It was a busy summer for Liverpool, especially when it came to signing midfielders. We take a look at how the renovated area is performing in the early months of the season.
Liverpool made the bold decision to completely overhaul their midfield this summer.
A rebuild was always on the cards but few envisioned five outgoings – of which the captain and the vice-captain were included – and four incomings.
Such drastic changes could have gone one of two ways. It was either going to be a huge success with key players seamlessly adapting to life at Anfield, or it would be another transitional campaign for the 2019-20 Premier League champions.
It is perhaps too early to confidently declare the summer transfer window a successful one for Liverpool, but Jürgen Klopp’s men have arguably been one of the surprise packages of the 2023-24 campaign to date, having taken 17 points from their opening eight Premier League matches. It is an even more impressive haul when you consider five of these games have been away from Anfield and they have already faced Chelsea, Newcastle United, Tottenham and Brighton on their travels.
The numbers back up this positive start to the season. Liverpool have an expected goals (xG) total of 16.9, the second highest in the Premier League behind Newcastle (17.5), and are ranked fourth for big chances created with 20 (a big chance is defined as one from which the attacking player would usually be expected to score). It would be interesting to see what these numbers could have been had they not been down to a minimum of 10 men in three of their eight matches.
Whereas last season the midfield was an area of weakness, this time around the midfield department has been a clear strength, with two summer signings in particular catching the eye.
Szoboszlai has been a revelation following his £60 million summer move from RB Leipzig. The 22-year-old looks to be the natural heir to Steven Gerrard as a whirlwind midfielder who can do it all. Liverpool’s new number 8 has the technical ability to go along with his physicality, a rare blend in the modern game.
He was deployed in wide areas in the Bundesliga, with almost 50% of his minutes during the 2021-22 campaign coming as a wide forward, while that figure was up to 87% last season (77% on the right and 10% on the left). The Hungary captain had barely featured in central midfield at club level and now he’s running things from that role at the top end of the Premier League.
Those who spent time watching him in Austria (with Salzburg) and Germany will have already known about his quality in possession, but it is what he’s been doing without the ball that has really made him stand out so far in England. Szoboszlai never stops running and puts the needs of the team first. He’s even filled in as part of a double-pivot in some matches, sacrificing the offensive side of his game.
The versatile midfielder has completely bought into the Liverpool project. He’s already altered his game to fit into Klopp’s system and isn’t just a cog in the machine.
Szoboszlai is a key part of what makes this midfield unit work.
He leads the way for Liverpool’s attacking sequence involvements in the Premier League with 52, and also tops this particular chart when looking at it on a per-90 basis, with an average of 6.5. Only three players in this Liverpool team are involved in six attacking sequences or more per 90 – Szoboszlai, Darwin Núñez (6.4) and Mohamed Salah (6.0).
It is even more impressive when you realise just how much he has reigned it in following his move to Merseyside. Szoboszlai is attempting fewer shots and his xG per 90 has dropped from 0.20 to 0.07. His expected assist (xA) average has also fallen from 0.3 to 0.2 this season, and if you combine his shots and chances created per 90, that’s fallen by 0.8 this season.
He’s filling the role that belonged to Henderson for many years. Szoboszlai is averaging a similar number of touches to the former Liverpool skipper but he’s doing more with them. He is attempting fewer passes per 90 (58 to Henderson’s 67) but has a higher success rate (87% to 85%).
The 6-foot-2 midfield powerhouse also comes out on top when looking at attempted dribbles, shots, tackles and chances created. His xA per 90 of 0.20 is higher than Henderson’s previous average of 0.14 and Szoboszlai’s average of four shots plus chances created per 90 is almost double that of the England international’s 2.3.
Szoboszlai has managed to transform the right-sided centre-midfield role at Anfield without completely impacting the dynamic of the team. Sometimes a player comes in and needs a greater number of touches and it skews the balance. It allows them to look good as an individual but the team suffers. That isn’t the case in this scenario.
