Jurgen Klopp had decisions to make heading into the game against Brighton.
It left the Reds a little light in midfield and attack. The mid-week game against Royale Union Saint-Gilloise didn’t really help either. Ryan Gravenberch was expected to play 90 minutes against the Belgian side at Anfield but was replaced after 79 minutes due to tiredness, so you knew he wasn’t starting against the Seagulls. Wataru Endo played the first half at Anfield before being replaced. Klopp revealed it was a planned change, so the belief was he would be starting on Sunday.
That wasn’t the case though, with Harvey Elliott instead making his first Premier League start of the season in place of the suspended Jones. It meant Klopp shuffled the midfield with Dominik Szoboszlai moving over to the left side of the three with Elliott coming in as the right-sided midfielder.
The decision to change two parts of the midfield for one player always has the potential to impact things.
Szoboszlai, who has been one of Liverpool’s best players this season on the right, was now playing a different role on the opposite flank.
Ahead of the game, Klopp was asked why Elliott got the nod over others and his response to Sky Sports was: “Just the way Harvey looked in the last weeks. He played a good game on Thursday. He’s not overplayed, I would say, recently. He came on a couple of times, played games, has kind of rhythm, and he’s a super player. So that was the decision behind that. We need to be really strong, good on the ball, good in one-on-one situations. The man-marking of Brighton requires real physicality on the ball, or being really quick. He can be both, together with all the others, so that was the reason.”
It was a bold move but it didn’t necessarily pay off, did it?
Yes, Elliott played a key role in Liverpool’s equalising goal. He pressed Lewis Dunk and forced him to turnover possession with a loose pass. He then dummied a pass and let the ball roll to Mohamed Salah who calmly passed the ball past Bart Verbruggen.
And yes, when seeing the aggressive shape adopted by the Reds, it make sense to bring in a midfielder who was comfortable in a hybrid role. Instead of the usual 3-2-2-3 shape used by the Reds in possession and the 4-3-3 without the ball, it was more of a 4-4-2 when defending and a 3-2-5 when attacking.
Elliott would take up a position on the right and this allowed Salah to play in a front two alongside Darwin. Liverpool then had Szoboszlai stepping up to play as an attacking midfielder with Alexis Mac Allister and Trent Alexander-Arnold anchoring the midfield.
In the still above, you can see how Liverpool set up to press. Darwin and Salah would lead it, Elliott would shuffle to the right and Diaz would be on the left. Szoboszlai would look to shut off the pass to whichever of the two Brighton midfielders would drop to receive the ball.
Few in the team can play that dual role that Elliott was deployed in. So with this being the plan, it made sense to name the number 19 in the starting XI. The 20-year-old struggled though.
In the opening 45 minutes, he attempted just 17 passes and found a teammate 76% of the time. He made zero tackles and won just one of his three ground duels. The former Fulham youngster didn’t manage a single dribble. Klopp talked about physicality on the ball and pace. In truth, neither of these traits are possessed by Elliott and it is one of the reasons why Liverpool struggled against the Seagulls.
Gravenberch replaced the England Under-21 international at half-time and though he wasn’t much more involved than Elliott, he did do more.
He attempted more passes (20) and his pass success rate was similar (75%). He also completed 100% of his dribbles and won four of his seven duels. His appearances off the bench allowed Szoboszlai to move back over to the right side and the Reds appeared to be much more balanced.
They weren’t able to make the most of it, with the former Bayern Munich midfielder missing the best chance of the second half for the Reds but, on another day, he buries the Szoboszlai cross and Liverpool take all three points back to Anfield.
Liverpool lacked physicality in the first-half and didn’t seem to be able to beat the Brighton press. After Gravenberch’s introduction, the Reds weren’t being bullied physically and the midfield looked more robust.
Granted, the Dutchman couldn’t have started the game after his mid-week showing but there’s no reason Klopp couldn’t have started Szoboszlai on the right with Mac Allister on the left and Endo anchoring the midfield. You lose the Argentine’s ability in the initial build-up phase but with Alexander-Arnold now back in the first-team, it isn’t a huge issue.
It felt as though Klopp had the right idea on Sunday, he just didn’t pick the right players to execute it.