Jordan Henderson statistic puts pressure on Liverpool new boy Ozan Kabak ahead of debut
Liverpool: Klopp welcomes signings Davies and Kabak
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Having been an unused substitute against Manchester City, the trip to Leicester’s King Power Stadium this Saturday looks set to be the day Ozan Kabak makes his Liverpool debut. The on-loan Schalke centre-back only has a maximum of 22 matches at Anfield before the Reds have to make a decision on whether or not they sign him permanently in the summer transfer window, and that’s if they make the Champions League final.
There is little time to waste and Liverpool are beginning to count the cost of their lack of fit and available natural central defenders.
No surprise really, given the perhaps unparalleled misfortune of suffering season-ending injuries to all of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. It has upset the balance of the side and prevented rotation in others areas, with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson needed to play at the back.
Fabinho and Henderson have deputised well in defence, on the whole, but their influence is sorely missed in midfield.
Liverpool need the tempo-setting passing of Henderson and the screening of Fabinho in front of the defence back. At the very least, they need their captain back in the middle.
Without him as the beating heart of the team’s midfield engine, Liverpool have slumped to four of their five Premier League defeats this season.
The first came at Aston Villa, when he was out due to injury, while he played centre-back away at Southampton and at home to Brighton and Manchester City.
The home defeat to Burnley again came with the 30-year-old skipper sidelined and it is no coincidence that of Liverpool’s eight defeats this season and last term, Henderson was only in midfield for one of them.
That sole reverse came at the hands of City at the Etihad in July, the first game after which Liverpool had been crowned champions for the first time in 30 years. Many saw it as a free hit for the Citizens. Social media was awash with jokes of the bulk of the Liverpool squad still being drunk from the title celebrations.
Of course, Henderson was also at centre-back for the away wins over Tottenham and West Ham last month but the Reds were similarly poor in the first half against the Hammers until Mohamed Salah arrived at the London Stadium. At Spurs, Harry Kane’s absence helped. In both matches, neither of their opponents played to their maximum. Far from it.
It is clear that without Henderson in midfield, Liverpool lack the same urgency and intensity in possession. It was that relentlessness, the constant foot on the throat of their opponents, that made them so difficult to live with last term as they romped to the title.
Of course the hectic schedule and the debilitating injuries are also playing a part and Liverpool simply are not at the same physical levels they were last year.
But with Henderson in midfield, Jurgen Klopp has to hope he can get Liverpool at least playing more enterprising attacking football again. In their past three home defeats to Burnley, Brighton and Man City, the football has been passive and pedestrian.
Salah’s strike against City was from the penalty spot and Liverpool have not scored a goal in open play at Anfield since the draw at West Brom on December 27. Nearly 450 minutes of Premier League football have elapsed since on L4.
Very few goalscoring chances of note were created by the home team in those three defeats while Liverpool also struggled to break down Manchester United, another game in which Henderson played in central defence.
Klopp, then, needs Kabak to be a success. The Turkey international joined on a six-month loan from Bundesliga strugglers Schalke and can move to Merseyside on a full-time basis at the cost of £18million in July.
He has long been tracked by the Reds and it is over the coming months in which it will be decided whether or not he can be the long-term fourth senior centre-back option, with Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip all to return to the fold next term.
The 20-year-old has the kind of physical and technical attributes to succeed at Liverpool but Klopp has very little time indeed for the centre-half to adjust to his new team and to the Premier League.
The German coach may hope that deploying Fabinho alongside the Turkish defender can help him, though that means the Brazilian’s protection is missed at the base of midfield. That is however the most likely pairing, unless Klopp thinks Nat Phillips and Kabak can get by.
Still, even with Fabinho remaining in defence, Klopp will be confident that with Henderson injecting extra rhythm and quickness to Liverpool’s play moving up the pitch, they can rediscover their form in the final third and win the bulk of their games. Diogo Jota’s return from injury in the coming weeks will also help.
Liverpool certainly need to. After facing Leicester they take on Everton at Anfield, a few days after their Champions League last-16 first leg over RB Leipzig.
The other most notable tricky encounters to come in the league include trips to Wolves, Arsenal, Leeds, Burnley and United. They also welcome Chelsea, Aston Villa and Southampton to Anfield still.
The reigning champions are widely expected to clinch Champions League qualification for next season but a top-four finish is not certain.
Liverpool badly need Kabak to slot in seamlessly at centre-back to allow Henderson to get back into midfield. Their chances of avoiding the cataclysmic blow of a return to the Europa League will surely then be stronger.
All eight of Liverpool’s Premier League defeats in the past two seasons
Watford (A) – No Henderson
Man City (A) – Henderson plays in midfield
Arsenal (A) – No Henderson
Aston Villa (A) – No Henderson
Southampton (A) – Henderson plays CB
Burnley (H) – No Henderson
Brighton (H) – Henderson at CB
Man City (H) – Henderson at CB
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