Cash Boyle analyses how Liverpool’s midfield dominated West Ham at Anfield on Sunday and what their excellence means for the season ahead.
Sunday saw Liverpool thrash a limited West Ham side 4-0 at Anfield, with this table-topping start engendering huge optimism amongst fans. Of the numerous talking points, a new thread emerged – the sheer quality displayed by the Reds’ midfield.
In a recent era where our front three are continuously (and rightly) lauded, it was the dominance of the midfield trio that set tongues wagging at the weekend.
I wanted to take a closer look at this, and to explore the idea that Jürgen Klopp finally has the depth of personnel required to have such an electric midfield.
Of the contenders for Man of the Match against West Ham, two were midfielders. Both Naby Keïta and James Milner were outstanding against the Hammers, with Gini Wijnaldum only missing out on honourable mention due to his more defensive role.
Shape – on and off the ball
When selecting this trio, Klopp was clearly influenced by the fact that they had played an entire pre-season together (a fact he references in his post-match interview). Their level of synchronicity is only made possible by extensive time on the training pitch. In this game Gini was clearly deployed as the number 6, Keïta the box to box player, with Milner something in between. Largely they remained in those positions, with their proximity to one another determined by whether we were in or out of possession.
The three assume their expected positions when in possession, albeit with a greater distance between to enable the commencement of attacks.
Contrast this with the distance when out of possession, as shown below. Note the fact that Gini remains the furthest back, with Milner slightly further behind the more advanced Keïta.
In a game where we had 64.8% possession, the midfield three did not have to transition as frequently as they may have to in matches that are more closely contested. However, there is an exceptional level of discipline required to execute this variation in-game. That level of discipline has undoubtedly come from a full pre-season.
Roles and goals – industry becomes drive
The aforementioned discipline did not negatively impact upon our attacking thrust. The criticism of the Reds’ midfield last season was that it was industrious, without being dynamic. Klopp has sought to remedy that, and with the positional infrastructure in place, the midfield was able to be more actively involved in the attacking play.
Step forward Naby Keïta. After much anticipation, his Premier League debut did not disappoint. Naby looked as though he had been a mainstay in the Liverpool midfield for years; with the immediate display of his sizeable skill-set a real plus.
As mentioned, Keïta’s role is as a box-to-box midfielder, and invariably he was furthest forward of the three. Pushing Keïta further up (whilst Gini and Milner remained further back), opened up space vacated by the West Ham midfield. This gave the Guinean real room within which to manoeuvre, which tended to result in the creation of a chance.
Here Keïta releases Salah, who in turn finds Firmino. Although the resultant chance is snuffed out by West Ham’s Antonio, it’s clear what the intent is. The positions of Gini and Milner are notable insofar as they offer protection (should possession turn over quickly).
For the first goal, a similar dynamic persists. Here there is slightly less protection as only Gini remains in the centre of the park, with Milner barely visible in the image. This time Keïta’s release does lead to a goal, with Robertson expertly feeding Mo Salah. Such are Milner’s fitness levels that he could have reassumed position very quickly (had the chance not been taken).
This more creative role is reflected in his slightly lower pass success rate (when compared to Gini). Both players attempted 68 passes; Keïta had a success rate of 88.2%, whereas Gini notched 92.6%.
There were multiple examples of the midfield and strikers opening up space for Keïta to operate in, as evidenced by the respective positions of each player here. As expected, Gini and Milner are stationed behind, with Salah and Mané streaking forward at a frightening pace.
The result is that a huge gap is created through the middle, which Liverpool almost exploit for a second Salah goal (thwarted only by an excellent Fabianski stop).
Crowd the box – the new Liverpool way
All four goals were struck from inside the box, and only the third goal was dispatched without a Reds’ midfielder in that same area. Keïta was in the box for both the first and second goals, with Gini making a rare foray forward for the fourth (with Keïta on the edge).
The second and fourth goals are shown below.
Though this didn’t result in a goal from midfield, increasing the midfield presence in the box will increase the likelihood of this happening. More goals are required from midfield this season, and this strategy appears capable of resolving this particular woe.
Midfield balance – not midfield inflexibility
Though I have made mention of the clearly established positions of the midfield three, Klopp’s system did allow for some variation in play. Though Gini largely remained at the base, there were examples of Milner alternating between protective shield and attacking aide.
The images below demonstrate the variety in Milner’s play, supported by the fact that he attempted three crosses and three long balls. He also notched an assist for the second strike. While it’s obvious that Keïta is the primary box to box midfielder, Milner is credited with the footballing intelligence to move between both defensive and offensive duties.
As for Gini, his heat map would surely show that his average position was at the base of midfield. Though not as overtly creative a role, it did allow him to demonstrate his passing range; he attempted 9 long balls in this game. It is testament to his ability that this did not interfere with his 92.6% pass success rate.
Midfield master-class – how do we maintain it?
Firstly, it’s clear that the midfield was a pre-season priority.
Secondly, it’s clear that other teams will pose bigger tests than West Ham.
Thirdly, it’s clear that there will be squad rotation.
So, how do we replicate this balance in light of these factors?
The obvious answer is that Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana (amongst others) will all be working on how to play a similar system. In terms of the roles described above, Henderson is arguably capable of playing all three – box to box, a number 6 and something in-between. I would expect him to be deployed primarily as a box to box midfielder, with Fabinho taking up the number 6 role played by Henderson last season.
As for Lallana, I believe he will be used the most sparingly of the three – but when called upon, he will be able to play in a role similar to that adopted by Milner on Sunday.
When considered, there are definite similarities between the two Englishmen; both are hard working with demonstrable game intelligence. Therefore, Lallana is capable of fulfilling that role.
Sunday’s game finished 4-0 without a midfielder on the scoresheet. Yet that doesn’t tell the whole story – the midfield enabled the comfort of this win, by working tirelessly as both an offensive and defensive unit.
Jürgen Klopp summed it up perfectly in his post-match interview, noting that: “What Gini and Milly did today was quite impressive, I have to say. In the end, it looks quite comfortable, 4-0. But I’m pretty sure that all three midfielders (or at least these two midfielders), had to run, what 13 or more kilometres.
“So you see, you have to work really hard so that a game can look like that.”
Luckily this is not a team afraid of hard work, with players clearly happy to cede to the demands of their manager. Next up is Crystal Palace, where we will see whether this level of performance can be repeated in the uncomfortable bosom of Selhurst Park.