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After a disappointing season marred by injuries and inconsistency, Liverpool were widely expected to delve into the transfer market to reinforce their midfield and offence. That apparent need was strengthened by the loss of midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum to Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.

One of Jurgen Klopp’s most consistent and reliable performers for half a decade, he was the linchpin of the Reds’ Premier League and Champions League success, the core around which Liverpool’s blitzkrieg attack revolved.

Replacing him is Klopp’s greatest challenge – and it just got a lot harder, after an injury to his apparent heir in Harvey Elliott. But Liverpool didn’t sign a new midfield star this window. Instead, Klopp is trusting some of his greatest gambles to finally pay off.

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Wijnaldum was just one of many transfer gambles Klopp made to build a Liverpool midfield capable of taking on the world. The Dutch stalwart was one of Klopp’s first major purchases as Liverpool manager – a £23 million deal one year after the German manager arrived at Anfield in 2015.

Klopp saw his potential in a deeper position than the attacking role he fulfilled at Newcastle in his single season on Tyneside. In that year, he scored 11 times in the Premier League despite the Magpies being relegated. In his first campaign at Anfield, he scored six times – a figure he wouldn’t come close to in the following years. Perhaps that’s why Wijnaldum still goes underappreciated in some corners of the football community.

But after his arrival in 2016, he made more appearances than any other Reds midfielder in each of Liverpool’s five seasons before his departure. If the midfield is an engine-room, as is so often said, Wijnaldum was Liverpool’s most vital cog.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the next big midfield arrival, signing in 2017 for a £35 million fee from Arsenal. It started brightly, with 42 appearances the first year producing five goals. But a late injury ruled him out of the end of that season and almost the entirety of the next. Meanwhile, Klopp turned to two more huge signings, using the profits from a massive Philippe Coutinho move to Barcelona.

On the first of July, 2018, Fabinho and Naby Keita arrived for a combined 90 million pounds. Keita was heralded as the heir to Steven Gerrard’s box-to-box midfield role, even taking the number eight jersey as the club legend moved to LA to wind down his playing days. Fabinho was meant to be the anchor to hold the defence and the midfield together and allow Klopp’s famous ‘heavy metal football’ to crash forward and inundate rival defences.

But while Fabinho has played his role to perfection – and been forced to fill in across the defensive line as Liverpool’s backs suffered a voodoo-esque curse last season – Keita has never quite lived up to his potential.

Injuries hampered him, ending his promising first season on the sidelines as Liverpool hoisted the Champions League trophy. The next two campaigns saw him make a combined 43 appearances – compared to the 40 appearances captain Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum and Swiss-army-knife James Milner were regularly racking up each year. Injuries also took Oxlade-Chamberlain from being a regular feature – he made 43 appearances and scored eight goals in the title-winning 2019-20 season, then injuries and poor form limited him to just 17 games last campaign and a total of 243 Premier League minutes.

There were other, smaller gambles. Youngsters Marko Grujic and Ben Woodburn were tried and tested and found wanting. Adam Lallana went from playing 49 and 35 games in Klopp’s first two seasons in charge, to 15, 16, and 22 in the following three seasons. Emre Can, Xherdan Shaqiri and the highly-touted flop Lazar Markovic also contributed to varying extents. All six were shipped out as Klopp continued to mould the team in his image. Even when winning, the team was always a work in progress – and the midfield more than any other aspect.

One year ago today, the 18th of September, Klopp made perhaps his biggest midfield signing of all. Spanish genius Thiago Alcantara for just £20 million from Bayern Munich, just days after he guided them to a sixth Champions League title. The former Barcelona star had won 11 league titles in Spain and Germany in the last 12 seasons, and was meant to immediately lift Liverpool’s midfield to another level and help them defend their Premier League crown. It all went wrong from the start. He caught Covid-19, and was injured in just his second game – a Merseyside Derby against Everton. Operating in a slightly different role to that of Bayern Munich, Thiago showed moments of magic but struggled to find his feet. He wasn’t helped, of course, by Liverpool’s injury ravaged squad last season, and the impacts of the pandemic on the season.

