LIVERPOOL’S centre midfield drove me mad on Wednesday night. But let’s start by saying this:
At least you remember Emre Can played.
One of the big pluses of Can is that you always remember him, you always know he was there. He might do your head in, but he is there and he wants to take responsibility. I think this is the first thing we should want from our footballers, from our fellow humans really. People who want to take responsibility for the cause. That’s Can for better or worse.
On Wednesday night he held onto the ball far, far too long — something I think he is wont to do — he showed a lack of urgency, didn’t screen his defenders very well and hugely underperformed. But at least you saw him underperforming.
In contrast, too often this season Gini Wijnaldum has glided through games barely registering. Occasionally the notion he is doing work that is unseen, or hard to see, emerges and perhaps that is sometimes the case. But the suspicion remains that most of the time when you don’t see Wijnaldum doing much it is because he isn’t doing much.
Away from home, at times, he fades even further from view and he hasn’t added more goals to his game this season. There is just the suspicion that when Rome is burning Wijnaldum isn’t carrying buckets of water.
There has been lots talk this season about Jordan Henderson and his perceived shortcomings. Some of it fair (he’s been a bit out of sorts, occasionally overrun in centre midfield, sometimes over complicates in the tackle and may switch off from time to time), much of it not and an unhealthy amount of what is not is expressed in downright insulting and derogatory ways.
The reasons for the savage invective seem a little vague but quite possibly because a lot of people have never liked him, a lot of people don’t like that he has succeeded Steven Gerrard as captain, some feel he symbolises something about “modern Liverpool” and for some there is just a wilful, malevolent ignorance of his abilities. In short it may well just be that some people aren’t very nice and have rubbish jokes.
But look at these three footballers another way —Can has been backed by two really good Liverpool managers and has got himself a load of caps for Germany and there is interest in him from the Italian champions and last season’s Champions League runners up.
Wijnaldum has been bought by Jürgen Klopp, picked pretty regularly and also finds himself just shy of 50 caps for his country.
Henderson was bought by Kenny Dalglish, has got regular games for him, Brendan Rodgers and Klopp, has been backed by Gerrard as a Liverpool captain and has captained his country.
The facts are these — they are pretty good footballers. Some of the best in the world. The facts are they all good enough to be regulars in a side which finishes in the top four — all three played when Liverpool were frightening in attack last season and have played when that has been the case this campaign.
Can did an excellent job alongside Lucas Leiva in closing out our top four finish. This all literally happened last season. Henderson has been an important player in the only Liverpool side to retain an interest in the league title on the final weekend of the season since 1990. They have all excelled in a Liverpool side which has given every team in the country a game and got 76 points. These things are inarguably true. What’s also true is that at the very highest level each of these players have weaknesses.
That they have flaws at a genuinely elite level is no surprise. Xabi Alonso had flaws during his Liverpool career and indeed his third and fourth seasons have faded from memory while his first (at home), second and fifth remain prominent. Javier Mascherano’s passing was often very poor, as was Momo Sissoko’s. Gerrard had some poor games especially in a deep-lying midfield role, managing to play Thierry Henry in one on one twice in his career and Didier Drogba once. The greatest midfield in the world.
However those midfielders were genuinely brilliant, were a great blend and were often set up in a way which covered each other. They were also (even Sissoko) the star men regularly and they were meant to be the star men by their manager. This isn’t the case for the current crop. The stars play ahead of them and they really are stars. The job of Liverpool’s current centre midfield is in part to get out of the way and be the supporting cast whereas Alonso was to be the main man.
That isn’t the way Klopp is going about his business. Indeed what the invective around Henderson in particular has done is block legitimate questions around the midfield setup (and the setup across the pitch) at times. If Henderson is just fucking shit then Liverpool’s midfield issues are easily answered by not playing the lad who is fucking shit. However he isn’t and they patently aren’t.
At times he is left with far too much to do, far too much for almost any player to do and the space around him is vacated by his teammates. He hasn’t been given the chance to play in a midfield two in a 4-4-2 unlike Can and Wijnaldum but instead appears to be given the greatest responsibility of being a one-man band.
It was infuriating watching that midfield against West Brom. Another draw, another wasted opportunity. Two more points dropped. Liverpool could well end this season with a home record akin to played 19, won 12, drawn seven. The record they got in 2008-9 when Alonso, Mascherano and Gerrard allied themselves brilliantly.
Henderson may not be good enough to play as the deepest lying midfielder in a side which has title-winning ambitions. That’s possibly true.
Might be, might not be.
But he isn’t Liverpool’s biggest problem in the middle of the park and, as Wednesday night showed, his being on the bench isn’t a panacea which solves those problems.
“Henderson may not be good enough, but don’t act like there are lads on the bench who are streets ahead of him.” 💥
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 15 December 2017