Is Liverpool’s midfield under Jurgen Klopp that much of an issue? Plenty would have you believe it is.
For years those who play in the central sector of the German’s side have often found their performances criticised, as they are questioned over what it is they cannot do instead of lauded for what it is they can.
And that, when the team is functioning well at least, can be an awful lot.
All of the Reds’ successes over recent years have been built on the midfield unit’s ability to chug along dutifully, facilitating those creative and attacking forces in front and around them.
Ever since Philippe Coutinho’s departure in January 2018 the Reds have got their attacking threat from the wings, with the full-backs often providing unstoppable creativity and the wide forwards often just plain unstoppable.
Roberto Firmino would be the most creative force through the centre, often occupying a conventional No.8 or No.10 position despite the fact that he would be wearing No.9 on his back.
That has often led to some level of suspicion about the players who occupy the central areas, players who – from the outside at least – often wouldn’t be too highly regarded. Many would merely write them off as footsoldiers in Klopp’s side, just runners who do very little to catch the eye.
And indeed there is some truth to that.
In Klopp’s seven years on Merseyside it is difficult to think of too many all-action, match-winning, eye-catching performances from a central midfielder, the type of which a generation of Liverpool fans grew up seeing on an almost weekly basis from Steven Gerrard.
There’s Gini Wijnaldum’s brace in the comeback win over Barcelona, although the Dutchman had spent the first half of that match sitting on the bench.
After that though there isn’t too much else, with a sprinkling of moments and great goals from the likes of Emre Can, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the latter of whom played a far bigger role in the Premier League title win than many care to remember.
Klopp’s midfielders tend to make a difference in a more subtle way though, and none of the progress and success of recent years would have been possible without the many, many excellent performances of the likes of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Wijnaldum himself and before that Adam Lallana.
The graft and desire they would put into matches has so often set the stage for Liverpool, even if the midfielders themselves aren’t the ones to shine upon it.
But if the signing of Thiago Alcantara in the summer of 2020 was the first sign of a shift away from that, of a move where style can be prioritised over steel at times, what Klopp is building for the future looks like seeing it evolve again.
This week at Anfield has seen new contracts awarded to Harvey Elliott, the young talent who you suspect more people would already be excited by were it not for last season’s unfortunate injury, and Stefan Bajcetic, who emerged as the unlikely star of the club’s pre-season.
The deep-lying Bajcetic, at 17, still has plenty of time on his hands and surely won’t get more than a smattering of first-team minutes this season, but it is already possible to see his role in this Liverpool side as one of Klopp’s facilitators, albeit it in a slightly different mould. A combination of Fabinho and Thiago, if that’s not too enormous an aim, would be a pretty good goal for the young Spaniard to aim for.
But with his new deal Elliott, two years Bajcetic’s senior, has very much entered ‘impact now’ mode, something he showed off last weekend at Fulham where his entrance in the second half perked up his sleepy side just as much as the arrival of Darwin Nunez did.
Coming from the right side of the midfield three, Elliott has already created a superb understanding with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah which isn’t quite on the level of Henderson’s yet, but then no-one’s is.
Conversely though, while it was the injury to Thiago which brought Elliott onto the pitch last weekend, he could find the Spaniard’s injury affects his short-term prospects from the start now.
With Thiago out then Klopp is likely to want Fabinho and Henderson in his side, and his captain is far better in his role on the right of the midfield than he is on the left.
That makes that left selection all the more intriguing though, with Klopp able to ponder a variety of options.