And so, with Oxlade-Chamberlain injury prone and struggling for form, Keita battling, and Thiago still struggling to assert himself in the side, the departure of Wijnaldum appeared monumental, disastrous even for Liverpool. Especially when rivals were beefing up their squads with players like Jack Grealish to Manchester City, or even the low-risk, potentially high-reward punt Chelsea made on fallen giant Saul Niguez.

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Klopp, though, didn’t sign any midfielders. One star defender came in, young talent Ibrahim Konate, to build for the future and make sure that last year’s centre-back crisis wouldn’t be repeated. And to fix the midfield, he opted for a fascinating call – moving teen winger Harvey Elliott into a deeper role.

Elliott came off the bench for the first Premier League game, then started the next three clashes. It was clear the 18-year-old was not going to be wasted as Mohamed Salah’s right-wing understudy, but used as a right-sided number eight.

It proved a masterstroke. Elliott was strong and growing with every game.

“We try to improve and we really try to develop and for that, the door is very open for everybody to be part of that,” Klopp said yesterday.

“So far it worked out really well and with Harvey, it was nice to see how naturally he did that. A young player like him, you don’t fiddle with 5,000 pieces of information. You just let him play and have a look.”

Klopp had done something similar before, shifting another youngster Curtis Jones into a deeper role last season. Jones, now 20, made 34 appearances in all competitions last campaign in the heart of midfield, notching a more than respectable four goals and five assists. But Jones had made his mark in Liverpol’s youth sides, especially as the U23 skipper, playing a freer attacking midfield position. Perhaps last season he was being prepared to help fill the Wijnaldum absence, only for Elliott to leapfrog him. Elliott certainly appeared more of a finished product, though Jones has plenty of ability and promise – especially as a goalscoring midfielder.

“There is a lot to come from Curtis,” Klopp said in March. “The potential is exceptional.”

This week, Jones was given his first minutes off the bench, but as a left winger, perhaps hinting that Klopp will revert to a more attacking role for the starlet.

Either way, Klopp had appeared to solve the Wijnaldum problem. Fabinho could return to the midfield since Liverpool’s host of defenders were back in action. Elliott would take up one side. The other was still up for grabs, but there were plenty of options.

Thiago, now settled after a difficult first year, was almost guaranteed to improve. Keita would have the opportunity to finally live up to his lofty expectations, without necessarily having the pressure of starting from the first week. Jordan Henderson, who also struggled with injury last year, was back. If Oxlade-Chamberlain could stay fit, he’d get his chance. Add in Milner and Jones, and Liverpool had enough depth and cover to make up for Wijnaldum’s departure.

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There was even a significant tactical shift – particularly using Elliott’s willingness to drive forward – in an attempt to improve the output from the midfield rather than just patch up the hole left by Wijnaldum’s departure.

This season, Liverpool have changed the way in which their dual number eights interact with the fullback and the winger, using a more mobile triangular combination to overwhelm defences and get players Salah into scoring positions and Trent Alexander-Arnold into spaces where he can create goals.

In their opening games, the Reds particularly bombarded the right flank, with Elliott combining well with the duo – and helping to get the most out of those two crucial stars as much as it helped Elliott shine.

Speaking of the flexible triangular tactic’s use against AC Milan this week (with Henderson instead of Elliott), Klopp said: “We try to develop every year. One thing that you have seen is a really flexible triangle on the right side and it was that flexible that Mo Salah had to defend the right fullback position [against Milan] because Trent was in the box and Hendo was in the middle of the park … That gives you an advantage offensively but defensively you are slightly more open, so we have to try and get the rhythm exactly right but that is, for sure, a difference to last year.”

