As Jurgen Klopp tries to maintain Liverpool’s challenge for the Premier League title, the need to sort out his midfield is becoming an increasingly pressing issue.
A home match against bottom club Fulham on Sunday may just offer the opportunity to start to put that right by giving both Naby Keita and Fabinho crucial game time to build momentum and confidence.
Both players were signed at great expense during the summer with a view to strengthening Liverpool’s midfield options.
Keita was seen as a replacement for the attacking guile of Philippe Coutinho while Fabinho was viewed as the player to prove a defensive shield following Emre Can’s departure.
Neither has yet managed to establish themselves as a powerful presence in England, with Reds boss Klopp relying largely on the players used last season.
Klopp has suggested both signings need time to settle in a new country, with Guinea international Keita arriving from German club RB Leipzig, and Brazilian Fabinho joining from French Ligue 1 side Monaco.
While it is understandable that neither player would hit the ground running, the need for them to find form has become more urgent, given the lack of creative spark in Liverpool’s midfield.
If the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have failed to hit last season’s heights, the same is true of the midfield, where the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been sorely missed.
Liverpool defender Andy Robertson has seen the difference for himself.
“Last season everyone was used to us scoring four or five goals. That can’t be possible every single game,” Robertson said.
“Maybe we are missing a bit of a spark in terms of not winning 4-0 or 5-0 in most games but if the manager thinks that then we need to try to get it back.
“We need to come together as a team and try to give what the gaffer wants, try to get the spark and try to win games more comfortably.”
– Vulnerable –
Liverpool, currently third in the Premier League, have not been as threatening a force as they were last season en route to the Champions League final.
The midfield has looked particularly vulnerable in their past two matches, a 1-1 Premier League draw at Arsenal last Saturday and a surprisingly meek 2-0 Champions League group defeat at Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday.
Neither Keita nor Fabinho played in Serbia, while their other major outfield signing of the summer, Xherdan Shaqiri, was left in England, amid concerns about the reception he would receive from the home supporters because of his Kosovan heritage.
Klopp’s three-man midfield on Tuesday failed to distinguish itself, with hamstring injury victim Jordan Henderson clearly missed.
James Milner’s error led to the home side’s second goal, with Georginio Wijnaldum shrugged aside too easily before Milan Pavkov scored. Adam Lallana, making a rare start, was anonymous.
Fabinho was an unused substitute in Belgrade, having struggled against Arsenal, and is clearly not up to speed with the English game yet.
Keita started well in England, then hit injury problems, as he suffered a back spasm during October’s Champions League defeat by Napoli, and a hamstring problem playing for Guinea.
Klopp has shuffled around his midfield this season, but appears reluctant to repeat the experiment he tried in September’s Premier League win over Southampton, when Shaqiri was used in an advanced midfield role.
The Switzerland international was substituted at half-time that day, because Klopp felt the match was too open.
His best hope of regular game time now would appear to be as part of the attacking three, which means dislodging Salah, Firmino or Mane.
Fabinho still has work to do to earn his starting spot too. Keita, though, will surely become a regular once he gets up to speed and a meeting with struggling Fulham could be the ideal place to start.