Liverpool left with midfield muddle – but Reds handed reason for optimism

 (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

New faces, same issues. Pre-season is not the proving ground, more the moment to set the tone of what’s to come and, where needed, prune and alter approaches.

For Liverpool, this summer is shaping up to be more of a change than manager Jurgen Klopp had expected, but perhaps just enough of the same remains to serve as a reminder that alterations were required before and that is still the case now.

On the one hand, that isn’t unexpected. Defensive issues plagued the season in 2022/23, even among the improvement of the final third of the campaign, and while the new in-possession shape has brought definite improvements on the ball, it was still jarring and lacking cohesion by late May.

Fast forward a few mostly meaningless games and that same mix of output remains on show – and that’s all the more the case after a totally new midfield trio looks to be in place once the 23/24 Premier League season starts.

Wednesday’s friendly 4-3 defeat with Bayern Munich showed the good and the bad of the past few months, in the most relevant and difficult encounter of the summer for the Anfield club: great interplay at times, plenty of players in goalscoring areas, ragged running back against transitions and a mix-up in responsibilities inside the defensive third.

New signings Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister look increasingly likely to start the campaign as the two advanced midfielders, left and right-sided respectively. The former appears to have brought more of his A-game so far, showing good ball-carrying and chance creation, but sheer numbers probably dictate they’ll both be in the line-up anyway – six senior midfield options have left since last season, with just those two through the door so far.

Behind them, Curtis Jones once more operated as the No.6, the stand-in replacement for the departed Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, having starred for two or three months last term in the left-sided role now occupied by his new Hungarian teammate.

Between the trio, the build-up approach, playing from deep and manipulation of the ball around a press can at times look exceptional. Jones in particular can be seen taking more risks in individual movements than his predecessors did, but against that comes his lack of natural positional awareness and lesser tenacity in ball-winning.

Certainly, the latter is a big trait currently missing in the Reds’ heart of operations, along with aerial ability and overall aggression to get goal-side against counter-attacks or direct balls over them from deep. Of more importance remains the ability for the team to organise itself after Trent Alexander-Arnold roves centrally or beyond the midfield line, in his still-new, impactful style.

Two of Bayern’s goals came in this regard while he was still on the pitch; one more came down that side after the new vice-captain departed.

It’s clearly an area that Klopp and his coaches have not yet reached a consensus on, or else been able to transmit to the players who is responsible for each area according to different phases of play: the person covering centre-back if the right-sided defender is pulled across, where Alexander-Arnold himself is most effective getting back to and where the left-back needs to track if runners are both centrally and on his side. Andy Robertson has been a victim of this indecision and lack of clarity more than once, and the same proved true against Bayern, missing a tackle and tracking a runner in the wrong area before a goal ends up being scored from his side of the box.

 (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

And yet so much of this is a knock-on from the No.6, the defensive midfielder.

Jones has impressed on the ball and has the diligence to fight for a place in the team, yet again, and his summer with the England U21 team saw him get game-time in that role. But runners surging past him, still-to-improve tackling technique and just the natural inclination to be in place against the best central passers and runners are, naturally, not going to be his forte.

Should he remain in place for the opening league match of the season, Chelsea vs Liverpool could be an epic opener for the top flight: both have clear attacking excellence, but neither have secured the ball-winner in the middle they desire.

It could be that Romeo Lavia or an alternative arrive at Anfield between now and then, leaving Klopp to decide between the lack of cohesion between three new signings who have never played together – but one has natural defensive tendencies – or three players who are new to their roles in this team, but one who at least has had a regular role over the past few months.

Either way, it won’t be perfect. And either way, the set-up doesn’t yet look fully prepared for the rigours of bigger challenges ahead– just as was the case three months ago, albeit with very different faces in place.

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