There have been two main questions about rebuilding Liverpool’s midfield this summer: Who will form it, and what formation did the club buy?
More specifically, will Jurgen Klopp return to his traditional 4-3-3 system or continue the 3-Box-3 formation in which Liverpool finished the season.
The addition of Dominik Szoboszlai seems to have provided more clarity as the 22-year-old looks well suited to the No. 10 role on the right flank of midfield.
You can already imagine how well Liverpool could establish themselves in such a system, with Alexis Mac Allister – the other big summer arrival so far – working alongside him.
It’s no surprise that manager Jurgen Klopp is so impressed. Described as the exact type of player Liverpool are targeting: young (22), moving into the prime of his career, with plenty of experience both domestically and internationally, and the right characteristics such as leadership and maturity.
Playing in a square midfield would not be new for Szoboszlai as he had an operation on the right side of Marco Rose’s 4-2-2-2 at Leipzig in 2022-23.
One of the main reasons Liverpool were interested in the Hungary international was his ability to play different roles in different systems. He can operate as a No. 8 and No. 10 and on either side, but he is naturally an attacking midfielder.
Liverpool scouts have been keen observers for a number of years and the belief is that he can add pace and craftsmanship in the final third as a wide midfielder, false nine and number 10, which is seen as his best position.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me – I want to be on the field,” he said in his first interview with the club’s media. But of course everyone has their own situation. Of course, the attacking midfielder at the age of ten. I can play with two dozen, on the left, on the right, and on the sides too. I just want to play.”
After the addition of McAllister last month to fill the No 10 left-side role and the ongoing links of Nice’s Jefren Thuram and Southampton’s Romeo Lafia, who became the right-handed No. 6, the right-handed No. 10 remained a field to contend with.
Jordan Henderson has been appointed to the role to finish the season, but it’s a role that doesn’t naturally fit his strengths.
The England international was an important presence due to his leadership and tactical understanding – and it helped, given that Liverpool were learning the system as they went along.
However, his lack of creativity and goal contribution was most evident in a more advanced midfield role. According to FBref, seven of Henderson’s eight best games have come in the offensive third place after the switch in the system.
Dominic Zuboszlai: A versatile technician who could be ideal for Liverpool
Henderson has not scored and recorded just three assists in 43 games in all competitions, which pales next to Szoboszlai’s 10 goals and 13 assists in 46 appearances. This is not to criticize Henderson, who has played deeper than the No. 10 role for most of the season, but it is not an England international.
Henderson was a key player in Liverpool’s right-side triangle alongside Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Liverpool’s No. 8 right side was always higher than the left side No. 8 player but even more so in the midfield of the penalty area.
The new system changed the positional rotation between the three players and required the midfielder to fill in as the widest of these three more often than not, with Alexander-Arnold playing the narrowest.
The graphic below shows Henderson’s touch map from the last 10 games last season and highlights the number of times the 33-year-old drifted wide to receive the ball.
Although Szoboszlai frequently played as a right midfielder in Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-3-1 last season, you wouldn’t classify him as an outfield winger. Instead, he’s a creative attacking midfielder who pulls the ball wide – an important part of the role brief playing right 10 in a boxy midfield.
In this example against Ottensen, Szoboszlai picked up the ball from the right and went past the nearest defender.
He drove into the box, reaching the byline before offering his teammate a small cut.
Likewise, when Leipzig sprinted forward, Szoboszlai kept the team show…
…and ran down the right channel to again provide a minor register cut.
Not only does this cross over with an essential part of his creativity, but he shows off his intelligence through his ability to repeatedly pick up the right delivery and teammate.
Over the past two seasons, Szoboszlai has created 161 chances, RB Leipzig’s side high, and 99 of those have been from open play – with Christopher Nkunku, now at Chelsea, the only team-mates to score more (132) from open play.
Szoboszlai also produced the fifth highest assist xG number in the Bundesliga (7.72), of which 5.97 came from open play.
He averaged 5.5 shot-creating moves per 90 minutes – the two offensive actions that lead directly to a shot, such as passing, shooting and fouling – which was the highest in the Leipzig team and far higher than any of the Liverpool players in the squad. Premier League last season with Harvey Elliott (4.19), Salah (3.83) and Alexander-Arnold (3.82) making up the top three.
He is skilled at finding pockets of emptiness, and then is able to quickly move the ball, or propel the ball forward. He excels in transitional moments, which is ideal for the Liverpool system, and his technical quality allows him to show off with his quick feet and heavy passing.
In this example, Szoboszlai gained possession and conversion, and drove in the opposition defense.
Wait for the perfect moment, hold off the defenders, and enter Nkunku.
The Frenchman finished the movement with an accurate chip.
In another example, he was patient and stayed in his space as the ball was played to striker Andre Silva.
The Portuguese forward passed the ball to Szoboszlai, who directed the full-back towards him…
… and slipped into the right-back position, Mehmet Semakan.
You can almost imagine the same move but replacing Silva and Simakan with Cody Gakpo and Salah.
Besides the creativity, there’s his well-known long-distance shooting, which will come in handy against deep teams. Worrying opponents can be removed from their positions if they have to close it down, opening up passing lanes around the penalty area.
Szoboszlai’s high pressing and defending metrics have improved as he gains more experience and he must fit in with Liverpool’s counter-pressing philosophy, even if some concessions should be earmarked for Premier League strength and Klopp’s notoriously hard-hitting system.
The absence of Henderson, who is a reliable defensive presence on the right, raises questions about protection in the right channel in front of right-wing centre-back Ibrahima Konate. Henderson is excellent at filling in the gaps. Szoboszlai will need to deploy his athleticism to do the same and allow Salah and Alexander-Arnold the freedom to perform.
This will certainly be a major issue for Liverpool to tackle at their pre-season training camp in Germany next week. For now, though, their midfield puzzle is nearing completion and they now have two exciting young footballers for Klopp to craft to fit his vision of the club’s new era.
(Top photo: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)
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