Liverpool maintained their 100%-win record in the league on Saturday, as they scraped past a very stubborn Leicester City side. The Foxes became the first team to score past The Reds this season, after Alisson’s calamitous error midway through the second half. The Brazilian’s blunder undoubtedly tarnished an otherwise strong defensive display; however, it was in the middle and final thirds that Jürgen Klopp’s team really fell short.
The Match Stats
Liverpool’s expected goals in the game was at just 1.2 – the Merseyside outfit’s lowest of the season by 0.6 expected goals. Despite Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino finding the back of the net, the fabulous front three failed to replicate the scintillating free-flowing football they are so feared for. Salah and his fellow accomplices managed just 4 shots on target the whole game. Compared to previous outings this season, this is uncharacteristically low. In the three previous games this season, against West Ham, Crystal Palace and more recently, Brighton, Klopp’s men averaged over 7 shots on target per game.
So, what was the reason for The Reds’ worst attacking performance to date? On paper, away to Leicester was probably the hardest fixture out of the opening four games. So, perhaps, offensive output was always likely to decline. Maybe there are members of the squad who are still slightly fatigued after a strenuous summer period. Naturally, there could be many explanations as to why Liverpool looked so lacklustre.
Klopp’s Tactical Switch
However, there was one tactical change made by the German manager that sent Liverpool twitter into disarray when the team sheet was announced at 11:30 am on Saturday morning. Naby Keïta had been replaced by The Reds’ much-maligned captain, Jordan Henderson. Why on earth had one of the most dynamic central midfielders in the Premier League been replaced by a defensive midfielder?
After a fairly average display against Claude Puel’s men, Jordan Henderson has been the subject of both criticism and praise from Liverpool fans this week. There has been tweet upon tweet either calling for his head or loyally jumping to his defence, as the endless debate on his importance to the Anfield club burns on. So, if you’re wanting to read another scathing review or an article of unwavering support for the ex-Sunderland midfielder, then read no further. I will attempt to establish what has failed to be mentioned. What did Klopp’s tactical change actually do to Liverpool’s performance?
The Keïta Effect
Choosing to swap Naby Keïta for Jordan Henderson meant that Georginio Wijnaldum was pushed further forward into one of the two central midfield roles, alongside James Milner, as the Liverpool skipper slotted into the number six role. Whatever the reason for Klopp’s decision to rest The Reds’ Guinean diamond, it certainly was always going to have harming effects on Liverpool’s midfield transition.
When comparing Keïta’s offensive statistics to those of Liverpool’s midfield three at the weekend, it is almost too glaringly obvious that he would be dearly missed. In the Bundesliga last season, Keïta completed 2.68 successful take-ons per 90 minutes whilst making 1.48 chances and finding 1.28 key passes per game. Now, Jordan Henderson did not actually replace Keïta directly. In fact, it was Wijnaldum who was pushed further forward into the Guinean’s position. So actually, this tactical analysis won’t consider Henderson’s attacking contributions. James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum combined, completed 1.09 fewer take-ons per 90 minutes last season than Naby Keïta. This inability to get past their Leicester City counterparts was apparent on Saturday, as The Reds lacked any impetus, failing to break past The Foxes’ midfield on far too many occasions.
Liverpool’s vice-captain, James Milner, and Georginio Wijnaldum created 0.97 and 0.66 chances per 90 minutes respectively during the 2017/18 Premier League campaign. Again, Naby Keïta’s presence was noticed, as chances were few and far between for Liverpool at the King Power Stadium. So, maybe Klopp rested him to create a more robust midfield for Leicester to try and get through…
Well, you guessed it, RB Leipzig’s ex-midfielder outperformed both Wijnaldum and Milner in his defensive efforts in the league last season. Guinea’s captain made 1.64 interceptions and won 1.72 tackles per game in the Bundesliga. In comparison, James Milner made 0.62 interceptions and won 1.11 tackles per game, whilst Wijnaldum made 0.75 interceptions and won 0.69 tackles per 90 minutes during the last campaign.
A Risky Game to Play
So, let’s get this straight. Naby Keïta is comfortably Liverpool’s best central midfielder, both going forward and in defence. Whatever Klopp’s decision for resting him, be it a slight knock, or just trying to give his captain a game, it can’t be repeated. It is a risk that should not be taken wherever possible. This is not a question of Jordan Henderson being average or even being responsible for The Reds’ poor showing. It was a tactical change that severely backfired. I’ll let you decide whether you think Jordan Henderson is good enough to play in Liverpool’s midfield. However, he should not be the victim of abuse for being played as a defensive midfielder at the expense of Naby Keïta’s starting spot.
What I will tell you, though, is that if Henderson is to play in the number six role, it must be James Milner or Gini Wijnaldum who give way to their captain. What Naby Keïta brings to the team is far too important to be left on the bench. He is Liverpool’s very own metronome that keeps the midfield organised and in check. Whilst Jürgen Klopp can look at the table feeling very happy with the start to the season, he may not be so content if he makes a habit of benching his midfield maestro.