Ranking Liverpool's Central Midfield Options
With less than two weeks to go until the summer transfer window closes, Liverpool are still active in the market, having confirmed on Tuesday the signing of French left-back Aly Cissokho from Valencia on a season-long loan, as reported by Andy Hunter in The Guardian.
In less encouraging news for the Reds, Brendan Rodgers’ high-profile move for Shakhtar Donetsk winger Willian has apparently fallen through due to interest from Tottenham Hotspur, according to BBC Sport.
However, Liverpool’s transfer activity this summer has meant that all positions have been strengthened at the club, barring one: central midfield.
As we ponder whether this is down to Rodgers’ confidence in his own options or that he is still scouring the market for a quality addition, let’s take a look at the central midfield options currently at his disposal—and why not rank them in order of importance?
Read on and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
5. Luis Alberto
At a Glance
New signing Luis Alberto, who arrived from Sevilla this summer after spending last term on loan at Barcelona B, comes in fifth on our list, simply because his status is still as a young squad member.
Alberto honed his skills at the Sevilla academy, making 77 appearances and scoring 25 goals for Sevilla B and graduating to the first team, before heading out to Camp Nou on loan.
Comfortable on the ball, both in dribbling and passing, and with a knack for scoring goals—he scored 11 goals while on loan at Barcelona B last season—the versatile Alberto is capable of filling in across the midfield and forward lines.
He was played in a deeper, more withdrawn position during Liverpool’s preseason tour and provided glimpses of a typical Spanish cultured midfielder, also scoring a goal in a friendly against Valerenga.
What counts against Alberto at the moment is his lack of experience at the top level of club football. While he made a few appearances for the Sevilla first team, he’s done most of his goalscoring and made most of his impact playing in the B level in Spain.
We would also expect that Alberto undergoes some strength training so that he won’t be overwhelmed by the physicality of the Premier League.
At £6.8 million, his transfer didn’t come too cheaply for a reserve, so we wouldn’t be surprised if he made appearances off the bench or in domestic cup competitions, but he will have to deliver consistently impressive performances to force his way up the ladder.
4. Joe Allen
At a Glance
A key cog in Rodgers’ Swansea City side, Joe Allen was his first signing after his appointment as Liverpool manager last summer, and cost a cool £15 million.
After starting last season in inspired form alongside Lucas, Allen’s confidence petered out after suffering near-total domination against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby.
Asked to fill in at defensive midfield following Lucas’ injury, Allen’s form continued declining with a reported shoulder injury, before the Brazilian’s return allowed Allen to finally cut his season short and go under the knife.
Allen’s biggest strength is undoubtedly his comfort and technique on the ball, which means passing is his strongest suit. Early last season when he started his Anfield career, his short passes enabled an effective recycling of the ball in the midfield, whereas his long passes reminded the Kop of former favorite Xabi Alonso.
As a player who came of age in Brendan Rodgers’ passing system, Allen was the first to arrive with the philosophy ingrained in his midfield play and is deployable in all three lines of the midfield: defensive, central and attacking.
His diminutive stature, however, continues to be a glaring weakness, especially against more physical sides that take advantage of their height in the Premier League. This was presumably one of the reasons he wasn’t chosen in Liverpool’s first league game this season against Stoke.
For a midfielder in a dynamic and interchangeable team, Allen’s goalscoring leaves much to be desired. He has improved his attacking presence, however, and scored a goal in Steven Gerrard’s preseason testimonial against Olympiakos.
While his form after the opening few months of last season left a poor impression on many Reds fans, he displayed his undoubted quality before sustaining his shoulder injury.
A passing team like Liverpool will always have a place for technically gifted and composed midfielders like Joe Allen, and his ability to play further up the field will work in his favor, but the reality is that Allen is very much a squad player at the moment.
3. Jordan Henderson
At a Glance
Following the departures of Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson is the only “big-money flop” left at Anfield from the financially disastrous reign of Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish.
The quotes are in place in the previous paragraph because of the way Henderson has turned his Anfield career around. From being offered to Fulham as a makeweight in a deal for Clint Dempsey (which ultimately fell through), Henderson has stormed back into first-team contention and has impressed Rodgers with his work rate and ability, so much so that he was awarded a start in Saturday’s match against Stoke, where he put in an impressive performance.
Which makes us think if Henderson hadn’t been bought for £16 million, he might even be seen as a shrewd capture now.
The first thing that comes to mind regarding Henderson is his sheer persistence, hard work and professionalism, making him a likeable character and a player who has come through adversity and an underwhelming first season with aplomb.
But there are other clear factors that work in his favor: His technique is underrated—his passing and finishing abilities can sometimes go under the radar—whereas his work off the ball is instrumental in putting pressure on opposition midfields and defences, a key facet of Liverpool’s current approach. His positioning has also improved by leaps and bounds, and with an evident rise in self-confidence he is much more likely to assert himself on a match.
There’s also his versatility. While Henderson started his career as a central midfielder, he was played predominantly on the right in his final season at Sunderland and in his debut season at Liverpool, and he has also featured on the left and in the central attacking midfield positions under Brendan Rodgers.
While Henderson has a variety of skills and is a valuable squad player, he can only be classed in the “jack of all trades, master of none” category at the moment: There isn’t any outstanding attribute in his locker that elevates him towards a permanent first-team starting place just yet.
It is precisely due to this versatility and all-roundedness as a midfielder that has seen Henderson become an important part of the squad, and his attitude and improvement have considerably moved him up the pecking order.
Liverpool’s pursuit of Willian outlined Rodgers’ wishes to strengthen his attacking midfield, and it’s probable that he will look to strengthening the center of his midfield down the line, so the 2013/14 season might prove to be make-or-break for the No. 14.
