How should Liverpool line up in midfield against physical Everton?

The international break may have come at the right time for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool.

After the let's-not-get-back-into-all-that nine-man defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and a somewhat underwhelming win against Union Saint-Gilloise in the Europa League, the Reds played out an entertaining (or if you’re more like me, panic-inducing) draw at Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton.  

There were things to like about the performance on the South Coast.

Trent Alexander-Arnold came back into the Premier League starting XI and looked like he’d never been away, completing the third most passes amongst his teammates and handling himself against the dangerous Kaoru Mitoma with a stellar defensive performance in the most part.

Yet there were some selection headaches going into the tie, with Curtis Jones not having his red card overturned from a week before. 

There was talk of the increasingly impressive Ryan Gravenberch coming into the line-up after his debut goal midweek. There were also theories that Wataru Endo was going to take over at the base of the midfield after being substituted at half time in the same game. Ultimately Klopp went with Jones’ England Under-21 teammate, Harvey Elliott. 

Things didn’t really go to plan, which Anfield Watch writer Sam McGuire has written about brilliantly in more detail.

Which brings us on to everyone’s favourite time slot, the 12:30 kick off on return from an international break. This time up it’s the Merseyside Derby.

While Everton have had an up and down start to the season – sitting 16th in the table with two wins to their name – they pose an interesting test for Liverpool. 

Everton’s midfield is not the most technically gifted in the league, but what they do offer is one of the most physical midfield units in the league.

This season Sean Dyche has mainly used a 4-1-4-1/4-4-1-1 formation. The midfield consists of a double pivot of two of James Garner, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Amadou Onana, two wide players in the form of Dwight McNeil, Jack Harrison or Garner and Abdoulaye Doucoure playing in the more advanced role just behind the lone striker.

Abdoulaye Doucoure of Everton scores and celebrates during the Premier League match between Sheffield United and Everton at Bramall Lane, Sheffield, England on 2 September 2023.

The smallest of these players (including the ones that play on the wing) are Gueye and Harrison at 5ft 9in.

All of them are extremely adept at the physical side of the game.

Onana, Gueye and Garner have all made 20 or more tackles and interceptions this season with the two former averaging over three per 90 minutes played. These players are perfect for what Dyche wants in his midfield. Tactically he doesn’t ask his central midfielders to be particularly present in the build-up or overly comfortable on the ball. Everton prefer to play long balls and bypass the midfield – attempting more long balls than any other side in the league this season.

What the former Burnley boss does want from his midfield is for them to be positionally disciplined, with a line of five formed across the midfield sitting behind the ball and trying to shift across to cut out any passing lanes or space. This leaves licence for one of the midfielders (switching dependent on where the ball is) to press the opposition player in possession. 

Essentially, Everton’s midfield is there to squeeze the space out of possession and win the ball back through their physicality and strong defensive skills. The Toffees are one of the more experienced teams in the league at sitting in a deep block, and this block is even more heightened when playing against Liverpool at Anfield (remember Jordan Pickford’s slow fall to the ground).

READ MORE: Liverpool have chance for under-the-radar title challenge despite setbacks

Last season was comfortable for Liverpool in this fixture, winning 2-0 and scoring both goals either side of half time.

However, these sort of games – against extremely deep blocks – have posed problems for the club in the past. Part of the reason for that was down to the midfield the club had, and its lack of creativity. If Liverpool’s creative players were doubled up on or not afforded any space, then the midfield, such as Jordan Henderson, didn’t have the tools to unlock those gaps and spaces that could create that moment of magic.

Things have changed, and Liverpool now have those tools in midfield. Curtis Jones will still be suspended for the game, but in the form of Dominik Szoboszlai they have one of the most creative midfielders in the league – with the third most Shot Creating Actions in the Premier League this season with 40 (five per 90 minutes played). He also offers that something extra when trying to attack against teams that will crowd the penalty area and allow you space on the edge of the box – quite remarkable long-range shooting.

We’ve already seen it a few times this season, including the sensational one against Leicester.

If the Hungarian is the first name on the team sheet in Liverpool’s midfield, then Alexis Mac Allister should be the second – but this time in his more natural advanced eight role.

His issues as the ‘six’ against his former side were well documented.

READ MORE: It's time for the Alexis Mac Allister experiment to end at Liverpool

He was (alongside others) at fault for the opening goal as he got caught in possession and allowed Brighton a high turnover. He was also physically overpowered by their midfield at times and was a step slower as the lone pivot than his opposition. However, by moving him alongside Szoboszlai it allows Liverpool two central midfielders who are comfortable in wide areas. This not only creates more space centrally for Trent Alexander-Arnold to operate but stretches the pitch in attack and means the dangerous wide players the club has – such as Luis Díaz and Mohamed Salah – can get move inside and closer to the goal, exactly where you want them to be.

With the context of it being pre-season (although we have much more evidence from his Brighton days), the World Cup winner is extremely effective in tight spaces in and around the box, with his one touch passing able to open spaces where there are none in an instant. Having both him and Szoboszlai operating in the final third will allow Liverpool to be fast and incisive, creating space before Everton’s defensive unit are allowed to react. 

Mac Allister has played as the deepest midfielder in nearly every Premier League game this season, so pushing him forward leaves a place in the squad for someone to come into that role. My pick for the game against Everton would be a starting place for Wataru Endo, whose only league start came at Newcastle – where Virgil van Dijk was sent off in the 28th minute.

Wataru Endo

The Japan national team captain has had a slow start to his Anfield career, struggling to adapt to the pace that Klopp wants his teams to play with and the intensity that English football has to offer. Yet against Leicester in the Carabao Cup he looked much more assured against a team that already looks as if it’s running away with the Championship title. He was able to break up play effectively and looked confident in the way he was moving the ball around.

He only managed 45 minutes against Union S-G last Thursday but again looked like there was improvement in his passing. 

There are several reasons why I believe he should come into the team, despite it being such a big game in terms of spotlight. The first of these is his aerial prowess. Across his career he has won 59% of aerial duels, and he wins 2.09 per 90 (ranking him in the 91st percentile). I’ve already touched on how Everton will play – they will launch the ball long and look to win the knock down. Having Endo alongside van Dijk and (ideally) Konaté would offer the side much more security in that area, and if Liverpool stifle that area of Everton’s game then it will be much harder for the Goodison side to establish any sort of attacking momentum.

The second reason is that Endo will be afforded much more time and space on the ball in possession in this game.

READ MORE: How effective can Wataru Endo be for Liverpool? 

As a deep sitting midfielder, he likely won’t see much engagement from his opposition, allowing the former Stuttgart man to play the long diagonals he likes to play. He will also more often than not be joined in a double pivot by Trent Alexander-Arnold who will have the lion share of touches. As long as Endo wins his duels and gets the ball efficiently to Liverpool’s number 66 then it will set the side up for success.

Szoboszlai, Mac Allister and Endo are all fresh faces at the club, and throwing them into a game which has seen more red cards and hot heads than any other tie may seem like a risk, but they have provide the balance and skillset as a unit to help Liverpool control the midfield areas and break down an expected deep block from Dyche’s men.

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