Unless you’re Olivia Newton-John (in which case you’re probably delighted for the mention of your 35 year old hit Physical – great song by the way Liv), you’re probably a little bit puzzled about the title of this article. Let me explain.
Physicality is a vital part of football. The best players are able to compete on all levels, and have physical and technical attributes. I think that we talk a lot about the technical attributes when discussing Liverpool players (and that’s not surprising when we have players with such technical flair and ability like Coutinho, Sturridge, Firmino, Lallana, Wijnaldum etc) but I’m not sure we pay enough attention to the physical side of football. When I look through the squad and what strengths and specialities our players boast, it strikes me how many of our players you would struggle to describe as a ‘good physical player’.
We all know about Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing philosophy and how much strength, energy and work rate that requires. If this manager is going to be successful for Liverpool then we’re going to need to add physical ability to our technical qualities in order to make his plan reap rewards. So, let’s get physical.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve come a long way in the last 10 months or so in a physical sense, and this is something that’s now visible to us Liverpool fans. Adam Lallana and Divock Origi have both been turned into mountains from their previously molehill-like physique. Emre Can is a beast in the centre of park, and I wouldn’t want to encounter Lovren, Klavan or Sakho down a dark alley either. But this isn’t enough. We still need to do more to make sure that we can play the way the manager wants us to for a full 90, rather than just a purple patch of 20 minutes as we saw at Arsenal.
When you think of physical players, you automatically think of CBs and CMs. The aggression, toughness and passion always seems to arise from those sorts of areas of the pitch where players get involved in duels and challenges. These are the sorts of players who put themselves on the line. In the past we’ve had the likes of Gerrard, Carragher, Agger, Mascherano and loads more, but the absolute best at this in the Premier League era have been Vincent Kompany, Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane.
Do we have a player in our current squad anywhere near that good in a physical battle? I don’t think so. You could make a decent case for Emre Can but I think he’s still a few years away from being at the top class level. So, what I’m saying is that I really think Liverpool should give some thought to investing in a player who will come in and play a part in the tough games where you don’t have much of the ball and have to counter (in usual circumstances last Sunday would’ve been one) and help us win the ball back. Someone who’s not afraid of crunching tackles and fiery atmospheres. The chances are this won’t be a great technical flair player but that’s fine – we have technicians all over the pitch already.
In terms of what position I’m meaning, I think centre mid is the most logical place. We are okay with centre backs (Lovren, Sakho and Klavan are all good physical presences while Matip adds the ball playing to the package) and there are some strong physical players in our attacking options (Milner, Lallana, Origi, Ings). But I’d love to see us invest in a properly defensive midfielder to come and sit in the midfield two alongside Can, Henderson, Grujic or Wijnaldum. Contrary to popular belief Can and Henderson are not CDMs, they lack the discipline, so if we had someone next to them who focuses entirely on protecting the back four, they would have more licence to roam forward and support the attacking players. We’ve been tenuously linked with Gary Medel, the former Cardiff midfielder. This is exactly the sort of player I’m talking about. Someone who will show aggression and scare the opposition off the ball, whilst offering steel to our back line. Unfortunately two of the best CDMs in the game have joined our rivals this summer (Granit Xhaka to Arsenal and N’Golo Kante to Chelsea) so it could be argued that the need for this sort of player is intensified.
Every Premier League winning team has had players on its ranks that could win a tackle and mix the rough with the tough. Diego Costa might be an unlikeable player, but his aggression gives him the edge over the opposition. Gary Neville was the same. We need someone who can offer this to our side.
Ironically, we already have a player at the club who can do this job perfectly and has proved himself countless times: Lucas Leiva. The longest-serving player in the squad, you know what you’re getting with Lucas – a solid performance in front of the back four, making tackles, breaking up play and competing on a physical level. Even though Fellaini isn’t a particularly good footballer, Lucas was the only player who could cope with the Belgian’s presence when we lost to United in January. I still believe that Lucas has a lot to offer this squad – he is our only CDM and one of few players in the squad who is a specialist in his position.
The other position that this club desperately needs to strengthen is left back. We all know the frailties of Alberto Moreno, and Joe Gomez is currently on the sidelines, so a specialist left back is surely a must. Rather than going for someone in the Moreno mould (attacking, pace, ball control), I’d like us to go for a more old fashioned full back with discipline and a good physical side. There’s plenty of them around, but whether we get one or not is another matter. Moreno has his good points but isn’t strong or good enough at tackling right now. I’d like someone similar to Nacho Monreal, a very good tackler and a good ball player too. Looking at cheaper targets, Patrick Van Aanholt is very underrated and has a good mix of attacking intent and physical discipline.
I think we can see that Jurgen Klopp recognises and appreciates the importance of physical ability in his team. For me, this is why Divock Origi is ahead of Daniel Sturridge in the pecking order – Origi is stronger and has a better work rate. I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is why Roberto Firmino is starting up front. Firmino is a bit lightweight in my opinion, and loses out in tackles quite often. If you play Firmino up front, it means you can play someone like Lallana in the 10, because he is better in a tackle, and has improved since his first season where he got shrugged off the ball way too easily. Setting up this way means that Firmino still gets in the team and the team still reaps the rewards of his goal threat and positional awareness, but also has someone at 10 who can win a tackle and be aggressive. It’s all very surgical, specific and intelligent from Klopp.
I’m happy with the direction this team is going in. There are a few missing pieces in the jigsaw – one of them is a true CDM who’s not afraid to put his body on the line. I would feel so much more positive about the prospects for this season if we had a monster CDM to come into the side and sit in front of the back four in tough away games where we’d have to soak up the pressure. The game time for this ideal player might be limited to 12 or so starts a season but that’s not to say that it makes it any less important. I’ve spoken a lot about horses for courses this summer – we have players suited to almost every style of game and opposition, but this is the one thing we are missing.
Come on Liverpool. Let’s get physical.