GRAPHIC: Red suffers serious injury | 00:43


Then Elliott’s season was all-but-ended in a lunging tackle against Leeds a week ago. In the blink of an eye, the worries were back. How would Klopp fix the hole? Would they turn to a belated transfer in January to plug the hole? The answer to the latter is that they might – Brighton’s Yves Bissouma is in hot demand around the Premier League, while Dortmund’s young English midfielder Jude Bellingham and AC Milan’s Franck Kessie have also been the subject of strong transfer rumours. Barcelona superstar Pedri is yet another highly-rated prospect on the Reds’ radar.

But Klopp has spent six years now tinkering and developing his midfield corps. Instead of gambling on an immediate fix in January – which will already be too late to save Liverpool’s season if they struggle until then – Klopp is looking to finally cash in on the years of transfer gambles and countless hours of work on the group that already wear the red jersey. It is very much a case of looking to the past as much as the future.

In midweek Champions League action, Henderson returned to the midfield three alongside Fabinho and Keita. It worked well, despite Keita fading as the game wore on. Henderson scored a brilliant winner to send the Anfield crowd wild. Fabinho was arguably even better, bossing the midfield and breaking up play after play. His positioning at the base of the midfield treble allowed the other pair to roam forward in offence.

Against Leeds, Thiago started alongside Fabinho and Elliott, before Henderson replaced Elliott following his injury. That combination also drew success. Thiago calmed down the frenetic pace of play that is typical of a Leeds game, demanding the ball even under pressure and dictating the play with courageous, pinpoint passes. Fabinho’s defensive work silenced the Leeds attack for much of the game and allowed Thiago more freedom to roam.

Klopp praised Thiago effusively for his wondrous passing, having delivered a brilliant assist for Sadio Mane against Leeds. Klopp said: “But with this passing he can change the game immediately. He has great vision and can chip balls in each area he wants to – a bit like a golfer actually, a good golfer, a world-class golfer! He can do that obviously without thinking. I love the way he plays.”

Henderson worldie wins it for Reds | 00:40

But the German manager did not minimise the difficulties Thiago has had in his first year in England – only to promise there is ‘much more to come’.

“The start was not perfect because he got Covid and got injured early,” the manager said. “That makes everything a little more difficult. He showed what kind of a player he can and will be for us, so there is much more to come.

“All the technical stuff is easy for him but he has to and has had to adapt to the way we defend,” he continued. “More often we play using a slightly more offensive player as one of the double six than Bayern Munich. You have to be more offensive and defensive as one of our double six. You have to play between the lines. You can drop to the last line to receive the ball, but not always. We want him to play his natural football and there are just a couple of things he has to adapt for how we play. He did that … I love the way he plays. It’s a complex position to be the number eight for us.”

Already in their last one-and-a-half games since Elliott’s injury, Liverpool has proved their different midfield combinations can draw success. One combination – Henderson, Thiago, and Fabinho – has only ever been implemented once as a starting trio. It is almost certain to be used far more frequently this season.

Ever since Wijnaldum departed – and indeed, for some years – Klopp has faced the question: what is Liverpool’s first-choice midfield trio? His years of chopping and changing, rotations and injuries, never quite made that an easy answer. He was determined to create a group of players capable of adapting to any opponent. He has Thiago, Keita, Henderson, Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, and Fabinho – but it’s still a work in progress. With Klopp, it always will be.

Today, he gave his simplest answer to the tired question of who makes up Liverpool’s best midfield trio.

“It’s [the No. 8] a complex position for us. But because we have the different skill sets, we use the different skill sets from time to time when we think this skill set makes more sense against this opponent – so more dynamic, more runs in behind, more natural offensive, more natural defensive, all these kind of things. So, that’s the reason for different line-ups … How I said, we have so many different skill sets and I don’t have a first three in midfield – why should I?”

Liverpool has gambled in the midfield transfer market for years. Some, like Keita, haven’t fully paid off. Now it’s up to Klopp to play his cards right.

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