“We’re a ball-possession team,” said Jurgen Klopp once upon a time about his current Liverpool side. This was very much the distinctive feature of his side last season, other than their high-intensity style of play, with the Reds recording an average of 57% possession throughout 2016/17.
Klopp’s general philosophy of football is one of counter-pressing, winning the ball back in dangerous areas of the pitch before launching swift counter-attacks with numerical advantages in the final third.
However, feeding into that is the idea that long spells of possession, looking to break teams down through suffocation in their own defensive third, utilising intricate passing and slick, interchangeable movement between forwards.
For this, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t exactly fit the bill.
Oxlade-Chamberlain the central midfielder
The Englishman, whilst predominantly a right winger, has previously expressed his belief that his long-term future lies in the centre of midfield, hence his decision to join Liverpool on the promise of game time in this position.
However, he’s not the slick passer the Reds’ midfield requires. For instance, his passing accuracy of 83% was the second worst of any Arsenal midfielder last season, ahead of only Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who appeared for a mere five minutes in a 4-1 win over Sunderland.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is a high-intensity type of player, fit and strong, capable of charging up and down the pitch for 90 minutes, but he’s not the controlled passer the midfield needs and isn’t yet capable of picking smart through balls to break down defences or simple passes to retain possession.
Why Liverpool need a passer
Perhaps Klopp has presided over a subtle shift in styles for the new season in anticipation of Philippe Coutinho’s protracted move to Barcelona, which would result in Liverpool losing their best passer.
Often Liverpool’s reaction to any form of in-game adversity is to increasingly press the ball, which is a risky strategy as it leaves considerable space between midfield and defence and in behind the high defensive line, one of the reasons the Reds dropped easy points to direct teams in 2016/17.
The need for a passer is pronounced, therefore.
Towards the end of games when Liverpool are trying to see out victories, this is where a low-tempo passer comes into their own, taking the sting out of matches, controlling play and allowing the team to regain focus, energy and confidence, giving everyone a touch of the ball.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is no Coutinho and isn’t the midfielder to organise this low-tempo passing.
The same can be said for Naby Keita, who doesn’t offer too much of a controlled possession in midfield. His game for RB Leipzig was one of energy and tenacity, as a box-to-box midfielder that made tackles, scored and assisted goals. He wasn’t a midfield metronome, however, and can be reckless on the ball at times in his desire to impact the game.
A change in style
Klopp’s summer business, however, indicates an overhaul of the old style. No longer are Liverpool a ball-possession team then, denoted by the arrivals of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita. The German has limited interest in specialised passers.
For example, in the 4-0 victory against Arsenal at the weekend, Liverpool were often firing balls into Arsenal’s defence, putting the emphasis on winning second balls, almost like a classier version of Sam Allardyce football.
It’s a similar concept of controlling the game through sweeping up loose balls rather than retaining possession in midfield, as previously was the case. The Reds may had Arsenal penned into their own half for a majority of the second half, but they were seemingly incapable of stringing any passes together without Coutinho and Adam Lallana in the side.
The right fit?
The question is, though, does Klopp care? Apparently not based on his summer business. This whole-hearted commitment to a new style is a risk against smaller teams, however, games in which a controlled passer is necessary to break down a packed defence.
These sides are used to midfield battles for second balls and won’t often commit men forward, pertaining to Liverpool counter-attacks, and it’s in these fixtures that Oxlade-Chamberlain might find himself redundant.
For a possession team, therefore, Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t the best fit. However, it seems as though that’s the Liverpool of yesteryear. For a Klopp side with fitness and tackling as the staples, the Ox makes a good fit for their midfield.
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