverpool celebrates scoring the opening goal with his captain Jordan Henderson and his team mates during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Sunderland at Anfield on November 26, 2016 in Liverpool, England.
All rights reserved by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

Joseph Kavaloski explains how the improvement of Liverpool’s midfield has been crucial to the Reds’ strong start to the 2016/17 Premier League season.

There are a multitude of reasons behind Liverpool’s excellent start to the 2016/17 Premier League campaign, but the dynamism of central midfield certainly has to be one of the most important. From the formation to the execution of the players, this area of the pitch has been much stronger than a year ago.

Last year, Jurgen Klopp primarily used a 4-2-3-1 formation with Emre Can and James Milner employed as the side’s two most used central midfielders. Can would sit in front of the defence as the holding midfielder while Milner had the freedom to roam forward and support the attack.

This season, Klopp has altered his formation preference to a 4-3-3. Jordan Henderson acts as the holding midfielder while Adam Lallana and a combination of Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can take up the more box to box roles.

Due to the similarities of their roles, it is easy to compare Milner’s performance last season with that of Lallana so far this season. Lallana was previously an attacking midfielder who was moved to a deeper position in preseason to accommodate the arrival of Sadio Mane. He has taken up his new spot in the side extremely well, becoming arguably one of the side’s three most important players.

The biggest improvement from Milner to Lallana has been the passing. Milner had a fine season with 5 goals and 11 assists in 28 Premier League appearances, but his passing accuracy of 77% left a lot to be desired.

Lallana, on the other hand, has added end product to his game putting him on pace to easily beat Milner’s statistics from last season. Plus, his pass success rate is almost 10% higher at 86%.

Lallana’s ability to use his agility on the ball to link the defence and attack has been spectacular all season. Milner is a solid player who can do a little bit of everything as his performance at left back this year has shown, but Lallana has proven to be far more effective in the centre of the park – especially going forward.

Milner is well known for his tireless stamina which was effective in central midfield, but Lallana’s ability to press tactically rather than recklessly is a tremendous benefit to the team.

The numbers may not show up on the stat sheet, but Lallana may be one of the most intelligent midfielders in the world in terms of defending. He is excellent at closing down players in such a way that his positioning and awareness of those around him prevents the opposition from finding an open teammate.

Milner may be superior in the raw statistics of tackles and interceptions, but there is no doubt that Lallana is a better central midfielder in terms of defending. The former Southampton man is a very intelligent player and he uses his brain as much as his legs in his pressing. There is little doubt that Lallana has been a tremendous improvement over Milner in the centre of the park.

Lallana’s excellent start to the season has been on display for quite a while now, but Jordan Henderson is also playing the best football of his career. The captain has been a huge upgrade at the holding midfield position over Emre Can from a year ago.

Both defensively and in attack, Henderson has been fantastic. Averaging an impressive 4.1 tackles, 1.7 interceptions, and 1.9 clearances, Henderson has been extremely effective in shielding the defence and stopping teams on the counter.

Coming into the season, many expected Can to be the man in Henderson’s current position. However, now 12 matches into the league campaign, it is clear that the captain has been a huge upgrade on the young German.

Henderson’s aforementioned defensive statistics easily dwarf Can’s numbers from a year ago (2.6 tackles, 2.1 interceptions, 1.4 clearances). That being said, his passing may be the single most improved area out of Liverpool’s holding midfielders from 2015/16 to 2016/17.

Henderson has completed the most passes in the league by a significant margin and his stellar pass success rate of 87.7% is far superior to Can’s mark of 81.3% in 2015/16. Although he is still prone to falling into the habit of passing sideways rather than forward, Henderson still creates 1.3 chances per match, 0.3 better than Can last year.

From passing to attacking to defending, Henderson has been a huge upgrade in the holding midfield position. Can may still be the long-term solution in that area, but Henderson has clearly staked his claim to be there for the foreseeable future. Without the captain’s excellence, it is hard to imagine Liverpool residing in second place 12 matches into the season.

The Reds have easily been the most dynamic attacking team in the league this season. The front three has been as much clinical as excellent in the final third, but this was also a consistent part of the side for much of last season.

Therefore, the biggest area of improvement from last season to now has surely been central midfield. Adam Lallana has emerged as a vital player for club and country while Henderson is putting all of his captaincy critics in their place.

Emre Can and James Milner performed admirably throughout the club’s Europa League run a season ago, but the consistency of Lallana and Henderson in the centre of the park will ensure that the Reds will be needing heroics on Tuesdays rather than Thursdays in the future.

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