As midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up the second ball in the first half of a 0-0 match against league leaders Manchester City, he showed off the traits that made him a phenom prospect years ago: he took on defenders with pace and power before unleashing a shot. Except those skills were pigeonholed mostly on the wing during his six seasons at Arsenal in which he never quite lived up to expectations as opposed to the center midfield position he played in that match. His goal partly had to do with the team around him as Liverpool’s creative play comes from the sheer pace of its front three in Sadio Mane, Firmino and Mo Salahl. This allowed the midfield three of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Emre Can, and Gini Wijnaldum, to focus on function instead of nuance in their 4-3 win.
Then again, the one midfielder who gave Jurgen Klopp’s side layers left for Barcelona this winter. Coutinho was as close to a traditional No. 10 as the side had, and he leaves behind a midfield filled with physical runners who seemingly overlap in skill. The obvious question now is how Liverpool can unlock defensive, organized sides without the Brazilian’s vision and skill. But in looking at the side’s current midfielders, one could answer that question by asking whether Klopp thinks replacing that creativity matters at all. In fact, Liverpool are rebuilding their entire midfield on the fly, which would appear disastrous when battling for a Champions League position. Can is rumored to be leaving for Juventus this summer once his contract expires.
Even more telling of the future of Liverpool’s midfield is Coutinho’s replacement. Naby Keita’s signing from RB Leipzig last summer took many by surprise in that the German side would be willing to sell their heartbeat, and that Liverpool was the destination. Of course, they had to pay for the privilege, but the 22-year-old is one of the most well rounded midfielders in the world with equal impact in dribbling and tackling. If Max Allegri expressed that a traditional midfield three balances a holding midfielder, box to box midfielder, and creator, Klopp’s balance is something of three box to box, dribbling midfielders – more dynamic than a traditional #6, more creative than a #8, and more physical than a #10 - in the mold of Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Liverpool’s midfield in their opening Premier League match this season was Can, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. There is a possibility that their midfield three next season is completely swapped. Henderson finds himself caught amongst the changes. No one would fault his commitment or his effort, but he has become a target for criticism depending on how one rates safe passes in terms of commanding tempo. Regardless, he came of age under Brendan Rodgers’ style of controlling matches through possession. In contrast, and as we saw to great effect against City, Klopp’s midfield command through physicality and pace. Lingering injuries cast doubt on his mobility, and perhaps under a different manager, his technique would make up for his loss of athleticism. The problem isn’t Henderson’s quality, but the changing emphasis of his role.
Oxlade-Chamberlain most signals the coming changes for the Liverpool midfield, and perhaps beyond. Played as a winger at Southampton and at Arsenal, he has been vocal for years in his desire to play center midfielder, although without any traction. He turned down a move to Chelsea, where he would seemingly been a natural fit for Antonio Conte’s wingback role, for an opportunity to play center midfield at Liverpool. That he would be choosing between these two positions in particular further blurs the lines between wingback and box to box midfielder. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s vision for his development is prescient now. Back in 2015, he described versatility as an extra string in a player’s bow and pointed to Philipp Lahm’s movement from right back to midfield as a model to follow.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's perception of his own skills were met with ridicule at the time, accused of delusions of grandeur in his desire to play in the middle. It was easy to see the powerfully built, speedy player as an attacker beating defenders with pace. After he signed with Liverpool, Jamie Carragher expressed doubt in his difficulty imagining where Oxlade-Chamberlain fit in the midfield three outside of an injury to either Coutinho or Adam Lallana. In failing to impress as a center midfielder during an international match against Malta early in the season, his performance was criticized as a player who thrives on energy and running finding no space to run into. And even Jurgen Klopp as late as October stated that his best position was as a winger and how it doesn’t make sense to play him in the middle. He was ridiculed for having “the worst pass of the season”, which is an important point here: his effectiveness in Klopp’s midfield will not be measured by passing.
Klopp once stated that there’s no better playmaker than a good counter press. Replacing Coutinho not with a facsimile but with the conglomerate of three physical, direct midfielders will test his theory. And it worked at least for one match, however wide open it was. As for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s future in role, it was his ability to carry a ball through the middle of the field at pace which put scouts on alert as far back as 2014. If James Milner’s move from center midfielder to wingback took advantage of his ball playing ability to give his side more stability in possession, then Oxlade-Chamberlain’s winger instincts add dribbling trickery to destabilize opponents through the middle. After playing in center midfield with Arsenal for a 0-0 draw against Stoke in 2016, Arsene Wenger observed how he “can get out of pressure, go past people and get into the final third”.
Wenger’s description is what makes Klopp’s midfield tick. With some combination of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Can, Lallana, Henderson and Wijnaldum for the rest of this season, and Keita joining next season, the roster is shaping up to be Klopp’s vision in its purest form with 10 ball winners chasing, recovering and dribbling as one. When asked why he prefers playing in center midfield in contrast to the wing, Oxlade-Chamberlain simply stated “you get on the ball a lot”. But it’s what he does without the ball that will keep him in that position. Sometime next season, we may look back and see that he was right about his position all this time, and it was us who needed to catch up.