All eyes were on the pitch as Liverpool kicked off their first pre-season match. Then they most definitely weren’t.
Less than 20 minutes into the friendly against German second division side, Karlsruher, the news broke that Saudi Arabian side Al Ettifaq had reached an agreement in principle with the club to sign Jordan Henderson for £12million plus add-ons.
The Liverpool captain had travelled to the pre-season camp in Germany but was not involved in the matchday squad. It soon became clear why.
With Fabinho set to follow in a £40million move to Al Ittihad, Liverpool’s midfield rebuild has entered a critical, and unexpected, phase two.
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Back to the BBBank Wildpark stadium and the match offered an insight into Liverpool’s future. Excitement centred around the individuals and we were treated to the first glimpse of summer signings Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister.
Yet, the initial focus was about the shape. After operating in a 4-3-3 throughout Jurgen Klopp’s tenure, the final 10 games of last season saw a drastic switch to the 3-box-3 system. The question all summer has been whether Liverpool would stick with the new formation or revert back.
We did not have to wait long to find the answer as when possession was secured for the first time and they began to build an attack from deep, right-back Conor Bradley drifted into central midfield and the box was formed.
The arrivals of Mac Allister and Szoboszlai had put Henderson’s first XI spot under serious threat. Fabinho, however, was set to continue as the starting No 6, being the only specialist in the squad.
The new transfer hole created by their exits was evident as Trent Alexander-Arnold started in the Brazilian’s role. He was the left-sided No 6 in the 3-box-3 system in possession and out of possession the No 6 in the 4-3-3 shape, which Liverpool reverted to when they transitioned into their defensive shape.
After his performances in midfield for England, it had sparked a debate as to whether Liverpool should move Alexander-Arnold forward permanently and focus their attentions on a new right-back. The 24-year-old performed well in the new role, but it did not allow him the same freedom the inverted full-back position does.
Alexander-Arnold will not play every game this season, but another solution that needed to be found was who could operate in the same role when he was absent.
Bradley impressed Liverpool’s coaching staff on loan at Bolton Wanderers last season and pre-season offered him the chance to show off his development and stake his claim as a capable back-up there.
Conclusions from pre-season performances, especially in the first handful of games, should be treated with caution but Bradley looked settled as an inverted full-back.
It was far from flawless positionally but that would be expected. The 20-year-old kept things simple in deeper areas and, having proved a key creator as a right-wing back for Bolton, he was able to utilise his attacking instincts, bursting into the box and supporting Mohamed Salah.
Ahead of them, Szoboszlai started as the left-sided No 10 and Bobby Clark the right-sided No 10 before the pair switched after the first-half water break.
It was an immediate demonstration of the Hungarian’s versatility. He was not restricted to his position either, drifting across the pitch into space to receive possession. There was an efficiency and comfort when he was on the ball, combined with a number of sharp touches and a desire to progress Liverpool up the pitch at every opportunity.
Key to Liverpool’s overall success is their pressing, an area that was disjointed for large periods of last season. Within two minutes, Szoboszlai and Clark combined to press a Karlsruher midfielder high up the pitch. It forced a hurried clearance which culminated in Darwin Nunez opening the scoring.
If any more convincing was needed over the commitment to the new system then the second half set-up confirmed it.
Mac Allister, the only recognised senior midfielder, played as the right-sided No 10 alongside Cody Gakpo (left-sided No 10). Gakpo briefly operated in the attacking midfield role last season and has the tactical intelligence and on ball qualities which suit that position against certain opposition.
They were in front of youngster James McConnell and defender Kostas Tsimikas who became the inverted full-back from left-back. Given the makeshift nature of the box midfield it was unsurprising that Liverpool were caught out down the left channel within minutes of the second half starting for Karlsruher’s second goal, scored by Sebastian Jung.
Mac Allister grew into the game. After intercepting a pass, the Argentinian showed excellent vision to find Calum Scanlon bursting into the area on the hour mark. The 18-year-old’s effort was parried by Patrick Drewes.
There was neat link-up play between him, Gakpo, Diogo Jota and Ben Doak throughout and he capped off a 4-2 victory with an assist by shrugging off a challenge and threading a perfectly weighted ball into the path of Jota who applied the finish.
The makeshift midfields did, however, highlight the lack of depth the departures of Henderson and Fabinho create.
Liverpool’s midfield options will increase as Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott are set to join up with the squad today. Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago were not involved in the friendly as they continue to work their way back to full fitness.
With the shape question seemingly answered it has now evolved to what type of players Liverpool need to replace Henderson and Fabinho.
Jones, Thiago, Mac Allister and Bajcetic could all operate as the left-sided No 6, but at least one specialist in that position, ideally ready to step straight into the team, is a no-brainer. Another younger No 6 in addition to that may appeal but so, too, could a versatile midfielder similar to Mac Allister who can play in all central midfield positions.
Liverpool are considering multiple options and they have to get it right. Promisingly, the early signs shown by Mac Allister and Szoboszlai indicate the recruitment team seem to be on the correct path so far.
(Top photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)