But there’s no denying how far he’s come from the shy, gangly and often-criticized youngster that came from Sunderland on a price tag that was simply too big.
At a Glance
At this point, we’ve all heard of the journey that Lucas has taken from Liverpool scapegoat to Anfield hero. The Brazilian midfielder, who arrived as a 20-year-old prodigy from Gremio in 2007, has undergone a near-complete transformation in his Anfield fortunes.
From being fourth-choice in a formidable midfield lineup under Rafael Benitez featuring Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, Lucas backed his claims for a first-team place with his hard work and attitude, and as the latter two left, he became first-choice for the defensive midfield position.
Since then he has also gained recognition at the international level, as he has taken up the famed No. 5 jersey for the Brazilian national team on many occasions.
Starting out as a box-to-box midfielder in Brazil, Lucas has since been recalibrated as a defensive midfielder at Anfield. His short-passing skills have carried through, while he’s massively improved his tackling—he frequently tops the charts with the number of tackles he commits for his club.
The No. 21 might be more famous for his dedication to the cause and professional attitude, as he finally won over the Reds faithful with his hard work. The Brazilian went from being cast aside as not good enough at the beginning of his Reds career to being voted the Standard Chartered Fans Player of the Year of the 2010/11 season.
Despite such an impressive turnaround, to a certain extent Lucas has combined two of the weaknesses of the box-to-box and defensive midfield positions.
His goalscoring, while never prolific even in Gremio colors, has been almost non-existent for Liverpool, and his preference to stay back and anchor the play, while an important element of the midfield, has deprived the team of an extra source of goals.
In addition, while his tackling has often been praised, his positioning is still yet to match that of top-notch, world-class defensive midfielders. His tendency to play reactively has led sometimes to gaping holes in the center of midfield, allowing opponents to attack through the middle of the park. His turn of pace has also come under the spotlight in duels with fast and physical attacking midfielders.
There’s no denying that Lucas assumes an important place in Liverpool hearts: Fans have taken to him after his “transformation,” whereas managers and coaches have always been a big fan of his attention to detail and willingness to learn. The fact that Brendan Rodgers has not been linked with a defensive midfielder this summer indicates the trust that he has in Lucas.
However, Lucas’ second place on this list hasn’t come about solely because of a complete skill set or a reputation as a world-class defensive midfielder. Rather, it is because he is the sole member of the Reds midfield that has a more defensive or destructive tendency.
1. Steven Gerrard
At a Glance
Steven Gerrard, the boyhood Liverpool fan who has become a Reds icon, one of the greatest midfielders in his generation, a proven match-winner and big-game player, and arguably the best Liverpool player of all time.
Our recap of his greatest achievements at Anfield would serve as a better tribute (or introduction) to the current Liverpool skipper.
Simply put, Gerrard has it all: pace, power, dribbling, passing, finishing, long-range shooting, set-piece delivery, heading, tackling and—most important of all—the ability to inspire and lead his teammates to victory.
At his peak, Gerrard was one of the premier midfielders on the European continent and frequently won Liverpool matches singlehandedly.
As he’s aged and as he continues to age, however, Gerrard has moved into a more withdrawn position in the midfield, and his direct match-winning influence as waned.
His tendency to adopt a freer role and relative tactical indiscipline have also been put forth as weaknesses in his game, especially in a metronomic current Liverpool setup.
There have been many false seasons of transitions at Anfield in recent years, but as Brendan Rodgers’ revolution shapes up and enters a critical year, the leadership of Steven Gerrard is needed more than ever.
He continues to dictate results from a deeper position in the midfield—his nine league goals and nine assists last year are a testament to his continuing importance—and his status as a role model serves to inspire new generations of talent and act currently as the best ambassador for Liverpool Football Club.
Further Additions Needed?
As in any positional analysis, besides dissecting the merits and roles of each player currently available, an additional exercise is needed: introspection on whether further strengthening is needed.
There is a host of midfield options, with a vast array of talent and attributes, currently at Brendan Rodgers’ disposal, and he has duly taken advantage of these resources by deploying different midfield combinations in different scenarios.
However, it is clear that to move forward as a club and regain the formidable dominance of years gone by in the middle of the park, additions are needed at Liverpool.
Let’s look first at the defensive midfield position, for which Lucas may be the only specialist currently at the club.
We touched a bit on his weaknesses—areas that a high-caliber signing like Tottenham Hotspur new boy Etienne Capoue could have addressed impressively—and while he has been on his way back from injury and into peak form, a top-tier defensive midfielder must be brought in sooner or later, if Liverpool are to succeed on the domestic and European levels eventually.
Then there’s the matter of Steven Gerrard’s ageing years.
It would be silly to expect anyone to go in and replace Gerrard and his talismanic, near-superhuman powers when he eventually retires, but the effort must be made to secure this long-term replacement before the need becomes urgent.
The likes of Luis Alberto and Joe Allen do not offer the same completeness that Gerrard has for many years. Jonjo Shelvey was once tipped as the captain’s successor, only for high expectations and underwhelming performances to lead to a summer move to Swansea.
Which leaves Jordan Henderson, and at this point in time, the No. 14 still has plenty of work to do before he comes remotely close to inheriting Gerrard’s position.
There are, of course, prospects in the Academy that have been earning rave reviews: The likes of Jordan Rossiter, Jordan Lussey and Daniel Trickett-Smith have been touted for big things, but surely time has to be afforded to these young talents.
For the time being, what’s clear is that Liverpool presently have a good array of options in the midfield, but to push on and secure a bright future, more work has to be done.