Jürgen Klopp happy to keep his middle eight varied and in tune | Football
It was about an hour after the final whistle had blown at St Mary’s on Saturday that Liverpool’s players returned to their team bus, but before Adam Lallana did so, he decided to first walk towards a man and young boy standing a short distance away. Once there he embraced the former, posed for a photograph with the latter, and was all smiles throughout, which was a little remarkable given Lallana’s complete lack of involvement in the preceding contest and the fact that, in total, he has featured for only 11 minutes so far this season.
But then that has always been one of Jürgen Klopp’s many strengths as manager of the current European champions: an ability to keep all his players happy and connected to “the group”. Lallana clearly feels wanted even if he is barely used, yet that could be because the 31-year-old has been told by Klopp that he will have a part to play for Liverpool this season as part of an ever-changing, ever-rotating midfield.
It’s the one area of the pitch that Klopp never settles on. The goalkeeper (barring injury and a collapse in form) remains the same, as does, on the same basis, the back four. Then there is the front three which, well … is the front three. But there is no set midfield and there are certainly no automatic picks in Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. “I like them all,” he said after the somewhat nervy 2-1 victory over Southampton. “If they are all in good shape I have decisions to make, if only a couple are in good shape my decisions are easier. I like having difficult decisions to make.”
While it may frustrate some Liverpool supporters, the manager’s refusal to settle on a starting three from his pool of eight senior midfielders – Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Xherdan Shaqiri, Naby Keïta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana – is understandable. For a Klopp midfield is like no other, characterised as it is by constant aggressive running, proactive pressing and the need of those selected to do a little bit of everything. The demands are high and, as such, so are the chances of those concerned breaking down altogether.
“No player should play 50 or 60 games a season, especially not in these intense [midfield] positions,” said Klopp. “Give whatever you have and next game maybe somebody else will do the job and you will come on or whatever. That’s the plan but we can only do that if they all stay fit. Last season we couldn’t do that and the year before we couldn’t do that – we went to the Champions League final in 2018 with the only three midfielders we had and last season we had only four midfielders for the last 10 or 12 games. Now they’re all back and we will use all of them.”
They are not actually “all back” given Keïta is sidelined with a muscle strain, while Fabinho and Henderson were relegated to the bench at St Mary’s because, as Klopp put it, they were “killed” following their exertions in the Super Cup win over Chelsea. In the game itself, Milner required stitches and the use of a headband following a collision with James Ward-Prowse.
All of which rather backs up Klopp’s insistence that all his midfielders cannot play all the time, and in that regard it is encouraging for Liverpool that Lallana is fit following his various injury problems and Oxlade-Chamberlain also appears to be fully up to speed having missed a year’s worth of football due to a knee injury.
The 26-year-old was excellent against Southampton in his first league start since 14 April 2018, particularly in the second half as he operated in an advanced midfield role, his movement and use of ball too much at times for those in his former club’s colours.
“It was nice to be back out there,” said Oxlade-Chamberlain, a sentiment shared by Klopp as he went on to describe the player as “special”. He is also another option in a midfield that will continue to change – Klopp has already used three different three-man combinations across Liverpool’s four games this season – and which, if managed correctly, could play a significant role in the Merseysiders finally getting their hands on a 19th league title, having stolen an early march on Manchester City following their draw with Tottenham.
“It’s not important how long you play, it’s important how good you play,” added Klopp. “We have to make sure our midfielders play as good as possible as often as possible.”