Is Jordan Henderson playing too deep in Liverpool's new-look midfield?
After stunning Arsenal with a display full of attacking verve and quality on the opening day, any heady dreams of a Liverpudlian title challenge came crashing back down to earth with an almighty thud as the Reds were dispatched with relative comfort by newly promoted Burnley.
The Clarets scored early and then stifled their more illustrious opponents, before hitting a second goal on the counter attack which Liverpool failed to recover from. Despite accumulating 80% of possession and hitting 26 efforts on goal, Jurgen Klopp’s men never really looked like getting back into the game.
There were plenty of issues with the performance: Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren showed why they probably won’t be first choice defenders when Mamadou Sakho and Joel Matip return to full fitness; Daniel Sturridge had an off day; and James Milner was shoehorned in at left-back to cover for the woeful Alberto Moreno. But the greatest issue of all was not with any individual in particular, but with the balance in the midfield.
Signing plenty of new attacking talent to his squad, Klopp has tried to pack as much threat into his midfield as possible, playing Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum as his central three players. Lallana and Wijnaldum are both naturally more accustomed to playing in areas behind the striker, whilst the captain is better deployed in one of the spaces occupied by his two midfield partners. They got away with this against Arsenal, but Burnley showed just how to exploit this imbalance.
Henderson is a good player – not great, but his leadership qualities and energy are vital to Liverpool having a successful season. However, this does not make him a defensive midfielder. Although willing to receive the ball in deep positions with his back to the opposition, the Englishman is not the most adept on the ball, which is making it difficult for the Reds to pass their way out from the back.
He doesn’t drop as deep as he should to make this position work either, meaning there is a significant gap between the defence and midfield and it takes the team too long to bridge this and attack early. They were cumbersome going forward against Burnley and although the attacking players were not firing, this all started from a failure to get the ball going forward quickly enough.
Then came the problems in attack. Henderson; being a more attack minded midfield player, was coming too far forward, not only offering up the chance to counter for Burnley, but also cramming an already congested midfield. Wijanldum and Lallana were pushing on to try and join the front three, and although Henderson held his ground in comparison, his position was too advanced as the Reds were crowded out in the opposition half.
With James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne pushing on as well, Burnley’s defence and midfield were effectively able to man mark Liverpool’s eight offensive options out of the game, and the Reds found themselves completely stifled.
This is an area that Liverpool must address sooner rather than later. Although Liverpool were threatening against Arsenal, their lack of balance in midfield was painfully exploited by Burnley, and will continue to be so if Klopp insists on keeping the same midfield together. Emre Can would be a better option in the deep role, with Henderson moving to the side of him. Failing that, the signing of Roma’s Leandro Paredes or Inter’s Gary Medel could provide more bite in midfield.
For now though, Liverpool fans must accept that they do not have a strong defensive midfielder in the side, especially not in the shape of Henderson. Jurgen Klopp must accept that he must alter his system slightly to avoid more disappointing defeats like the one suffered yesterday.
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