Liverpool could be close to unleashing the perfect midfield partnership on Everton


When Liverpool fans debate who will be in Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI for the Reds’ next game, there is little room for discussion when everyone is fit and available. Alisson Becker will be in goal, behind a back four from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson. The top three will be “the top three”, which just leaves the midfielder open for discussion.

But while it may seem like there are a lot of decisions to be made in the heart of the squad, three players got the majority of minutes in 2019/20. Gini Wijnaldum made 35 league starts in midfield, with Jordan Henderson getting 26 and Fabinho 22.

This trio have started 10 league games together, as well as Champions League games against Red Bull Salzburg and Atletico Madrid. If it hadn’t been for Fabinho missing 12 games in the middle of the season due to injury and the skipper missing for eight of the last 14 games of the campaign, those numbers would have been higher.

This season, Klopp has almost fewer and fewer midfield options at the same time. After his exposure at Stamford Bridge, Fabinho could be used more frequently at center-back. In midfield, Naby Keita hopes to be much more available than he was in his first two seasons with the club, and Curtis Jones will also have more minutes in 2020/21.

It is clear that the main addition will be Thiago Alcantara, and his presence can be seen Klopp switches to a 4-2-3-1 formation.

If he does, the former Bayern Munich man could be paired with Henderson in the duo ahead of the last four. In some ways, they are similar players, but they also have complementary skills.

Few Premier League midfielders pass as often or as far as the Liverpool captain. Manchester City’s Rodri and Chelsea’s Jorginho were the only players to start at least 25 games in midfield last season and average more assists per 90 minutes than Henderson, who averaged 73.7 (by WhoScored). Only three midfielders topped Henderson’s five precise long passes every 90 minutes as well.

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Thiago takes those numbers to another level, although this is in part due to Bayern being so dominant in the Bundesliga. The 29-year-old averages 91.3 assists for 90 in 2019/20 and 9.3 precise long balls. Henderson was perhaps in the Premier League’s top 10 for assists in the final third last season (for FBRef), but his 7.3 per 90-minute average was overshadowed by Thiago’s 9.4.

Even so, the similarities are clearly there. But they have skills that can also complement each other. Take dribbling, for example. Thiago finished 59 in the Bundesliga last season, and his success rate was highest for players who attempted over 28 (via FBref).

While Wijnaldum may have finished 49, Henderson (18), Fabinho (10) and Milner (nine) did not come close to Thiago’s total between them.

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But statistics also show that Liverpool’s new number six also picked his moments to make his move with the ball. More than two-thirds of his touches – 68.7% – were in third midfielder last season, a higher proportion than for any Liverpool player.

Over the past three seasons, Thiago has pressured his opponents at a rate almost identical to that of Wijnaldum, but no member of Klopp’s squad (who has played more than 90 minutes) has made a higher percentage of his pressing in the central third of the field. Henderson averaged 4.7 more pressures for 90 and 4.4% less in the middle third (via FBRef).

So while Thiago has a slightly greater range of point passes – although Henderson’s is far from shabby – the Liverpool captain appears to cover more of the pitch. If they can line up their skills and develop an understanding of who owns and who runs the pitch, whether it’s dribbling down opponents or putting pressure on them as the case may be, Klopp could have a very tasty midfield couple.


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