When Liverpool fans debate who is going to be in Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI for the Reds’ next match, there’s little room for discussion when everyone is fit and available.
Alisson Becker will be in goal, behind a back four of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson. The front three will be ‘the front three’ so that just leaves midfield open for discussion.
But while it may seem there are plenty of decisions to be made in the heart of the team, three players got the majority of the minutes in 2019/20. Gini Wijnaldum made 35 league starts in midfield, with Jordan Henderson getting 26 and Fabinho 22.
That trio started 10 league games together, as well as Champions League matches against Red Bull Salzburg and Atletico Madrid. Were it not for Fabinho missing 12 games in the middle of the season through injury, and the skipper being absent for eight of the final 14 matches of the campaign, those figures would have been higher.
This season, Klopp almost has more and fewer midfield options at the same time. After his display at Stamford Bridge, Fabinho could be used at centre-back more frequently in future. In midfield, Naby Keita will hope to be available far more than he was in his first two seasons with the club, and Curtis Jones will get more minutes in 2020/21 too.
If he does so, the former Bayern Munich man could be paired with Henderson in the duo in front of the back four. In some ways they’re similar players, but they also have complementary skills.
Few Premier League midfielders pass as often, or as far, as Liverpool’s captain. Rodri of Manchester City and Chelsea’s Jorginho were the only players who started at least 25 games in midfield last season and averaged more passes per 90 minutes than Henderson, who averaged 73.7 (per WhoScored). Only three midfielders topped Henderson’s five accurate long passes every 90 minutes too.
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Thiago takes such numbers to another level, even if it was in part due to Bayern being so dominant in the Bundesliga. The 29-year-old averaged 91.3 passes per 90 in 2019/20, and 9.3 accurate long balls. Henderson may have been in the Premier League’s top 10 players for passes into the final third last season (per FBRef), but his average of 7.3 per 90 minutes was put into the shade by Thiago’s 9.4.
Even so, the similarities are clearly there. But they have skills which can complement each other too. Take dribbles, for instance. Thiago completed 59 in the Bundesliga last season, and his success rate was the highest for players who attempted more than 28 (via FBref).
While Wijnaldum may have completed 49, the likes of Henderson (18), Fabinho (10) and Milner (nine) didn’t get close to Thiago’s total between them.
But the statistics also show that Liverpool’s new number six also chose his moments when to make his move with the ball. Over two thirds of his touches – 68.7 per cent – were in the midfield third last season, a greater proportion than for any Liverpool player.
Over the last three seasons, Thiago pressured opponents at a near identical rate to Wijnaldum, but none of Klopp’s squad (who played more than 90 minutes) did a higher percentage of their pressing in the middle third of the field. Henderson averaged 4.7 more pressures per 90, and 4.4 per cent fewer in the central third (via FBRef).
So while Thiago has a slightly greater range of pinpoint passing – though Henderson’s is far from shabby – the Liverpool captain appears to cover more of the pitch. If they can align their skills together, and develop an understanding of who holds and who heads up field, be that to dribble past opponents or pressure them as appropriate, then Klopp could have a very tasty midfield pairing on his hands.