Even in the more successful recent times, there is still always something to get angsty about at Liverpool.
Last Saturday’s limp performance in drawing 2-2 at Fulham can easily be dismissed as blowing away of the cobwebs by some, but the fact that it included an injury to Thiago Alcantara has led to significant concern. We’re not quite at panic stations yet, but some are asking for directions.
Having started in what many would consider being Jurgen Klopp‘s ‘first choice’ midfield along with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, Thiago limped off early in the second half to be replaced ex-Fulham youngster by Harvey Elliott at Craven Cottage. In heading off the pitch the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich man became the fourth midfield option unavailable to Klopp, joining the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones and the ill Naby Keita on the sidelines.
In the event, it was the introduction of Elliott and later James Milner who finally injected a bit of energy into the Red’s performance, pepping up a midfield which had been badly out of sorts as Fulham impressed. But with Thiago expected to be out for a few weeks at least, many supporters are now hoping the Reds turn to the transfer market for a new addition.
Liverpool, though, remains steadfast.
Despite more reports emanating from Portugal over a potential move for Sporting Lisbon’s Matheus Nunes, the Reds are sticking to their approach that no new transfers will be made, with everyone expecting more than one eye on the availability of Jude Bellingham next summer.
So with no new faces, what about the existing ones?
Here’s how things currently look for the 10 players we think could realistically play in a midfield three for Klopp and Liverpool in a first-team game this season.
The one you can usually rely on – Jordan Henderson
If you needed a sign of how out of sync Liverpool were at Fulham then you need look no further than their captain, whose efforts to inject a sense of pace and urgency into his team fell flat.
He can usually do that with ease in this side, but there was a real rustiness to the England midfielder which perhaps hinted at a tough pre-season of gruelling fitness training. Henderson is usually one of the players to set the example in those, and he is more than likely to return to his best form soon.
He still has a place in Klopp’s best XI, but as he gets older and other options emerge around him as the right-sided No.8, he could end up finding himself altering between the No.6 and No.8 positions.
The one who needs to up it – Fabinho
A usually exemplary player in this Liverpool team, the Brazilian has seen his level drop a little bit of late – although that still makes him stand out more than most.
Disappointing in May’s Champions League final, he struggled again at Fulham and was taken off before the hour mark when he was replaced by Milner with Henderson dropping to the base of the midfield.
Fatigue is likely to be the clearest reason for a drop in form of one of Klopp’s best-ever signings, and he should be back to his best before too long.
The one whose genius is flawed – Thiago Alcantara
There are very few, if any, players in Liverpool’s recent history who are as beautiful to watch with a ball at their feet as Thiago. The trouble is that he’s not on the pitch with that ball often enough.
With the exception of his first Liverpool injury following that reckless challenge from Richarlison in October 2020, all of the Spain international’s issues have been muscle strains, something which points to an issue around adapting and responding to Liverpool’s relentless style.
Thiago himself has credited Klopp with “teaching him how to run” after he was required to decorate games more often at previous clubs, and when he is at his best the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich man is a genuine match-winner for this side.
They can probably sustain his loss for now, Liverpool will need him back for the bigger games.
The one we’re still waiting for – Naby Keita
For all his injuries and apparent unreliability, the biggest issue that Naby Keita has had at Liverpool was one that he didn’t make himself.
That’s because after signing for the Reds on a pre-transfer agreement in the summer of 2017, the Guinean then had to watch Klopp’s side evolve into a different style of team across 12 months, changing from a side who got their creativity through an attacking No.8/10 style midfielder to one that largely created out wide through the full-backs.
You could argue that Keita has paid the price for that shift ever since he joined, but with this the final year before his contract runs out you suspect he’s going to have to deliver on a more consistent basis if he is to be trusted with a new one.
There’s an excellent player in there, and the Reds need to see him now following the Thiago injury.
The one who is still going strong – James Milner
If you were to take age and status out of the equation then you might see more people clamouring for James Milner to start Liverpool matches, such has been his largely consistent form of late.
The model professional almost always seems to make an impact off the bench, whether he is required to help see out a game or force the issue in an attacking sense. He remains a hugely valuable player to Klopp and Liverpool, and with the introduction of five substitutes, he seems likely to get more and more Premier League minutes.
The one who is nowhere to be seen – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
It was extremely telling that although he was fit and available in the latter half of last season, Oxlade-Chamberlain failed to make a Premier League appearance beyond his disappointing hour on the pitch in the 3-1 win over Norwich in February, with FA Cup starts against the same opponents and then Nottingham Forest – when he was subbed on the hour again – his only competitive minutes since March.
This was set up to be a make-or-break pre-season then, and then he went and did his hamstring against Crystal Palace in Singapore. He’s been sidelined for at least a couple of months, and with his contract up in the summer you’d think a January parting of the ways looks best for all parties now.
The one who is having no luck – Curtis Jones
It was a freak eye injury which kept Curtis Jones on the sidelines at the start of last season, and now it is a calf problem that is forcing the young Scouser into the treatment room.
These have become frustrating issues for the clearly talented 21-year-old, who enjoyed some genuinely standout moments last season including registering four assists in a Champions League game at Porto, scoring a fine goal at Brentford and starting at home to Manchester City.
Jones has very much been seen as a project player for Klopp and assistant Pep Lijnders, who have converted him into a much more defensively minded midfield player than the talent we saw in his youth.
You feel as though he still has a big part to play in this evolving Klopp side, and it is players like Jones who the manager has in mind when he refutes talk of incomings.
The one whose time has come – Harvey Elliott
Had he not sustained that unfortunate injury at Leeds last September then there is a good chance that we’d be talking about Harvey Elliott in a very different way right now.
Klopp was trusting him in his team from the start of last season, and the teenager was grasping his opportunity and impressing against illustrious opponents – with an Anfield display against Chelsea particularly standing out. After returning from that injury, scoring against Cardiff in the FA Cup and starting against Inter Milan in the San Siro, it was decided that the Reds operate a safety first policy with Elliott for the rest of the campaign. That move could now bear fruit.
Elliott – who has just signed a new contract extension – was excellent against Fulham last weekend, and that spot to the right of the midfield three looks to be his for the taking, especially as he can link up so impressively with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah.
The one who could play there – Fabio Carvalho
All of the talk around Fabio Carvalho since his summer arrival is that he is seen as an option for the front three, either through the left in place of Luis Diaz or Diogo Jota, or in the centre as an alternative for Jota, Roberto Firmino or Darwin Nunez.
But he could also cause some damage coming from deep. As the left-sided No. 8 in midfield, the position Thiago has just vacated, Carvalho could cause chaos in a different way to the likes of Milner, Keita or Jones, the three players you’d think were the favourites for that slot in Thiago’s absence.
The one who has come from nowhere – Stefan Bajcetic
Before the summer there would have been plenty of Liverpool fans who had never heard of Stefan Bajcetic, but now several want him in the team.
The Spanish-born son of a former Serbian footballer, Bajcetic was signed from Celta Vigo in 2020, shortly before Brexit changed the rules around importing young footballers from across Europe. The 17-year-old looks to have a poise and presence in midfield that belies his years, and after penning a first professional contract this week he now seems certain for some first-team action soon.