Can and Wijnaldum find their bite as Liverpool midfield bares its teeth
- Updated: January 17, 2018
Liverpool fans continue to bask in the afterglow of an impressive 4-3 victory over league leaders Manchester City.
Much was made of the contributions from the forwards, all receiving high praise. There were also tributes to the increasing importance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a player whose £40 million purchase was initially greeted with puzzlement.
He was given the midfield place recently vacated by Philippe Coutinho. It'll take more than one goal and impressive performance to erase the Brazilian from everyone's memory but it was a good way to start the healing process.
Oxlade-Chamberlain first made a significant impact for Liverpool in the 4-0 win at Bournemouth. There was a drive forward and shot that night similar to the superb goal he scored against City.
What was also impressive on Sunday was the work rate of the other players in the central midfield engine room, Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum. That hasn't always been the case this season. In a way their contribution against City underlined something often considered a flaw in an otherwise exciting team.
City wanted the ball, to play, to attack. It's sometimes makes them — and others — vulnerable against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool. Even during their 5-0 win last September at the Etihad, the Reds got at them sometimes before Sadio Mane's red card.
It's acknowledged the manager's methods thrive if his opponent actually wants to go toe-to-toe. In matches where caution prevails, the Reds can find life difficult. Wijnaldum in particular can often disappear in games, whereas against City he was absolutely everywhere. There was one moment, largely ignored because Mohamed Salah made it 4-1 shortly after, when the Dutchman was being closed down by two City players. He simply scooped the ball over their heads and into the path of the Egyptian. It was the highlight of a great performance. Had Coutinho done anything so outlandish, people would have waxed lyrical about it for days.
Can, meanwhile, despite being a prematch doubt because of illness, was also busier than he's been in most matches this season. Fans are quick enough to latch on to any sub-par performance, with a rumoured free transfer to Juventus uppermost in their minds. Stories of him considering an extension of his Liverpool career won't convince many.
The pair never gave City a moment's peace. It was in sharp contrast to their efforts against West Brom a month earlier, when their less than dynamic display helped slow Liverpool down to a crawl.
Wijnaldum's player rating that night was 4/10. It makes the City display all the more frustrating. He was also excellent against City in last season's 1-0 win, with a high-energy display after scoring the only goal.
Realistically you expect most players to go up another level when facing the top sides. Knowing you could easily be embarrassed by excellent players if you don't give everything can focus the mind.
In football, great talent isn't all that matters. Application and hard work also count. This becomes a matter of professionalism, or perhaps of motivation from a manager who must ensure he's getting the most out of every player in every game.
Klopp does have options if he thinks someone isn't fully committed. Adam Lallana is returning from injury and was always a big Klopp favourite, although he looks like he's still feeling his way back into the game after months out.
Jordan Henderson is also missing a lot of games and is often a scapegoat even when fit. James Milner's outings have been reduced to the easier European games and occasional substitute appearances. Had Can been able to see out the City game, Milner would not have been brought on.
So much attention gets paid to Liverpool's dangerous forwards that it's often overlooked how important central midfield is to establishing the tempo that puts opponents out of their stride. The chance to break City's unbeaten record provided its own motivation.
Away from home, Liverpool's opposition can't really sit back either and that also gives the Reds a chance to exploit gaps and weaknesses.
Supporters feared the loss of Coutinho would highlight a lack of creativity in Liverpool's midfield. They may be right but relentless pressing is also a factor in that creativity. City were caught dawdling on numerous occasions and Liverpool were shooting on sight before anyone knew what had hit them.
Against ultra-cautious visitors that becomes trickier and Liverpool occasionally struggle. They've spent big money on Virgil van Dijk to help fix the defence and are currently being linked to better goalkeepers than they have.
In terms of midfield squad strength Naby Keita — due to arrive from Leipzig this summer — may finally supply the missing piece in Klopp's team.
Consistently strong performances from the men in the middle are needed to keep the whole team at a high tempo. Can and Wijnaldum were excellent on Sunday but they'll need to do it more often.