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The end of an era at Liverpool? Henderson and Fabinho's struggles leave Klopp with big calls to make

4:00 AM EST 1/24/23
Jordan Henderson Liverpool 2022-23 HIC 16:9
Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were certain starters in big games for years but that is simply no longer the case, as last weekend underlined...

Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.

Jurgen Klopp has insisted for weeks that Liverpool’s "midfield problem" glaringly obvious to anyone who has watched his side this season, is not actually a midfield problem at all, rather a consequence of other issues affecting the structure, form and confidence of the team.

His recent team selections, however, suggest otherwise, and if you’re Jordan Henderson or Fabinho, the time to worry is now.

Six months ago, the idea of either player sitting on the bench for a must-win game against a ‘big six’ rival would have seemed bizarre, but things are changing at Anfield – and not for the better.

And so on Saturday, we had the sight of two players with close to 700 Reds appearances between them twiddling their thumbs while an 18-year-old (Stefan Bajcetic) made his first Premier League start, and a player who is out of contract at the end of the season, and free to negotiate a pre-contract agreement with other clubs now (Naby Keita) made his first league start in eight months.

That’s a statement from Klopp, whichever way you slice it, and perhaps just as telling is the fact that nobody could have any real qualms with his selection.

Henderson and Fabinho’s form has been so patchy, so poor, that to have included either would have been deemed a risk, a step backwards at a time when Liverpool need something, anything, to get them moving forwards again.

“That was the reaction we needed,” said Klopp after the same midfield trio which started against Chelsea on Saturday – Bajcetic, Keita and Thiago Alcantara – had started the 1-0 FA Cup win at Wolves four days previously. “We were compact, we were together, and we won challenges when we lost the ball.”

Those sound like basic requirements for a Liverpool team, to be perfectly honest, but that is where the club finds itself currently.

When you’re ninth in the Premier League and playing as poorly as they have been, things like ‘tackling’ and ‘closing down’ can make a big difference.

Klopp has hinted – and Thiago suggested as much after Saturday’s soporific goalless draw – that the drama of last season, and the sheer energy expended chasing glory on four fronts, is impacting Liverpool’s performances this term, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than with Henderson and Fabinho, who played 55 and 48 games respectively in 2021-22 but who have looked broken since.

The recent defeat to Brighton marked a new low, in that regard. Henderson and Fabinho started that game, ostensibly, as twin No.6s in a new, 3-4-1-2 formation, but were bypassed so easily and with such regularity that few observers even noticed the switch.

They lasted 69 minutes before being substituted with the Reds 2-0 down. They were lucky to last beyond half-time, given their performance levels, and it would be a surprise if either was returned to the starting XI this weekend, when Liverpool again visit the Amex, this time in the FA Cup.

Klopp has insisted recently that he is not “too loyal” to players who have delivered for him in the past, but we will see in the coming months whether that really is the case.

A midfield overhaul is expected in the summer, but will he be willing to sacrifice a few of his trusted soldiers in the process? 

We already know that he is keen to retain the 31-year-old Roberto Firmino for at least another year, and last week he suggested that James Milner, who turned 37 earlier this month, could earn himself a new contract too. 

It was Klopp, too, who pushed for Henderson to be given a new four-year deal in the summer of 2021, and while the captain has surely earned more than a bit of leeway regarding his on-field struggles this season, the reality is that he will be 33 in June.

It appears as if he can no longer do the things that made him such an asset to a side built around the fundamentals of intensity, energy and relentless discipline. The eyes tell you that, and the numbers back it up.

Fabinho, too, could soon find himself under pressure.

The Brazilian is three years younger than Henderson, but he too looks like a player in decline, or at least struggling to maintain the huge standards set in recent seasons. The man they call ‘Dyson’, after the famous vacuum cleaner, has looked for months as if he needs charging up.

Already this season, Fabinho has sat on the bench for games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, while Henderson was a substitute for the wins over Manchester City and Tottenham.

No shame in that, you might say, but when you consider that it has been the likes of Milner, Bajcetic, Keita and Harvey Elliott starting instead, it says something.

These are elite players, who have won everything, but they are miles off it right now. They need to improve fast if they want to be a part of the club's future.

They're not alone either. As it stands, Liverpool have 11 players who could be considered to be senior midfield options, but each of them has an asterisk next to his name.

Milner, Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all out of contract at the end of the season, Curtis Jones has been plagued by injuries and has started only one league game since May, while Arthur Melo has managed just 13 minutes of competitive action since his panic-induced loan move from Juventus at the end of August. 

Elliott and Fabio Carvalho are obvious talents but both look better suited playing in the forward line, while Bajcetic is a teenager who must be allowed to grow and develop, not asked to hold together the midfield of a team that expects to be challenging for everything.

The Spaniard will be a superb player, for sure, but he will need protecting at some point. Physically, he is not yet ready to play 90 minutes, two or three times a week.

All of which leaves Klopp’s preferred trio, the one which started the Champions League final last season and which started the first Premier League game of this campaign, when the tone was set with a dreadful first-half at Fulham.

Fabinho, Henderson and Thiago – of those three, Thiago is the one who has come closest to retaining his level, but even he has had his struggles and his injuries, and he will be 32 in April. Hardly someone to plan the future around, is it?

Liverpool, clearly, are preparing to put all of their eggs in the Jude Bellingham basket this summer, and understandably so, but it is fast becoming clear that even the Borussia Dortmund star won’t fix things alone. This is a team in need of at least two, and probably three, high-class midfield additions. 

Mind you, if they could get one or both of Fabinho and Henderson to remember who they are and what they can do, that would help matters immensely.

It is their struggles this season, as much as anything, which has ripped the heart out of Klopp’s side.