The love-in for Jordan Henderson has picked up steam in the last couple of months. After fears about his ability to stand in for Fabinho in December subsided fairly quickly, he also deputised for Virgil Van Dijk against Monterrey at the Club World Cup to prove that there wasn’t any job that was beyond him. In the final, his raking pass to Sadio Mane that set up Bobby Firmino’s winning goal was the cherry on top of an outstanding display that night. It even moved Flamengo’s boss, Jorge Jesus, to call him the best midfielder in the world in his position.
English fans certainly seemed to agree, naming him Men’s Player of the Year for 2019 and he celebrated that achievement with a Man-Of-The-Match display against the old enemy, Manchester United. No one except Fred in the opposition camp ran more than the 11.49 kms he covered on Sunday night. He also gained possession eight times, won nine of eleven duels, made five tackles, created a chance and got two shots off for good measure. The numbers are impressive but they were also great for his two midfield partners, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The latter did not look particularly pleased at being subbed off in the later stages and while he was tiring, he felt that he had more than made a case for staying on the pitch.
While the night ended beautifully for the home side, it had not started all that well. Manchester United came in with a plan to nullify the threat posed by Liverpool’s full-backs. They were pinned back into their own half by United’s wing-backs and quite a few passes went astray in the opening minutes. It was the midfield trio and Firmino who helped the Reds regain control and once they did, they pummeled United into submission until the final fifteen minutes.
In a summer piece, I had suggested that Liverpool needed to add more creativity and goals from midfield. The expectation amongst observers was that a way would be found to stop the full-backs and the outlying number of assists they came up with last season. What is increasingly becoming evident though is that the only way to do that is by winning the midfield battle. All three Reds midfielders were at it on Sunday but it is when they are not that Liverpool struggle. The full-backs are reined in by extension and the front three remain isolated. Carlo Ancelotti had identified that and played a four-man midfield in all five fixtures between Napoli and the reigning European champions in the last two years, with great success.
The comparison with Kevin De Bruyne and the two Silvas at Manchester City will continue and while more end-product is welcome, Liverpool’s midfield is increasingly being seen as a differentiator in footballing circles. No matter who plays in those three positions in the middle of the park, they manage to strangle the life out of their opposition. In attack, they recycle almost every ball back into the mix, invariably finding themselves in the right positions to intercept defenders’ punts to safety. The relentlessness must surely tire defences and it is no coincidence that the late goals keep coming.
In the centre of the park, they harry players into mistakes by not providing them any time on the ball. Pressing efficiency has ensured that very few teams or players can scythe through the middle or play through balls that can trouble the defenders. Add to that the growing comfort in receiving the ball from the centre-backs or full-backs in their own half, and Liverpool have an engine room unlike any other in world football. Napoli have had the right personnel to confine the Reds to tight spaces and more importantly, exploit slight deficiencies. Not too many sides can do that even though Atlético Madrid will provide interesting opposition in the Champions League, especially at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Liverpool are a brilliant footballing side and there is no disputing the accolades that the remaining eight players in the team receive and rightly so. World-class performances emanate from the likes of Mane, Trent, Van Dijk and Alisson almost every week. I am now convinced however that the step up in this team’s quality this season is down to their midfield. Jürgen Klopp must be least bothered by the lack of goals from Henderson, Wijnaldum, Chamberlain, Fabinho, Keita, Milner or Lallana, as he isn’t with Firmino. He knows that opposition managers are increasingly casting envious glances at Liverpool’s battering rams in midfield. Jorge Jesus will not be alone in publicly admitting admiration before the end of the season.