There were few issues more pressing in the Premier League this summer than Liverpool’s midfield. It was one of the most discussed topics among pundits, on social media and by those involved in the club itself.
Naby Keïta (293), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (335) and James Milner (913) all failed to break the 1000-minute mark in the Premier League as they reached the end of their contracts. Thiago Alcántara managed to start in just 14 games and contributed 1,254 minutes – the least he’s managed so far in his three-year stint at Anfield – and at 32 years old and, with an injury history that reads more like a dissertation than a short story, he can no longer be relied upon to consistently contribute. Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were on the pitch more often than not, but at 32 and 29 respectively, and with non-stop game time last season (and beyond) as Klopp’s side went to the wire for a quadruple, there was a noticeable drop off in both form and stamina.
This summer on Merseyside, though, has started with a bang. Alexis Mac Allister was brought in from Brighton shortly after the season had ended and Dominik Szoboszlai was linked and signed from RB Leipzig in emphatic fashion. Despite an outlay of around £95m so far this summer, Liverpool’s new sporting director Jörg Schmadtke shows no signs of letting up.
While the new signings have addressed the immediate concerns of the fans, the new arrivals leave Liverpool’s talented crop of young midfielders (Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and Stefan Bajcetic) at something of a crossroads. While Curtis Jones played a starring role in the home stretch of last season and Stefan Bajčetić is able to operate in deeper areas – a position in which the squad lacks depth – Elliott is perhaps the player with the most question marks to his name.
To start, let’s look back at the 20-year-old’s 2022/23 campaign. Elliott bounced back from a difficult 2021/22 campaign (a fractured ankle forced him to miss 30 games) with his most successful to date (for Liverpool) in terms of playing time with 2,301 minutes played and 25 starts in all competitions. He scored five goals in total – including his first ever in both the Premier League and Champions League – and registered two assists. Despite Liverpool’s well documented struggles and fifth-placed finish, you would consider Elliott’s season an overall success. His numbers in build-up speak for themselves. This visual from the talented Ninad Barbadikar shows how highly Liverpool’s number 19 ranks amongst other under-23 players in Europe’s top five leagues for progressive passing and shot creation:
Dominik Szoboszlai is going to be a handful for the Premier League. pic.twitter.com/jVkpZKoi0X
— Ninad Barbadikar (@NinadB_06) July 2, 2023
As we can see above, Elliott is putting up similar numbers to some remarkable names – including long-time Liverpool target Jude Bellingham and one of the standout performers in the Premier League last season in Martin Ødegaard. Creativity being one of Elliott’s strengths is no secret. At his season on loan at Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn in 2020/21, he registered 11 assists from 9.5 expected assisted goals, contributing to 18 goals in total and becoming one of the standout stars in the Championship at just 17 years of age.
His expected assisted goals numbers have yet to reach the heights of his Blackburn stint, but that can be put down to less creative responsibility as Liverpool have generally looked towards their full-backs and Mohamed Salah in that department. In fact, no midfielder in Liverpool’s squad put up a higher xAG than his 3.6. If we take a look at his assist for Darwin Núñez’s first in a 3-1 win against Southampton in November last year:
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 12, 2022
After a ball is defended by Southampton, Firmino is able to poke the ball out to Elliott in the right half space. The most obvious play here is to recycle the ball back to the centre backs or to find Robertson in space out wide.
Instead, Elliott has the vision and quickness of thought to take one touch to set himself, identify the space vacated by Southampton’s right-back who has stepped up and the run of Núñez off the shoulder into that space.
He backs up his vision with an inch-perfect ball in between the goalkeeper and the centre back, leaving Núñez with all the time in the world to guide the ball into the corner.
Elliott’s progressive numbers are excellent too – in both his passing and his ball carrying. As we can see in the visual above, only three players aged 23 and under rank higher for progressive passes (defined by FBRef as a pass that moves the ball 10 yards closer to the goal than it's been recently, or any completed pass into the opponent's penalty area) and these are Enzo Fernández, Pedri and Jude Bellingham — probably the three highest rated young midfielders in world football.
His 7.62 progressive passes per ninety is matched with even better penetrative passing – his 2.33 passes into the penalty area puts him in the highest percentile ranking for midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues and Champions League. As mentioned, passing isn’t the only way Elliott helps Liverpool progress the ball, he’s equally as good at carrying the ball. His small stature, low centre of gravity and close control allow him to navigate his way past opposition defenders in a way reminiscent of a slalom skier. His 2.33 carries into the final third ranks him in the 88th percentile and his 0.63 carries into the penalty area puts him in the 93rd percentile. As an attacking player his skillset is diverse and while not entirely refined in the practical sense, his underlying numbers indicate a player ready to explode, and ready to contribute to title-winning sides. His goal for England Under-21’s this summer was something to behold:
So why are there question marks? There are two main factors here. The first is his defensive output. There’s no way around the fact that Elliott is small in stature, at 5’6 and around 67kg, he’s among the smallest players in the league. That doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad defender, but it does play a factor. If we look at defensive stats in the context of Liverpool’s midfielders last season, Elliott ranked fifth (out of eight) for tackles (0.5 per ninety), sixth for interceptions (0.84 per ninety) and last for aerial duels won (20%). The data – particularly with defensive ones – doesn’t always tell the full story, and there’s not a lack of effort from Elliott on this side of the game. Yet it is an issue, and likely part of the reason why Jones was preferred in the run-in.
There is context for this though – and the second main factor in the question marks around him – Elliott doesn’t have a defined position, and Liverpool don’t play with what would likely be his best. At his breakout season at Blackburn, he played most of his football as a right winger in a 4-3-3. While he could play there at Anfield, game time is limited due to Salah’s impeccable fitness record. There’s also the fact that Elliott isn’t overly quick, and probably not quick enough to be a winger at the very top end of their game – certainly not for the way Klopp’s Liverpool play. For Liverpool and England Under-21’s he’s looked at his best as an attacking midfielder, someone that can float into space with a certain amount of defensive freedom. While Liverpool’s ‘number 8s’ do tend to be camped in the opposition half, there is an expectation that – especially in the case of the right-sided role – that you need to cover for the full-backs, who push up in their unique ways.
So, what does Liverpool’s midfield revolution mean for Elliott, and in particular, his development? The Europa League qualification probably gives me a bit of an easy out with this question. If Liverpool were in the Champions League next season, I’d likely be sitting here concerned for Elliott’s game time – and I’d still expect him to play less of a starting role in the Premier League next season. But the six guaranteed (and hopefully more) Europa League games should afford him the minutes and responsibility to develop a more defined role for himself, whether that be as one of the midfielders or giving Klopp a different option from his wide players.
Having just turned 20, there’s still so much time for Elliott to become what he’s going to be. Liverpool might have brought in two top tier midfield options, but Elliott has his own unique skill set. His mindset won’t change either, and while game time could potentially go down, he can still have a big impact on Liverpool’s success next season.
*All data from Opta via FBRef.com