Two of the three leading contenders for the Premier League title are facing off and yet neither side has quite clicked into gear on a consistent basis throughout this season. There are few greater indications as to how curious this COVID-defined campaign has been than the fact that neither Manchester United nor Liverpool quite seem to have their midfield working to the best of its abilities.
There is talent in abundance, indeed at times that has been the problem for the respective head coaches.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be able to unleash the first player to win four Premier League Player of the Month awards in a single calendar year in Bruno Fernandes, the most transformative signing English football has seen since Liverpool acquired Virgil van Dijk two years before the Portuguese international's arrival. In support are big money acquisitions such as Paul Pogba, Fred and theoretically Donny van de Beek, the $54million summer recruit who can barely get a game.
Liverpool are no less star-studded but last season they found an impressive symbiosis with a trio who did not particularly contribute what is usually expected of midfielders in a title-winning side. There was no free-scoring Frank Lampard-type among Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, who weighed in with 10 goals across their 95 appearances. Nor were they creative archetypes, that work was instead left to full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. That is not to say that they did not contribute to the attacking play of Jurgen Klopp's champions - more on that later - but that if you needed someone to play the defense-splitting pass you would not be flinging the ball in Wijnaldum's direction.
It rather feels like damning this midfield with faint praise to say it built a platform for others to express themselves but that is perhaps what it was most effective at. How often were Alexander-Arnold and Robertson free to attack with abandon because they knew that Henderson or Wijnaldum had dropped into the space they vacated? At its best last season there was a symbiosis across a team that had years of understanding built into it. One of the curious aspects of their title defense, impressive for how it has been conducted under such adversity, has been the struggles to find what Arsene Wenger termed "automatisms" now that their old midfield has been scattered.
It starts, rather, with the exile of Fabinho from the midfield three. Injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez forced Klopp to move his anchorman into central defense and from the outset it should be noted this is a role he has performed exceptionally, as though the player who began his career at right-back had been the next Thiago Silva all his life.
No center back has recovered possession more frequently than Fabinho this season, an achievement all the more impressive considering how rarely Liverpool don't have the ball. He sits in the Premier League's top 25 for tackles won and crucially has not made an error leading to a shot, let alone a goal. Should a Van Dijk and Gomez-less team win the title then Fabinho ought to be among the top contenders for individual awards this season.
But losing Fabinho from the hub of midfield has had a significant knock-on effect across the pitch. It's true that Liverpool have been without the Brazilian, who sits at the base of their midfield, before and coped rather ably last season. Indeed they lost only two of 23 games that he did not play in during the 2019-20 campaign, but that, at least in part, was because they had Naby Keita able to step in and offer something different further up the pitch. The former RB Leipzig man was the forward-looking dynamo that could help Klopp's side rip through opponents.
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Perhaps if the Guinean had been more frequently available this season Liverpool would have found more of that form, after all his last two Premier League starts have seen the Reds score 10 unanswered goals. A trio of Keita, Henderson and Wijnaldum clicks together comfortably on the pitch and on paper, perhaps more so than Liverpool's more regular grouping that sees youngster Curtis Jones take the former's place.
Jones has looked a prospect of real promise but with a 19-year-old in the engine room and a backline that contains a mixture of repositioned players and youngsters like Rhys Williams Klopp has naturally had to look for his midfield to bring him greater security, hence operating with a double pivot where two players effectively do the work of one Fabinho. Rather than a classic 4-3-3 Liverpool have often operated this season with something more like a 4-2-3-1 often with Wijnaldum high up the pitch.
Whichever system he utilizes, Fabinho's departure from the engine room has often led to Jordan Henderson dropping deeper. He has done so with aplomb but it is perhaps not fully appreciated just how different the Liverpool captain is from his predecessor in the number six position. Outside of Anfield he is often viewed as the safety blanket, a steady hand at the tiller who is not going to push a team up the pitch. And yet last season, and this, no-one in this Liverpool midfield made more progressive passes than Henderson, who has often been the one to push the pace and unlock the wing backs from the edge of the final third.
Henderson's range was often the reason Liverpool drove swiftly up the pitch. He might not make the assist or even the pass that led to the assist but go a few steps back in most goals and the captain would have been the one advancing Liverpool up the pitch. No Liverpool midfielder was involved in more sequences that led to goals last season than his 19.
|Player||Premier League minutes||Pass completion percentage||Passes into final third||Progressive passes|
Adding Thiago into the frame would inevitably have changed that, there would be less need for Henderson to play those progressive passes with one of the best ball-playing midfielders in the world ahead of him, but an injury to the Spaniard means we have largely seen a compromised vision of what this midfield can be, one where players are not in quite the right spots to do what they do best.
Placing Henderson that degree deeper means that when he manages to progress play forward Liverpool are not as high up the pitch as they might be, something that perhaps goes some way to explaining why this season the sight of them advancing to the final third and just stopping has been more prevalent. Reshuffling their entire system - and that includes losing Van Dijk's laser passes out to the flanks - has robbed this team of some of the instinctive qualities that made them so devastating last season.
