Liverpool’s weird midfield has been key to their remarkable Premier League season

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Despite getting walloped by — squints, removes glasses, squints again … puts glasses back on — Watford over the weekend, Liverpool are going to win the Premier League. (Exiting the FA Cup at Chelsea on Tuesday will do little to stop this, either.) FiveThirtyEight’s projection model gives Jurgen Klopp & Co. a greater than 99 percent chance of winning the title, and it puts their average outcome at 101 points, which would be a league record.nfl nike jersey cheap

Depending on the market, you could bet 10 grand on a Liverpool title right now, and were it to happen, you’d be rewarded with a whopping $10 in winnings. Insofar as the human brain or sophisticated computers are able to conceptualize potential outcomes, the only outcome is Liverpool lifting the Premier League trophy at some point over the next couple of months.

Liverpool are the only big club in Europe to truly invest in a top-down analytical approach. They moved quickly for one of the best managers (Klopp) in the sport. They’ve acquired perhaps the best attacking trio (Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane) in Premier League history, and all for cut-rate deals. They’ve understood the value of set pieces. They’ve spent big on a top keeper (Alisson) and a top central defender (Virgil van Dijk), and both that keeper and that defender now have a claim to “best in the world” titles at their respective positions. They’ve also unearthed a dominant pair of fullbacks (Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson) who have been able to carry a massive creative burden.1

What isn’t clear, however, is how the midfield contributes to all of this. They clearly do. You don’t gobble up as many points as this team has over the past two seasons if 30% of your outfield lineup isn’t contributing in some way. But while the rest of the roster is unarguably dotted with world-class players, the picture in the midfield is a little murkier.

Naby Keita was supposed to be the midfield version of the Liverpool approach — analytically adjacent, high-action, progressive play — and he has been phenomenal for short stretches, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Before the season, maybe you could’ve argued that Fabinho was the team’s world-class workhorse in the middle, but Liverpool have actually been better without him this season: their goal difference and their expected goal difference per 90 minutes are both higher over the stretches when the Brazilian hasn’t featured this campaign. Other than Keita’s low-minute, high-production, per-90 efficiency, none of Liverpool’s other midfielders create many chances, complete many passes into the penalty area or score many goals, according to the site FBRef.nike nfl jerseys wholesale cheap

Other, more holistic player valuations agree. Per the player-contribution ratings from consultancy 21st Club, Liverpool have five of the 15 best players in the world: Van Dijk (no. 5), Robertson (9), Alisson(10), Salah (11) and Mane (12). No midfielders! Compared to players at the same position, only one of LFC’s midfielders — Giorginio Wijnaldum, tied for fourth — ranks in the global top 10.

Liverpool’s success presents an intriguing question about the present and the future of the sport: Might the “metronome” sharp-passing midfielder represent something like soccer’s version of the midrange jump-shot artist or the high-usage running back, aka a beautiful, breathtaking player archetype with a deep tradition that doesn’t actually affect winning all that much?

The transfer market certainly doesn’t value midfielders the same as everyone else. Of the 20 most expensive players of all time, the only true midfielder is Paul Pogba. The data don’t value them, either — at least, not yet.