Liverpool have done well under Jurgen Klopp but the signings of Naby Keita and Fabinho could take them to the next level, writes Adam Bate.
Jurgen Klopp took Liverpool to the brink of Champions League glory with a midfield trio of James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum. Milner, in particular, was a revelation in Europe, although all three deserved credit. It was an impressive effort. But Liverpool have still been ambitious enough to use the summer as an opportunity to improve.
Klopp has upgraded his midfield. The arrival of Naby Keita from RB Leipzig had long been anticipated but that does not make it any less exciting. The signing of Fabinho from Monaco underlines the commitment to quality in the centre of the pitch. These are two players, 23 and 24 respectively, who will be able to bring something more to Liverpool’s midfield play.
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Keita is a goal threat and a creative player too, one who will support the front three in the final third. He covers the ground quickly and wins the ball back high up the field. Fabinho could be the ideal counter-balance – a physical presence capable of playing as a genuine holding midfielder in front of the back four as well as in numerous other positions.
Klopp is clearly encouraged by the options now at his disposal and expects both men to fit in well. “Naby comes from Leipzig and knows the football philosophy as it’s a similar one,” he said earlier this summer. “He’s very sharp in the challenges, very quick in the mind in counter-pressing situations. His impulses look kind of natural, which is good.
“Monaco played a completely different style, so Fabinho probably needs [more time to adapt]. But he is a fantastic football player, a good passer, his challenges are good, a proper defensive midfielder with the option of being a number eight as well. If you want to be a part of our squad then you need to be good and these two boys are.”
In particular, they could reduce the onus on Liverpool’s forward players to fashion openings for themselves. Keita and Fabinho should mean that Klopp can play through the lines more easily. The statistics certainly suggest that they are familiar with greater creative responsibility from deep than their new team-mates in the Liverpool midfield.
Keita completed more dribbles last season than Milner, Henderson and Wijnaldum put together and he created as many clear-cut chances as the three of them combined as well. Fabinho was only one behind him and it is no coincidence – the two newcomers also played more through-balls than Milner, Henderson and Wijnaldum too.
This greater ambition in possession should serve Liverpool well when space is at a premium and the opposition are defending deep against them, a problem for which they will need solutions now the threat of Mohamed Salah and the rest is well known. Having players in midfield who can beat a man to open up an angle, and then play the pass, is crucial.
Who will make way for Keita and Fabinho is less obvious. Wijnaldum is vulnerable. At 32, Milner may be expecting to resume utility man duties after his Indian summer. He could be needed as cover at left-back once again, for instance. While Henderson might well revert back to his box-to-box role if Fabinho is preferred at the base of midfield.
But perhaps focusing on who will be dropped is to miss the point. Liverpool needed more options anyway. The sad news that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is unlikely to play much part this season, coupled with the departure of Emre Can, means that minutes must be made up from elsewhere. Those two players made 38 Premier League starts between them last term.
Adam Lallana is back to help out but he is just as comfortable in the front three and his flexibility hints at another solution that the new signings could provide for Klopp. He need not be wedded to a 4-3-3. With the current squad, switching to an alternative formation, as he did in the 4-0 win over Brighton on the final day, could be an option for Liverpool.
It is clear that Klopp’s team can beat just about anyone in a one-off game. They showed that in their run to the Champions League final, they showed it in beating Manchester City three times in a single season, and they have shown it in their winning record against the Premier League’s top-six sides during Klopp’s reign. At their best, they can beat the best.
But Liverpool now have depth too. They have the ability to change things up if necessary. They have the opportunity to rest key players and remain strong, allowing them to compete on multiple fronts as the fixtures pile up – something that has been an issue in previous Premier League title tilts. Thanks to Keita and Fabinho, it should not be such a problem now.
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