Liverpool kicked off their 2017/18 campaign in somewhat underwhelming fashion. After the free-flowing football on show during pre-season, which saw them cut Bayern Munich open at will, many had expected to see more of the same as the competitive matches kicked off. But the Reds didn’t get the memo.
Liverpool’s Premier League opening finished up in a disappointing 3-3 draw away to Watford but they followed this up by beating Hoffenheim 2-1 in Germany. Jürgen Klopp’s men may be undefeated and they have scored five goals in those two matches but they’ve been far from convincing. In both games they’ve conceded late goals, failed to control the middle third and didn’t really fashion goalscoring chances against either team.
It may seem premature to judge but if Liverpool don’t make a change to their midfield unit soon they’re going to struggle this season because the way they’re going about things isn’t sustainable.
Of course, a midfield three of Georginio Wijnaldum, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson probably isn’t the combination Klopp had hoped to be calling upon for the opening fixtures of the season. But an injury to Adam Lallana, failure to do business with RB Leipzig to secure Naby Keïta and the fact Philippe Coutinho’s bad back needs some Barcelona sunshine means this is what the German is left with.
So, to an extent, there is an understanding as to why Liverpool might not be at their devastating best. However, the most concerning aspect of all of this is that it’s who many fans would consider to be the starter of the current midfield three who happens to be the biggest problem.
It’s not outrageous to suggest that had Lallana avoided injury, RB Leipzig dealt with Liverpool at £66million and Barcelona been able to keep hold of Neymar that Can and Wijnaldum wouldn’t have started the season.
During pre-season Coutinho operated in a more withdrawn role and Lallana was back in his box-to-box position. Couple that with Klopp using Wijnaldum in a variety of roles as if he was always prepping him to be the 12th man and Can returning late to training after his participation in the Confederations Cup and the starting midfield almost picks itself.
While Wijnaldum has failed to impress and Can hasn’t been at his powerhouse best, it’s Jordan Henderson who is struggling at the heart of the Liverpool midfield.
He has a full pre-season under his belt and he’s playing in the position many claim he excelled in last season. Yet his involvement has been detrimental to the team both defensively and offensively, and his performances have been severely lacking.
Henderson’s Timid Performance Against Watford
In the top left picture you see Henderson in possession of the ball in a familiar position. There’s space ahead of him to drive into which, if he’s quick enough, would see Nathaniel Chalobah have to leave Wijnaldum to engage the Liverpool skipper. It wold disrupt the home side’s shape and maybe create space for Liverpool elsewhere.
However, he opts to play the ball backwards to Dejan Lovren. The ball is eventually worked to Sadio Mane just inside the left channel, as shown in the bottom left picture, but Watford have men behind the ball and aren’t stretched whatsoever. Mane then plays in Trent Alexander-Arnold and although he’s deep in the Watford half, as shown in the bottom right picture, it’s all in front of the home side. There is no room for Liverpool to play in and no space for them to manipulate.
It would be naive to blame Henderson for what transpires in the move above but his decision to pass the ball backwards as opposed to looking to get Liverpool on the attack plays into Watford’s hands.
Henderson was forever on his heels against Marco Silva’s men. Wijnaldum picks the ball up and turns to fact the Watford goal but there’s not really a pass on so he’s forced to backwards to Matip. The former Schalke then plays it to Lovren who finds Alberto Moreno on the left. Again though it’s always in front of Watford and the Reds make it easy for the home side to press them.
This sequence results in Moreno playing the ball down the line after he’s quickly closed down. But what’s worth noting here is Henderson throughout. He’s initially reluctant to make a run, even if it’s a dummy one, to free up space in a central area. Then, as the ball is played to Moreno, Henderson doesn’t react. There’s no attempt from him to get into the centre circle to offer up a passing option. Instead it’s left to Wijnaldum to make up more ground and in the end he’s too far away to make a difference.
Henderson is the number 6. He’s supposed to be the one to create openings and put out the fires. In the position he’s in above he can do neither. If Watford win the ball back they’ve got a clear run at the Liverpool centre-backs.
In the series of pictures above it’s another example of Henderson being caught on his heels and it having a negative impact on Liverpool building an attack. In the first picture you see Mohamed Salah in possession after quick combination play in midfield gets players in behind the Watford midfield. The former Roma man is looking to keep momentum going but Henderson is reluctant to push forward into the space highlighted.
Instead he holds his position and forces Salah to play backwards, just like Watford want. It enables them to keep men behind the ball and get back into shape. What’s worse though is seeing Henderson almost take the ball off of the toes of Matip. What is he doing there that the centre-back couldn’t be doing?
Furthermore, because Henderson has dropped so deep when the rest of the Liverpool midfielders has pushed on during the attacking transition of play, the Reds now have no players in central areas with the exception of Salah who has drifted in field.
Attacks are being stunted.
Henderson’s Lack Of Vision Against Watford
Now we come onto Henderson’s decision making when in possession. There’s a misconception that being able to play a hollywood pass means a player has vision when in reality it means the opposite. A big switch of play can help with overloads and it can help drag teams out of position, but near enough every top level footballer can make those diagonal passes. That’s not to take away from what an effective tool it is, it just shouldn’t be your party trick as a number 6 these days.