He’s formed a good understanding with Mac Allister, another summer addition. The former Brighton midfielder arrived in a deal believed to be worth in the region of £35m. Despite signing Endo from Stuttgart, their new number 10 has so far been the main man anchoring the midfield.
At a glance, this might appear to be a bit of a waste of the Argentinian maestro. But the deeper role in this midfield unit actually gives Mac Allister the opportunity to see more of the ball in central areas.
Though Livepool are famed for their ‘heavy metal’ approach under Klopp, over recent years he’s looked to have his team control the space and the possession with their use of the ball.
The German tactician has wanted players in his team in key zones who can help retain possession, and Mac Allister falls into this category. The 24-year-old is actually playing more passes than ever before (65 per 90) and his pass completion is higher than it was for Brighton, with 89% of his attempts finding a teammate. The 19-cap international is also playing more progressive passes this season (5.88 up from 5.42). He’s another who has adapted his game to fit into this Liverpool team and though some believe he’s being shoehorned into a role, he’s actually being allowed to play his natural game.
He is almost a blend between Thiago Alcântara and Fabinho. Believe it or not, Mac Allister is winning possession back this season more times than the Brazilian did for Liverpool last term. He’s doing the dirty work out of possession and then he’s almost flawless in possession. The World Cup winner gives his team a solid platform and a rigid base to build and sustain attacks.
For the most part, the two new arrivals have been partnered with Curtis Jones in midfield. The 22-year-old found his way back into Klopp’s starting XI in April and he’s been there ever since, having impressed in the hybrid left-sided midfield role.
Jones starts in the midfield three but can be found filling in as part of the back three when Liverpool are building out from the back and then as a left-winger when Luis Díaz drifts inside.
He’s a counterweight and a facilitator. Jones will look to recycle and retain possession, regularly completing over 93% of his passes, so that others are able to get on the ball and do their thing. Given he started life as a wide forward, he’s comfortable in wide areas and this gives Liverpool tactical flexibility in-game if they want to change the shape of their attack.
Many felt that, when fit, Thiago might reclaim his old role on the left side of a midfield three. But the role he bossed during the 2021-22 quadruple-chasing season no longer exists. He was deployed there last year too and would regularly form a double pivot with the deepest midfielder, allowing him to pull the strings in the middle of the pitch.
However, Liverpool’s new inverted full-back system gives the right-back the freedom that was previously afforded to Thiago. If he were to return to the starting XI, he would likely be battling it out with Mac Allister to be the team’s deep-lying-playmaker-cum-defensive-midfielder. He doesn’t have the physical capacity to do what Jones is doing and having someone as good as him on the ball in wider areas, the ones taken up by Jones, would be a waste.
The rebuild this summer wasn’t just to replace outgoing midfielders. It was also to help Liverpool move on from those who couldn’t be relied upon and, unfortunately, Thiago fell into that category.
Gravenberch looks likely to rival Jones for minutes on the left and he’s started his Liverpool career well with two assists and a goal in three starts. When the Premier League halts for another international break in November, we’ll likely know more about the Dutchman’s role in this team, especially with Jones still suspended for two matches following his red card at Tottenham.
Endo remains the only real question mark from this summer’s business. The 30-year-old didn’t fit the usual criteria for a Liverpool signing but Klopp wanted supporters to give the former Stuttgart captain a chance. He’s not really been given a chance in the first-team yet though, at least not in the Premier League, so it is too early to judge. As of right now, the £16m signing appears to be a decent midfielder for cup competitions and that isn’t necessarily a negative. The squad needed depth after a number of options left this summer so Endo certainly filled a void. There might be more to it but, for now, that appears to be the Japan international’s role.
As far as rebuilds go though, as of right now, it has been a success for Liverpool. As of right now, they’re our second favourites to win the league this season. And there’s still more to come from all four of those new signings.
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