Fabinho, Keita and Wijnaldum have been Liverpool’s midfield trio for two of their LOWEST points of the season… so, will Klopp gamble with them again after Villa mauling and dismal Real Madrid display?
- Jurgen Klopp went with midfield of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Georginio Wijnaldum in Liverpool’s midweek defeat to Real Madrid
- The plan backfired with Keita hooked for Thiago Alcantara before half-time
- The same trio also started Liverpool’s 7-2 humiliation at Aston Villa in October
- Keita was also removed early in that defeat and has endured a testing season
- Fabinho has been used more in defence and Wijnaldum’s future is up in the air
- Klopp can’t afford to gamble on Saturday against fellow European chasers Villa
Any mention of Aston Villa, or any glimpse of them ahead on the fixture list, is bound to send a shudder down Jurgen Klopp’s spine.
That 7-2 thrashing Liverpool suffered at Villa Park back in October was one the worst, if not the worst, result Klopp has experienced in his distinguished career.
Just four games into their Premier League defence, the capitulation didn’t exactly augur well when it came to back-to-back titles.
Naby Keita (right) reacts with dismay as Liverpool go two goals down against Real Madrid on Tuesday night – he was taken off after 42 minutes and the Reds went on to lose 3-1
Fabinho (left) and Georginio Wijnaldum (right) played alongside Keita in a midfield three against the Spanish champions – but the plan backfired for Klopp
The Liverpool boss pretty much admitted his error by removing Keita for Thiago at half-time
And so it has proved. As the two teams prepare to meet again, at Anfield on Saturday afternoon, they find themselves split by only two places amongst a cluster of teams still aiming for the top four.
Liverpool’s midfield that evening at Villa Park consisted of Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Naby Keita. The latter played so badly, he was hooked for Takumi Minamino at half-time with Liverpool 4-1 down.
The likes of Jack Grealish, Ross Barkley and John McGinn had comprehensively overrun Liverpool’s lacklustre midfield and even a full-strength defence – this game was prior to the injuries suffered by Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez – was left utterly helpless.
There were distinct echoes of that awful performance when the same midfield trio started against Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday night.
Liverpool were destroyed 7-2 by Aston Villa in the reverse Premier League game in October
They were carved open time after time as Villa inflicted a painful defeat on the champions
And there was a distinct sense of deja-vu for Keita when he was substituted for Thiago just 42 minutes into the game.
Klopp admitted afterwards it was for ‘tactical’ reasons rather than any injury, acknowledging that managers hate removing players so early because it made it look as though Keita was entirely to blame for Liverpool’s two-goal deficit.
That wasn’t the case but the fact two of Liverpool’s lowest moments this season have come from the three times this midfield trio have started gives Klopp cause for concern.
The other time was the 3-1 home win over Arsenal, six days prior to the Villa debacle.
In addition, there have been a handful of occasions when Fabinho has played as a makeshift defender – a role increasingly familiar to him this season – with the others ahead of him in midfield.
Liverpool, in seventh, host ninth-placed Villa with both sides still hopeful of the top four
Fabinho reacts with dismay as Vinicius Junior scores Real’s third goal on Tuesday night
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Aston Villa (H)
Wednesday Real Madrid (H)
Champions League quarter-final, second leg (aggregate 1-3)
April 19 Leeds United (A)
April 24 Newcastle United (H)
May 1 Manchester United (A)
May 8 Southampton (H)
So will Klopp stick or twist in a meeting with Villa they could really do with winning?
There are plenty of reasons as to why this particular midfield combination has been rarely used, helping to explain why it looks so poor against Real.
One is that Fabinho has been required to drop into the back line so often this season – 15 of his 22 league appearances and 22 games overall – to compensate for the injury absences of Van Dijk, Gomez and Joel Matip.
The Brazilian’s recent returns to his familiar midfield role against RB Leipzig, Wolves and Arsenal proved successful but Zinedine Zidane’s reigning Spanish champions were a different class.
Keita, meanwhile, has continued to be susceptible to injuries and his season has been stop-start at best.
He missed 13 games with an ankle problem between December and February, three with a hamstring issue before Christmas and six when he contracted coronavirus at the start of the season.
Keita’s 16 games this season have come in dribs and drabs, making it difficult to get any decent form going, and that showed against Madrid after he sat on the bench against Arsenal last week. The 26-year-old has completed the full 90 just twice all season.
Klopp’s gamble to play him against Real, naming Thiago, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones on the bench, didn’t pay off with Keita’s rustiness unsurprising.
Fabinho has filled in regularly at the back for Liverpool this season amid an injury crisis
It’s been a season of frustration for Keita, who has missed a number of matches with injury
Wijnaldum has featured far more often, involved in each Premier League game and starting 27, but his Anfield future remains up in the air.
Out of contract at the end of the season, there is reported interest from the likes of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.
Wijnaldum didn’t exactly improve his chances of staying at Liverpool when he stood statuesque and essentially watched Real Madrid score their third goal.
The Holland midfielder was compared to a ‘mannequin’ on social media for his alleged disinterest as the attack unfolded.
So Klopp is likely to be disinclined to take the same gamble against Villa. His captain Jordan Henderson will be out injured for another couple of weeks, but Thiago heads up the list of midfielders who could potentially come in.
Wijnaldum (No 5) was flat-footed in the build up to Real Madrid’s third goal on Tuesday night
Keita is most likely to be sacrificed to make way, while Jones, left on the bench in recent weeks, is another option to replace Fabinho if he is needed to drop into the defence.
The trio of Fabinho, Thiago and Wijnaldum was working well before Klopp decided to reshuffle things for the Real game. Keita’s early exit seemed to confirm his acknowledgement of his mistake in doing so.
It looks pretty likely Liverpool’s European chances will be ended by Real, meaning the only way of playing Champions League football next season is to finish fourth.
It’s likely that Thiago Alcantara (left) will return to the Liverpool team against Aston Villa
They’re only three points off fourth-placed West Ham entering the weekend with everything still to play for.
Any dropped points against Villa will be damaging, however, with Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton also sharing that same ambition of a top-four finish.
With that in mind, surely Klopp won’t gamble again on the midfield three responsible for two of the darkest moments of their season.
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