What is Liverpool's best midfield trio?
It was one of the big questions hanging over Liverpool's late 2-1 win over Tottenham on Sunday.
The Reds moved back to the top of the table thanks to a late own goal from Toby Alderweireld but their midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum came under scrutiny with Liverpool having less possession than Spurs at home when they have averaged over 58% possession for the Premier League season.
Former Liverpool midfielder and manager Graeme Souness said after the match that you'd love to play with the aforementioned trio if you were a defender, but if you were an attacker, you'd like some better service from the middle of the park.
Souness has been quite critical of Liverpool's midfield this season and wrote in his The Times column last month that they have not provided enough goals as a unit.
“Modern midfielders get away with murder,” Souness wrote. “They say they ‘recycle’ possession, whatever that means, but you’re either a defensive or an attacking midfielder.
“If you’re the latter, assists are OK, but do you score goals? Liverpool’s five midfielders have six league goals between them.
“They get away with it because of the front three they have, but it’s not enough from James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Naby Keita.”
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returning, Liverpool's midfield could be about to receive some added dynamism and with Adam Lallana and Xherdan Shaqiri also capable of filling in, Jurgen Klopp has no shortage of options but what is his most effective unit?
Football site WhoScored have a list of ratings for each player with players assigned a 1-10 rating based on their effectiveness and interestingly James Milner, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum rate as their three highest rated midfielders, with Xherdan Shaqiri, Naby Keita and then Jordan Henderson following.
However, when looking at games played this season, Milner, Henderson and Wijnaldum have been the favourites under Klopp with Fabinho just trailing behind them in terms of games played.
Klopp has used 18 different midfield combinations this season and the Milner-Henderson-Wijnaldum triumvirate has been his most popular pairing with that trio starting 10 games alongside each other.
Liverpool have averaged 2.3 goals per game, conceded 0.73 goals per game, have had 58.4% possession and an 84.3% pass accuracy in games this season and when the aforementioned trio start they average 1.7 goals per game, concede one goal per game, have 51% possession and an 81.1% pass accuracy.
However, in their defence, the games that Klopp has used that trio have came against Leicester City, PSG (twice), Manchester City (twice), Chelsea, Napoli, Bayern Munich, Spurs and Southampton.
While statistically Liverpool have been below average with that trio, they have won six out of 10 games with that grouping with two draws and two defeats. To Souness' point about that grouping being a defender's dream midfield pairing, Liverpool have averaged 16.2 tackles per game this season but 17.7 tackles per game with that trio.
Outside of the Milner-Henderson-Wijnaldum trio, Klopp has only used two other pairings more than three times: Wijnaldum-Keita-Milner (5) and Fabinho-Wijnaldum-Shaqiri (4).
The Wijnaldum-Keita-Milner trio was used frequently at the start of the season and was quite effective with Liverpool averaging 1.8 goals per game, conceding just 0.4 goals per game, boasting 56.16% possession and 84.2% pass accuracy. They won four out of five of those games.
Meanwhile the Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Shaqiri pairing has been highly effective with Liverpool winning four out of four games and averaging 3 goals per game, conceding just 0.25 goals per game and boasting 60.9% possession and an 83% pass accuracy. All four wins came against Crvena, Fulham, Everton and Arsenal.
The fact is, while Klopp has favoured Milner-Henderson- Wijnaldum in the club's big games, particularly in Europe, he has rotated his midfield heavily this season and relied on the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, the full-backs in Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold and the reliability of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker as the spine of his team.
Alexander-Arnold, who missed a number of weeks with a knee injury, has started over 70% of Liverpool's games while the other six players that form the spine have all played over 90% of the games.
Klopp's high pressing style naturally places a lot of emphasis on sprints so to some extent you can see why he rotates his midfield, and while it appears that Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Shaqiri warrant further consideration given their effectiveness when those three players have started, Fulham and Crvena aren't exactly at the level of PSG, Napoli, Manchester City and Bayern Munich.
It's more than likely that Klopp will continue to rotate his midfield as Liverpool look to get back to the last four of the Champions League but for the big games look for him to continue to stick by Henderson-Milner-Wijnaldum.
After all, why they have been statistically below average, they have lost just 20% of the games they have started and if it's not broke, why fix it?