This month, Jose Mourinho moved heaven and earth to land what many see as the key piece to his summer transfer campaign. Defensive Midfielder Nemanja Matic arrived from Chelsea against the wishes of Antonio Conte and already began receiving plaudits in the defeat to Real Madrid.
Last season, Conte himself moved heaven and earth to secure N’Golo Kante from Leicester. Kante won his second successive premier league trophy with Chelsea along with just about every playing accolade in the English game.
Ladies and gentlemen the defensive midfield ball winner is back after a long hiatus. Coaches will ignore this fact at their peril. It seems like very long time indeed since the likes of Keane, Vieira, Davids and Van Bommel bestrode the pitch like goliaths, hoovering up trophies and awards. Thanks to the progressive, fluid football of sides like Barcelona, Germany and Bayern it became popular to play midfield commandants like Busquets who work doggedly with an eye to tactical play, coverage and building an attack. It seemed a long way from the snarling pitbulls we used to see getting carded on the hour. But Claudio Ranieri’s commitment to Kante defending his back line and the wonders it produced in an environment where everyone was trying to be Pep really opened eyes.
This week, Pique announced that he felt for the first time Barcelona were an inferior side to Real Madrid after losing both legs of the Spanish Super Cup. Tactically there isn’t a whole lot between the sides, even now Neymar is gone. But following last year’s rampant success, Zidane was keen to single out one player. Casimero. The Brazilian ball winner protects a defence with constantly aggressive full backs and a goalie far from the level Casillas would have brought. He wrestles play back to the control of Modric and Kroos and anchors a side very much beyond just knocking the ball to Ronaldo the way they once did.
Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman are basically the reason for Roma’s step up in quality last season and are among the most wanted midfielders in Europe, particularly the Belgian. Even Pep Guardiola has gotten in on the act with Fernandinho being deployed in an increasingly aggressive mode, rather than the Busquets style he was known for initially. His porous defence requires the extra layer no matter how much they spend. Wenger singed Xhaka to break up play. In an era, once again, of aggressively offensive full backs (thank you Dani Alves ) and with very few defensive superstars on the level of Bonucci or Hummels knocking about, deploying a midfield battler seems the smart option.
So why isn’t Klopp doing it?
It was pretty clear from the start of the summer that, having signed Salah, Klopp’s intention was to bring Coutinho into midfield at the expense of Lallana and alongside Henderson and the ever improving Emre Can. I’m a fan of Henderson, personally. I think he’s got a captain’s aura on the pitch. His work rate is through the roof and he was about as good a leader as Liverpool could find to plug the vacuum left by Gerrard. But he’s not Kante. If anything he should be playing alongside a ball winner like that. Moreover, Liverpool’s tireless pursuit of Naby Keita in the playmaker role suggests Klopp has no interest in shoring up a midfield that sits, as the whole world knows, in front of an extremely shaky defence. In the fallout of the very public disaster that was the pursuit of Van Dijk, and the disastrous opening away game, you’d imagine the German would look to plug up what looks like a good side’s very obvious Achilles Heel. But no. Liverpool can’t win anything with this side.
We saw Chelsea win the league last season with 2 defensive midfielders. Liverpool lack even one. Leicester won it the season before that deploying Kante. Chelsea won it the season before that in 2015 playing Matic. An Italian team made the Champions League Final building from a solid defence for the first time in seasons. The tide has changed in football. The pitbulls are back and Liverpool need to wake up
Featured Image: Goal.com