Liverpool freshened up the midfield in their 3-1 win at Southampton on Friday Night Football with Naby Keita getting the crucial equaliser, but Jamie Carragher would not select him for the crucial clash with Chelsea on Super Sunday at Anfield.
Keita’s first-half header was his first goal for Liverpool in his 28th appearance for the club following his summer switch from RB Leipzig and there were aspects of his performance that suggested he can bring something different to Jurgen Klopp’s midfield.
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“There is no doubt it’s been a slow burner with Naby Keita,” Carragher told Monday Night Football. “A lot more was expected really and we haven’t seen that. But what he did do in this game, aside from the goal, he actually got in the box.
“He had nine touches in the box, the most by any Liverpool midfielder this season.”
Carragher added: “Before seeing him in a Liverpool shirt, the word that kept coming back was that he dribbled at defences. This was maybe a sign of that because he should have got a penalty as well by driving at the defence. That’s the Keita we were told was coming.
“I still don’t think he was out of this world in this game, some of his touches around the halfway line were pretty poor, but it was a sign of things to come and what could be added to this midfield. That’s what Liverpool fans have been waiting for now for six months.”
Lack of midfield control
Although Keita contributed going forwards, Liverpool paid a price for that in terms of their defensive solidity. “If they are going to get cut open that easily that’s going to be a problem against a team like Chelsea on Sunday,” Gary Neville told Monday Night Football. “In terms of the runs off midfield, I just felt there was a real problem for Liverpool.”
It was only when Jordan Henderson and James Milner were introduced, albeit with the latter coming on at right-back, that this problem was addressed.
“All of a sudden there was order resumed,” added Neville. “The game looked controllable again. You have to sustain attacks and that’s how you build pressure. For half an hour, once Henderson and Milner were on the pitch and controlling those counter-attacks, I had no doubt that Liverpool were going to win the game.
“I have been listening to people say for months that Liverpool need more creativity in midfield, but when they have brought the creative player in it was the most it has worried me from a Liverpool point of view.”
Pressing over creativity
Klopp has retained faith in Henderson, Milner and Gini Wijnaldum for many big games, but Carragher believes there is a reason for that. “I think there is a misunderstanding with Wijnaldum, Henderson and Milner and the reasons why they play,” he explained.
“Those three players got Liverpool to a Champions League final last season. Have a look at the games they play in. PSG, Chelsea, Man City, PSG, Napoli, Man City, Tottenham. Also they started against Bayern Munich but Henderson came off after the first 10 minutes.
“Those players are probably too similar but what they all are is about energy, pressing and getting after people. You might want them for protection and a bit of trust and experience but those teams will also play through midfield more.
“So, OK, we haven’t got passers but as Klopp has said himself, the best number 10 in the world is counter-pressing. That’s why he plays them, to counter-press and win the ball. The reason he comes away from that with Keita at Southampton or Lallana against Burnley is because he wants a bit more on the ball that those players can’t give him.”
Solution against Chelsea?
Finding the right balance will be important against Chelsea on Sunday and while Carragher would move away from the tried and trusted midfield three of last season, that would not mean keeping Keita in the team either. He proposes an alternative midfield three – one that has only been used in the goalless draws at Manchester United and Everton this season.
Liverpool vs Chelsea
April 14, 2019, 4:00pm
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“I would take Keita out against Chelsea and put Henderson in,” he said. “Fabinho has that holding position but where I would play Henderson is further forward. That’s maybe the position we associated him with for England and when he first came to Liverpool.