United's variable pairing
Of course United do not have that same base plan to awkwardly deviate from. It has been a common refrain in Solskjaer's most trying times that he has not imbued this club with an identity that can exist regardless of personnel, a way of playing that is demonstrably reflective of his team. Certainly that comes with its downsides. When things go wrong they can go really wrong with no basics to fall back on. But the silver lining is that instead the manager has been able to flex his midfield behind Fernandes to suit the needs of a particular match up.
Against Burnley, for instance, Nemanja Matic and Pogba were introduced to match up with one of the Premier League's most robust sides. When RB Leipzig came to Old Trafford Solskjaer switched to a diamond that made it easier to advance through the Germans' press and unleash pacey forwards in behind. It earned them a 5-0 victory. There are, however, some players who he keeps gravitating towards for the biggest games.
In particular it seems likely that Scott McTominay and Fred will be tasked with forming the midfield base. The 12 games they have played together include meetings with Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. That neither started at Turf Moor on Tuesday only heightened the sense that they were being held in reserve.
For Solskjaer the appeal is clear. "With Bruno [Fernandes]'s goals, Scott and Fred with that energy and in that engine room are always key for us so our creative players can go on, create chances, show their magic," he said after a 3-1 win over Everton in November that eased what seemed to be mounting pressure on the United manager.
Neither player is particularly showy nor do they demand heavy touches or involvement in the player. They are rather like the ideal version of the fourth and fifth starters on the Brooklyn Nets next to James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. If McTominay and Fred want to do more than move the ball to the superstar scorers they will be disappointed.
Between them they average 9.17 progressive passes per 90 according to fbref, only 0.28 more than Henderson alone gives Liverpool. Their job is to get the ball either from the defenders or opponents - Fred in particular has tackled rather well this season - and give it to Fernandes. There have been flashes to suggest they can do more, for instance McTominay's barnstorming through Leeds United in a 6-2 win, but when they have one of the Premier League's outstanding attacking forces ahead of them it is rarely the plan for them to carry any great burden.
Of course there is a flaw in that plan. If an opponent can restrict supply to Fernandes then there is not a great deal that a Fred and McTominay pairing can do with the ball. Those teams that have enjoyed success against United of late like PSG, Manchester City and even, in defeat, Aston Villa - did so by challenging the double pivot to do more than just shuffle the ball to the attack.
What to do with Pogba
The immediate response is that if you cannot give the ball to Fernandes give it to Pogba instead. It takes enough to shut down one midfield magician, two is usually beyond the reach of opponents. Yet it has been a continual struggle throughout Solskjaer's reign to fit the Frenchman alongside his talismanic new attacking midfielder in an effective way.
Handing two of the three central midfield positions to Pogba and Fernandes usually places an enormous strain on the other, more defensively-minded player. Matic might be able to do enough against Burnley but it would be a stretch to repeat that feat when Roberto Firmino is dropping deep and Thiago is finding space for Liverpool. As he has proven for France, Pogba can sit deep and keep things simple but it can feel like such a waste of his exorbitant talent that it is easy why managers look to get more out of him.
United's most effective compromise of late has been to station Pogba wide on the left, a position in which he is liberated from much of his defensive duties and can ghost around the pitch looking to make an impact. In that position he has excelled, earning praise from those who have not stinted in their criticism of him in the past.
"I really think Pogba's far better when he plays off that left-hand side forward position because it frees him up," said Gary Neville this week.
"It makes him more like a maverick, he can go and do his little one-on-ones, his little tricks. I think when he plays deeper, he sometimes stands still and plays and tries to look for the killer pass too early."
It is hard to see how he could unleash that "maverick" side against Liverpool if he comes up against a flank of Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah. Equally, if Klopp's right back is going to dart forward Solskjaer might want the pace and incision of Rashford attacking the space in behind, driving at either a recently-injured Matip or one of the young center backs who has stepped up in his place.
As such it seems eminently plausible that one of the best midfielders in the world will begin one of the biggest games of his time at the club watching on from the substitutes bench.
That in itself is in the spirit of these two curious contenders, clubs who thoroughly merit their position at the top of the Premier League table but still feel like lesser versions of what they could be. If only Fabinho were not needed in defence we might see the dynamic Liverpool midfield of last season, perhaps with Thiago to add a touch of sparkle. Manchester United's options are a dream on paper but deploying the very best of them in a functioning team often feels like a nightmare made real for Solskjaer.
The midfield question marks might be large enough for these two side as to leave the title chase door open for Manchester City, who seem to be finding the balance neither of their title rivals quite have in the heart of their team. Equally it is hard to see how a season as demanding and draining as this one can have a champion that is not hamstrung in some way. One thing is clear, as these two title contenders round into the second half of the campaign there is room for significant improvements in both midfields. If either Solskjaer or Klopp can find that next step up it could be enough to swing the title race in their favor.