The Champions League is the pinnacle of club football, but the Europa League is not that bad, right? You are still competing for a major title, you are still going up against some great competition in the later stages of the tournament. Of course, that is not how the tournament is viewed. Let’s be honest – for supporters of some of the world’s biggest teams, playing in the Europa League is an embarrassment. To the big boys of the sport, the Europa League is an afterthought. We don’t want to be associated with it. If there is a universe where our team is competing in Europe’s second tier, then that is one of the dark timelines.
Unfortunately for Liverpool fans this season, that timeline is our reality. No English team has won more Champions League titles in history and no team has reached more UCL finals than the Reds since 2018. Liverpool feels as out of place in the Europa League as Todd Boehly in the transfer market. We’re just going with the flow and hopefully, there is some cause to celebrate later on.
But that’s not how it felt against LASK, when Dominik Szoboszlai, Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah combined for a brilliant goal to seal a win in the Reds’ first Europa League game of the season. Szoboszlai ran past one opponent on the right-hand side before passing to Salah, who laid it back for him. Liverpool’s new Hungarian midfielder lost the ball for a second, but Nunez’s smart pressing led him to win it back and he then laid it off to Salah in the box. What followed is something we’ve seen the Egyptian King do a lot of times – brilliant close control followed by a calm finish that left the goalkeeper no chance.
It has been said, at least of the online football community, that fans love to debate and complain more than they actually enjoy the sport. It’s hard to argue against this statement as oftentimes, it seems that the modern fan has lost the ability to just sit back and enjoy when his team wins. There’s always some concern – an attacker missed an easy chance, the defence was too open, the youngster in the squad isn’t good enough to play, we can’t keep winning with these tactics, etc.
Salah himself didn’t even celebrate after his first Europa League goal for the club; perhaps for him, scoring against the LASK defence was not a true test of his skills. But Liverpool supporters across the world rejoiced. You see, sports is a suspension of disbelief, and in those few moments, nobody was thinking about being in the Europa League. They were just enjoying the football, as Klopp himself couldn’t stop smiling on the sidelines.
Nunez’s brace against Newcastle as he led 10-men Liverpool to victory was the biggest injection of serotonin we have received since the 7-0 thrashing of Manchester United last season. Szoboszlai’s thunderbastard in the Carabao Cup had us off our seats, as it was quite reminiscent of a certain former Reds’ number 8, who used to inspire the team with his performances week in and week out. These two moments stand out from this campaign, but it was the combination of Liverpool’s numbers 8, 9 and 11 which got me grinning – man, we might truly be back. Isn’t that what football is all about?
Trusting in anything requires effort. Faith requires unwavering optimism at times. Rome wasn’t built overnight, and it was a long process for Klopp to finally get Liverpool fans to put their complete faith and trust in the squad. From 2017 to 2022 (barring the pandemic season which does not exist in my book), we believed. We were the ‘mentality monsters’, led by one of the world’s best managers and an equally high-quality squad that laughed in the face of adversity.
In the 2022-23 campaign, that faith dwindled. Not only had Sadio Mane, one of Liverpool’s favourite sons, departed, but the way the previous season ended left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths. The club was 180 minutes away from winning the quadruple – ultimately, Manchester City and Real Madrid had the last laugh (again). Sure, winning the FA Cup and Carabao Cup is better than nothing, but when the Premier League and Champions League titles were within our grasp, to end up with two inferior domestic trophies felt like being given a 75% dark chocolate bar when you wanted a Nutella doughnut.
The 2022-23 season seemed like a sequel movie that nobody asked for. I don’t really care for Murphy’s Law, but it did feel like anything that can go wrong, did go wrong. Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold forgot how to defend, Jordan Henderson’s hoofed first-time lobbed passes that always ended up at the opponent’s feet hurt my heart and even Klopp seemed lost. Even during the pandemic, things did not seem as bleak. Liverpool failed to finish in the top four, and the idea of not being in the Champions League pushed supporters further into the pits of despair.
Klopp’s empire seemed to be crumbling right before our eyes. Many factors contributed to the poor season, but perhaps none were as glaring as the weak midfield. Signing Arthur Melo on loan to help the declining duo of Fabinho and Henderson was a bold move; almost as bold as bringing along a sleeveless t-shirt for a climb to the top of Mount Everest. The mentality monsters had become pushovers and Anfield resembled a dilapidated castle more than the fortress it’s so famously known as.
While in the previous seasons, the team had an uncanny ability to come back from the dead, that X-factor was severely lacking. The faith and the magic around Anfield had gone. If Liverpool conceded first, you realised deep down that this game is already over. You also had almost zero trust that they would score against the big teams. Articles were written about the end of Klopp’s era, as his seven-year curse at clubs seemed to finally have caught up to him! Suddenly, Salah was an ageing star, Trent was an overrated defender, Van Dijk’s decline was in full flow, Thiago was a full-time hospital patient, and Nunez was already a big-money flop. Hell, things got so bad that the most exciting news of the season was when club owners Fenway Sports Group decided to sell the team. As luck would have it, even those dreams were dashed within a week, with a majority sale said to be out of the question.
Things had not looked so bleak for the club since 2014 when Luis Suarez left and Steven Gerrard was on his last legs. Erik ten Hag’s quote came to mind: “Eras come to an end”. And looking at the evidence, you would need Saul Goodman to make a case for Liverpool still being a dominant force.