What these deep lying playmakers need to be able to do is split teams with incisive, brave passes. They need to be able to spot the clever pass as opposed to the obvious one. The sort of pass which can be the difference between a 0-0 and a 1-0 win.
In the picture above Henderson picks possession up in an advanced area after a Liverpool corner. He opts to play the white arrow pass which is a dinked ball over the top to Sadio Mané. It’s asking a lot of the former Southampton man. He’s up against a physical Watford side with very little room to bring the ball down in even if he’s afforded the space needed.
Henderson overlooks a pass to Wijnaldum, highlighted by the red arrow. A pass there would see Liverpool have three players up against the one Watford man and would give the Reds an opportunity to work an opening. A delicate pass inside from Wijnaldum would get Salah in on goal. Alternatively, if Henderson was feeling confident he could thread the pass through to the Egyptian himself. After all, looking at Salah’s body shape you can see he’s ready to spring forward and he’s onside.
His pass selection continued to frustrate in the Champions league tie, too.
Henderson’s Safe Passing Against Hoffenheim
Julian Nagelsmann surprised many with his offensive set up against Liverpool. Instead of the usual 3-5-2 formation people have come to expect from the Bundesliga side it was a tweaked 3-4-3/5-2-3 shape. The 30-year-old manager set up to disrupt the Klopp’s men and were brave in their approach. To build attacks from deep, Liverpool needed to play through the high press.
Henderson had the perfect opportunity to do just that in the pictures above. Alexander-Arnold plays the ball into the feet of Henderson and there’s a first time pass on to Salah, shown by the white arrow. It would take the front three of Hoffenheim out of the game along with the two centre midfielders.
Salah is tracked by the left wing-back which creates space in behind. A quick ball to Salah could see the Egyptian exchange passes with Can, who is just inside of former Roma winger, before making the most of the space he’s created for himself. They’d be able to turn Hoffenheim around in just three passes.
Henderson, however, returns the ball back to the right-back who then passes to Matip who is closed down as he attempts to clear the ball and it bounces free in the middle third with Hoffenheim in an ideal position to counter press while Liverpool are a little stretched.
Another bizarre pass from the Liverpool captain. The Reds see their corner cleared and the ball finds it’s way to Henderson on the edge of the area. Instead of a simple pass to Wijnaldum, shown by the white arrow, which would keep Hoffenheim hemmed in, he plays it backwards to Alexander-Arnold. The Liverpool right-back plays a pass out wide to Moreno and the Spaniard crosses the ball in under pressure. Hoffenheim ‘keeper Oliver Baumann is able to gather and the pressure on the home side is relieved.
A Feeling Of Deja Vu For Liverpool Fans
As highlighted against Watford, Henderson is reluctant to make runs forward and it was the same against Hoffenheim. In the first picture you see Moreno playing the ball backwards and Henderson retreats to take up his customary position between the centre-backs. You then see him look for a pass on his favoured right foot while ignoring Lovren and Moreno to his left, despite that side of the pitch being free of Hoffenheim players. There’s space for him to drive into, too, but it’s risky with Gnabry closing in on him.
The ball goes all the way backwards to Mignolet and the ‘keeper eventually goes long with a pass. Henderson’s reluctance to pass quickly turn to face those on his left and keep the play moving results in Hoffenheim going from having two players in the Liverpool half to having five and being in an ideal position to press if the Reds look to play out.
Henderson Switching Off
Often applauded for his ability to shield the defence, Henderson has been guilty of leaving them exposed in the opening two matches. He’s been caught in limbo and this makes the usually staggered midfield become flat. It’s easy to play through a straight line and it leaves the Liverpool defence exposed.
The Reds often set up to have as many lines between the opposition and the goalkeeper as possible. There tends to be a minimum of four – striker, midfield, defensive midfield and then the defence. Sometimes that can stretch to five if the wide attackers are ahead of the midfield in general. The more lines the better as it means there are more obstacles for the opposition.
But in the pictures above you see Henderson in line with Can and Wijnaldum and then a gaping hole between midfield and defence. Hoffenheim look to exploit this. All it takes is one Kerem Demirbay pass and the home side are in at the Liverpool backline.
The man on the ball is able to carry it forward before playing a pass into the central area to Gnabry who is unable to bring it under his spell. It’s a position Henderson should be taking up with the defensive line stretched and the centre-backs parted.
The captain can see the danger ahead but he’s slow to react. It’s not the sort of reaction you expect ever, especially not when you’re only 1-0 up in what is a must not lose match.
Henderson is inevitably rusty having not played competitively since February but if he’s not 100 per cent then he shouldn’t be playing. The difference when Milner came on in place of him and Can dropped into the deeper role was immediately noticeable. Yes, Hoffenheim were tiring at that stage and yes, fresh legs would always influence proceedings, but Liverpool just looked better as a unit.
If Henderson’s performances don’t improve Klopp will have a big decision on his hands. He’s his captain, and options are limited at the minute, but it’s not like he’s even a passenger or a busy body in midfield, he’s actively having a negative impact on how they piece together attacks. These kinds of performances aren’t sustainable.