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MNF Extra: Liverpool's creativity comes from full-backs not midfield
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Last Updated: 11/04/19 7:36pm
Liverpool's midfield has come under scrutiny again this season but that's not entirely fair. Jurgen Klopp's tactics put greater emphasis on the creativity of the full-backs, as MNF Extra explains...
One week ago, Naby Keita was still waiting for his first Liverpool goal.
After finding the net in back-to-back wins, he has now scored as many times in open play this season as any other midfielder at the club.
That statistic adds weight to the notion that Keita can bring a new dimension to Jurgen Klopp's team but any suggestion that there is a creativity deficit in Liverpool's midfield is an idea that the manager rejects as a fundamental misunderstanding of his team's approach.
"I hear we don't score enough from the midfield position, this kind of stuff," he said before the win over Southampton. "Everybody asks for perfection but we have to use our set-up to our advantage and use the full-backs. The midfielders have slightly different jobs to do and the strikers as well. This is clear. The general outcome is important and we have 79 points."
Victory at St Mary's took Liverpool's tally to 82 points and though Keita scored the equaliser on the night, the source of the goal only served to prove Klopp's point. A cross from Andrew Robertson on the left wing found its way to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the opposite flank and it was his cross that was headed in. It has become a feature of Liverpool's game.
Their very first goal of the campaign in the 4-0 opening day win over West Ham at Anfield was finished off by Mohamed Salah but came in similar circumstances. "It started with Trent on one side and finished with Robertson on the other side," Jamie Carragher tells Sky Sports.
"This is the creative element of Liverpool's team, the wide areas. There is a lot that has been said about Liverpool's full-backs and also central midfield. It doesn't matter where you get your creativity from as long as you are creating chances and scoring goals."
This is the key point. Only Manchester City have scored more than Liverpool this season and that's because the Reds are one of the most creative teams around. They rank in the top two for touches inside the opposition box, big chances created and expected goals. This is not luck. Whatever it is that Liverpool are doing in terms of their attacking play, it works.
So while, individually, Liverpool's midfield might not be the most creative, the team is. Klopp has claimed that counter-pressing is more effective than any playmaker but he does have a couple of them at full-back too. Robertson has nine assists this season, the most of any defender in the Premier League. The next man on the list is Alexander-Arnold with seven.
Can they even be accurately described as defenders? Football is a fluid game and the positioning of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold impacts on everyone else around them.
Robertson, in particular, has an extraordinary ability to get up and down the left wing, making 29 high-intensity runs in the most recent Premier League game at Anfield against Tottenham - eight more than anyone else on the pitch. He ranks among the top three players in the Premier League for total sprints this season, a reflection of his work load.
Alexander-Arnold has a similar responsibility on the right and that capacity to patrol an entire flank allows others to shift their own positions accordingly. Liverpool's wide forwards are able to occupy more central positions and provide the greater goal threat that has resulted in Salah and Sadio Mane being among the Premier League's top scorers.
Salah has had more touches in the opposition box than any other player in the competition this season and Mane is not too far behind in sixth. Roberto Firmino, the team's nominal centre-forward, ranks 11th, meaning that they get the ball at their feet close to goal more than any other trio in the country. That's a result of the width coming from elsewhere.
The conundrum for opponents is whether to go out to engage the marauding full-backs or play a more narrow shape to ensure that the more immediate danger of the forwards is contained. "With the creativity and crossing ability of Liverpool's full-backs now, if you give them too much space they are going to damage you massively," says Carragher.
Pick the six highest scoring players in this week's featured match between Liverpool and Chelsea.
All of which necessitates different responsibilities for Liverpool's midfielders. Given the positioning of the front three and the more attacking roles of the full-backs, it is only to be expected that there is a greater onus on the midfield to provide more protection for the centre-backs. Their job is to prevent the counter-attack.
Fabinho has embraced this role of late but the midfielders either side of him also have to be mindful of filling the gaps behind the full-backs too. For them, it is a balancing act, as Klopp noted after the game against Porto. "Finding the 100 per cent mixture for controlling the game and then being constantly a threat, that's the thing," he explained.
But it is a balancing act that Klopp is getting right. Ultimately, it is his stylistic choice to put greater emphasis on creativity in the full-back zones than in midfield - and it is a decision that is based on the characteristics of the players available to him. It's easy to criticise, but it is harder to get it as right as Liverpool are getting it right now.