But Liverpool fans will remind you of another quote, one that comes from their club’s anthem: “At the end of a storm, there’s a golden sky.” However, instead of a literal golden sky, hope arrived in the form of two midfielders this past transfer window – Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai. The impact of the duo so far at Anfield cannot be understated; to go from the 2023 versions of Fabinho and Henderson to this duo was a true blessing.
Bear with me while I share some stats here – in the recent win against Everton, Szoboszlai completed 93% of his passes, creating four chances, recovered the ball back for his team five times and attempted four long passes, completing three of them. Delving a little deeper into the numbers, only Andy Robertson (2.4) has more key passes per game in the Premier League for Liverpool than Szoboszlai (2.3) and only Luis Diaz (1.7) completes more dribbles per game than Hungary’s captain (1.1). To put things into even more context, Szoboszlai earns more fouls per 90 minutes (1.4) than even the deadly Mo Salah. As per WhoScored, only Virgil van Dijk and Salah have performed better than the midfielder this season. As per my eyes, I don’t disagree with that at all!
As someone who grew up supporting Liverpool due to Steven Gerrard, I don’t take comparisons to the legendary midfielder lightly. However, I cannot help but think of the former Red when I see the latest number 8 controlling things across the second and final third. Pressing from the front, winning the ball back, completing the tougher passes, and changing the flow of the game when needed – Szoboszlai is everything the fans hoped for. Of course, this is not to say that he will be as good as Stevie G, but you can bet your house that Liverpool executives and fans thank their stars daily for how easily they signed him. The fact that the Reds got such a complete midfield talent for only £60 million (I know, the game’s gone mad) is a near-miracle.
However, the flashy Szoboszlai should not take away credit from his partner. Although the Reds signed Wataru Endo, who is a natural defensive midfielder, it became abundantly clear that the Japanese international cannot be a starter for most Premier League games if you want to fight for the title. Even when he was signed, Endo seemed like a hasty replacement for Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia, midfielders that Liverpool lost to Chelsea in the transfer market. In fact, while signing Szoboszlai was a major coup, the fanbase’s concern was the same – who is going to start next to him as the defensive mid?
Klopp decided to experiment and Kevin Mac Allister got the short end of the stick, having to play a little deeper and do the dirty work as the team’s DM. In the 2-0 win vs Everton, Mac Allister played his part wonderfully. He had 102 touches of the ball, with an 89% pass accuracy and won five duels. Across nine Premier League appearances, he leads his team in successful tackles (2.7) and is second-best at interceptions (1.4) per game. He also attempts 60 passes a game at an 89% success rate; Szoboszlai is the only midfielder or forward to better these stats.
Of course, not all is rosy as Mac Allister is definitely not at the levels of Rodri or prime Liverpool Fabinho. But for someone who only played 20 games as a defensive midfielder out of his 112 appearances for Brighton, his performances for his new team have been impressive. The World Cup winner should not be the number 6 for Liverpool next season, but he’s a damn good stopgap.
“I like it, I like it,” the Argentine international answered when asked about playing a defensive role. “I’ve said it many times, for me it’s easy to say, ‘No, it’s not my position and I do the best I can.’ But it’s not like that. Jürgen is playing me there, he is giving me his support and I try to do the best I can. I think I improved a lot in the last couple of years defensively and I think it’s a job that I can do very well. I feel good and I feel that my teammates and the coaching staff are supporting me. That’s important.”
Praise should also go out to Ryan Gravenberch, who made just his first league start in the Merseyside derby victory. He already has one goal and two assists for his new team. While it remains to be seen if Gravenberch can lock down a starting position, nobody can argue that they’d rather see the energetic midfielder come off the bench as opposed to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Naby Keita, his predecessors.
It’s not rocket science to think that three energetic and talented midfielders would make Liverpool a stronger team. However, their impact has gone way beyond just bettering the midfield. While last season, a one-goal deficit meant a certain loss, this time around, it seems that the Reds thrive in pressure situations. No team has come back to win more games from a losing position than Liverpool across Europe’s top five leagues this season. Sure, Nunez gets the credit for the Newcastle brace and Salah is doing what he always does, but the devil is in the details.
Nunez’s brace is not possible without the Reds’ improved midfield making Newcastle uncomfortable after Van Dijk’s red card. Salah’s second goal against Everton to seal the game wouldn’t have taken place if Mac Allister hadn’t retained the ball under pressure and then delivered a through pass to Nunez. It can even be argued that the true potential of Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott can only be seen thanks to the stable system they now have in midfield, as the youngsters have put in some brilliant shifts this season. It’s no coincidence either that the attack seems way more assured and clinical; having two new midfielders who can win the ball in the final third and play a superb pass definitely helps.
It’s not just on the field either. Behind-the-scenes clips show us that Trent and Szoboszlai are inseparable, Diaz seems to have found a new mate in fellow South American Mac Allister, and Van Dijk cannot stop cracking jokes with Gravenberch. Time will tell us if the mentality monsters are truly back, but it’s safe to say that the vibes at Anfield are looking good.
Liverpool’s most successful period of this century came when Henderson, Fabinho and Wijnaldum were at the heart of their midfield. Two of them left the club this summer, signalling the end of an era. The signing of three new midfielders signals a new era under Klopp. When Liverpool signed Thiago back in 2020, the manager said: “To write the next chapter we have actually to create a new story, and for a new story you need new actors as well.” It took some time for the rest of the cast to arrive, but the show is officially underway.
Act 1 has been a success for the Reds. Now it’s up to the rest of the ensemble to make sure that the curtains come down on a story that fans can remember as fondly as 2019 or 2020.