Jurgen Klopp got exactly what he wanted from his midfield as Liverpool blew Manchester United away at Anfield.
Liverpool supporters feared the worst while Manchester United fans were rubbing their hands with glee when the Reds’ teamsheet dropped before the two sides clash at Anfield on Sunday.
Jurgen Klopp had pulled a surprise by benching Stefan Bajcetic, with captain Jordan Henderson recalled at his expense alongside Fabinho and Harvey Elliott. Given Liverpool’s midfield woes this season, supporters were prepared for another evening spent watching their engine room get overrun.
After all, Henderson and Fabinho have been nowhere near their best all season long. As a result, fingers of blame have perhaps been pointed in the pair’s direction most as the Reds struggle through a transitional season with an aging squad.
Meanwhile, there remain doubts regarding whether Elliott even has a long-term future in midfield. While he impressed in a deeper role last season, the 19-year-old’s performances in the engine room this season have been less convincing.
The fact that there were so many murmurs of discontent regarding the decision to leave out the 18-year-old Bajcetic, who has been a regular since the turn of the year after making the most of an opportunity only awarded because of his fellow midfielders’ failings, said it all.
While the emergence of the young Spaniard has been a rare positive for Klopp’s side this season, it still does not paint a pretty picture regarding their continued failure to overhaul their midfield. After missing out on Aurelien Tchouameni last summer, Liverpool opted to persist with what they had ahead of a planned midfield revamp in 2023.
Seemingly waiting for the right player, namely first-choice target Jude Bellingham, the Reds have regularly been criticized for such a stance with it looking increasingly costly to their aspirations this season.
Yet against Manchester United, after several improved showings in recent weeks, everything clicked into place. Running out 7-0 victors, Klopp saw exactly what he wanted from his midfield options with five of his players making decisive impacts that ultimately led to goals.
For Liverpool’s second goal in the 47th minute, the Reds’ attack started with Elliott intercepting Luke Shaw’s pass on the halfway line. Passing it inside, Fabinho muscled past Wout Weghorst and Fred before getting past Casemiro with the assistance of Henderson.
The Brazilian then chipped the ball forward to Salah, with his cross deflected back to Elliott, who crossed for Darwin Nunez to score the simplest of headers. In truth, it wasn’t the prettiest goal the Reds will score this season but it should fill Klopp with great joy.
His midfield has often been left second-best chasing shadows this season, with the most recent example coming two weeks ago in their 5-2 humble at the hands of Real Madrid at Anfield. Yet here a new energy from Liverpool’s midfield was on show as they hunted and hounded to grab a hold of the game. The Reds have their identity back.
Of course, it wasn’t just the second goal where such attributes were on display. Henderson would play a vital role in the third, fourth, and fifth goals as Klopp’s men took control.
It was the Liverpool captain’s interception in his box from Bruno Fernandes’ cutback, and then the subsequent pass forward to Cody Gakpo that led to the Dutchman scoring his second of the evening after combining brilliantly with Mohamed Salah.
Meanwhile, the 32-year-old dispossessed Antony before threading the ball to Darwin Nunez in the build-up to the Reds’ fourth goal, with the Uruguayan then inadvertently setting up Salah’s first goal at the second attempt.
Henderson would then get a direct assist of his own when recovering a half-cleared Liverpool free-kick, before crossing the ball back in for Nunez to head home.
Elliott would then play a crucial role once again for the Reds’ sixth goal, picking out Roberto Firmino in the box after bursting forward before the ball fell kindly for Salah in front of the Kop.
As for Liverpool’s seventh, Bajcetic would intercept Marcel Sabitzer’s pass on the halfway line before picking out fellow substitute Curtis Jones. He then played the ball forward for Salah, who would play in Firmino to score.
Statistically, the Reds’ midfield caught the eye too when it came to winning the ball back and passing it around. Only Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson could better Elliott’s total of 71 touches, while he played more successful passes (45) than anyone on the pitch.
Meanwhile, only United defender Diogo Dalot won more tackles than Elliott’s four successful challenges. And Fabinho won the most interceptions on the pitch (three) with substitute Bajcetic coming in joint-second (two).
Of course, it wasn’t perfect from Liverpool’s midfield with Klopp pointing out a couple of issues after the final whistle.
“Let me say like this, I love the impact of Stefan when he came on,” the German admitted. “But he was a six and he was everywhere! We had to remind him, ‘By the way, you’re the six!’
“We had a moment in the first half where Fabinho and Hendo were half-left in the box. I’m not sure where Harvey was there but probably not in protection. These moments we don’t need.”
They’d still earn his praise, of course. How could they not after a dominating performance in a 7-0 win?
“Harvey played a top game the other night against the Wolves,” Klopp said. “Had the highest counter-pressing outcome of any player in the Premier League this season. If that is not a qualification for starting again, I don’t know one to be honest.
“He is super important for us on the ball as well. Hendo didn’t start the last game. What a performance tonight, absolutely incredible. (And) Fab is back!”
Ultimately, it was a massive step in the right direction from a previously written-off Liverpool midfield, made all the sweeter by Fabinho and Henderson getting the better of Casemiro, having previously come out second-best in two Champions League finals against the Brazilian.
Now Klopp faces a real dilemma regarding his first-choice trio, but unlike earlier in the season now it will be because he has to pick between in-form rather than out-of-form players. Meanwhile, his task will be made even harder when Thiago Alcantara returns from a hip injury after the March international break.
The aforementioned players aren’t Liverpool’s only midfielders, however. They boast 11 senior options this season, after all, following Bajcetic’s emergence.
Yet James Milner, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Juventus loanee Arthur Melo all aren’t contracted to the club beyond the end of the season. The 37-year-old vice-captain came on as a substitute against the Red Devils and could earn another extension, but the other three look certain to move on.
Given the trio were all left out of the matchday squad against United, with Jones, Bajcetic, and Fabio Carvalho the reserve midfield options alongside Milner, it would suggest the writing is on the wall regarding their futures at the club.
Yet Fabinho and Henderson have just shown they still have a part to play in the Reds’ future. As for Elliott, Bajcetic, and Jones, they are Liverpool’s future with Klopp seemingly prioritising their involvement ahead of that of his departing stars.
Reds bosses will still revamp their midfield in the summer regardless, and will arguably still need two or three new arrivals in the engine room as links with the likes of Bellingham, Wolves’ Matheus Nunes and Chelsea’s Mason Mount continue.
But Liverpool’s midfield showing against Manchester United has given Klopp exactly what he wanted, and ensured, despite fears earlier in the season, a complete overhaul is not needed. On the contrary, such a performance has proven the German now actually has something he can build his next team and new-look engine room around.