The international break has been and gone for another year (to be returned in March 2024).
It’s been a highly successful one for the majority of Liverpool’s contingent. Mohamed Salah scored four goals in one game against Djibouti, Darwin Nunez scored against Argentina in La Bombonera and Luis Diaz scored twice to help his country beat Brazil – in front of his emotional father.
The return of Premier League football brings Liverpool their biggest game of the season, to a stadium that has they tend to bring little home from – the last domestic Reds win there came in 2015 through goals from Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Martin Skrtel, and an own goal from Eliaquim Mangala.
Jurgen Klopp finds himself and long-time foe Pep Guardiola in a familiar position when they travel east on Saturday, with Manchester City and Liverpool sitting first and second in the Premier League table.
The club has started the season strong, bouncing back well from an underwhelming campaign last time out. One of the biggest reasons for a season that has only seen one league defeat – even that coming in controversial circumstances – is the amount of depth the squad has.
In attack there is Salah, Nunez, Diaz, Cody Gakpo, Diogo Jota and 18-year-old Ben Doak. The midfield, that looked paper thin last year, now has Alexis Mac Allister, Wataru Endo, Dominik Szoboszlai, Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, and Ryan Gravenberch (and even may have further reinforcements in Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago Alcantara, once they recover from injuries).
While there is a question as to who starts in attack (alongside Salah) on Saturday, perhaps the biggest question is who will be in midfield.
It’s presumed that Alexis Mac Allister, despite playing in a CONEMBOL qualifier in the early hours of Wednesday morning against Alisson’s Brazil, will be at the base of Liverpool’s midfield, with Dominik Szoboszlai in the right-sided central midfield role.
That leaves just one space open, and there are two main options – Curtis Jones and Ryan Gravenberch.
They are also the two midfielders (Argentinian and Hungarian company excluded) with the most starts in the Premier League – Jones with four and Gravenberch with three. This would have been more, if not for injuries and suspensions.
Both prefer the left-sided central midfield role and both bring something different to the team. So, who should Klopp go with at the Etihad?
Let’s start with the “Other Scouser in our Team”, as he’s affectionately known. Jones has been a key member of the team since the introduction of the new system. It suits the 22-year-old down to a tee – an often overlooked aspect of Liverpool’s box midfield.
He is someone that spent a lot of time at youth level playing as a left-winger, holding his width before picking up the ball and driving inside. That is what he's afforded the space and time to do in this Liverpool side.
The left-back is no longer asked to break forward, and whoever is the left-winger is often asked to come inside. As the central area becomes oversaturated, Liverpool’s two more advanced eights are asked to peel out wide - evident when we look at Jones’ heatmap (via SofaScore) for the Premier League season so far.
As we can see from the above, many of his meaningful actions come from an area you’d expect to see a wide midfielder occupy.
Curtis Jones has earned his flowers this season, and what he offers Liverpool and Klopp is a sense of control in the midfield that they haven’t had in recent years. While Jones is one of the more advanced midfield players, he prefers to drop deep to receive the ball. He then uses this position to punch a pass into the final third (6.13 per ninety) – tending not to do as much progressive ball carrying this season in order to hold his position in case of a turnover.
The biggest plus of going with Jones is the control that he gives Liverpool’s midfield and the way that he’s able to dictate the tempo of games through his in-possession game. Jones may not grab the headlines or get too many plaudits - in fact, he often gets an insane amount of unjustified hate - but what he does do, though, is link the play perfectly between defence and attack.
He offers the eye-catching talents in the team – particularly Trent Alexander-Arnold and Luis Díaz – a platform to thrive. He balances the side out and gives more stability out of possession. He’s directly contributing in a defensive sense too, with his 3.23 tackles and interceptions per ninety a career best so far.
Liverpool’s latest Dutch import, a £34m summer transfer from Bayern Munich, offers something different in the middle of the park.
Gravenberch’s arrival was met with some confusion. Many felt like going after someone who had barely made an impact during his one year in the Bundesliga was a bad investment, especially with the lack of obvious starter in the defensive midfield department.
Yet, in just under three months on Merseyside, he’s switched the narrative completely. He started all three of the first Europa League games (and probably would have started a fourth if injury hadn’t ruled him out of Toulouse away). He has also started two of Liverpool’s last three league games (and again, probably would have started against Brentford if injury hadn’t ruled him out there too).
Above is Gravenberch’s heat map from the Premier League season so far (via SofaScore). When we compare that to Jones’, we can see the areas where his meaningful actions come are slightly more central.
The Dutchman is less comfortable in wide areas – this was most evident as Liverpool struggled to break down Luton in the 1-1 draw. Instead, Gravenberch likes to operate in central areas.
What Gravenberch offers in abundance is ball progression and creativity. His progressive numbers so far this season have been quite incredible.
He’s averaging 8.18 progressive passes per ninety – more than anyone in the squad, even Alexander-Arnold. He’s been extremely sharp in moving the ball forward, especially adept at getting towards the final third and then finding a player in space out wide. What might even be more impressive to watch, though, is his ball carrying.
Despite being tall and the lack of co-ordination that comes with long limbs, the former Ajax man is extremely agile. He’s gifted at receiving the ball with his back to goal and spinning his opponent, able to evade pressure with relative ease. This not only helps relieve Liverpool from pressure situations but also helps them create transitions – where they thrive.
He's been efficient in the final third, and is more of a direct attacking contribution threat than Jones. He has two goals and two assists. Only Alexander-Arnold and Harvey Elliott pass the ball into the opposition box more than Gravenberch (2.55 per ninety). His 0.18 expected assists per ninety is the fifth best in the squad and far superior to Jones’ 0.04.
He’s also putting up slightly better direct defensive numbers than the Toxteth native – with 4 tackles and interceptions per ninety – but that doesn’t tell the full story.
Jones gives Liverpool more chance of control in the midfield, and that’s ultimately a huge factor in a game against Pep Guardiola – a man obsessed with the control of football matches.
The Arsenal game that City lost earlier this season occurred because they couldn’t dominate the central areas like they usually do. Jones would allow Klopp a more solid base and secure out-of-possession shape, which would in turn allow Liverpool’s attacking players to hurt the champions.
Gravenberch offers a more high-risk, high-reward approach. He won’t offer the same security and his tendency to position himself higher than Jones and prioritise attacking output means that if Man City can beat the initial line of pressure – which they are so good at doing – then it will leave Alexis Mac Allister, Virgil van Dijk and company more stretched at the other end.
For this reason, I think the best method is to go with the England U-21 international for this one. Liverpool have just looked better with him on the pitch this season and ensuring that Pep’s side don’t blow the Reds away in the early stages is important to getting something out of the game.
If Liverpool can keep it close, or even be in the lead as the game makes its way into the 60th minute, then Gravenberch is the ideal off-the-bench option. He’ll win fouls and relieve pressure, while providing attacking threat.
I don’t think there’s a wrong choice here, but for this one I’d be going with Curtis Jones.