Neil Humphreys: Reds pray for Year of the Ox
Liverpool can win EPL title with new midfield options like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita
One flick was enough. One Goal-of-the-Season contender confirmed what Juergen Klopp has been thinking for almost two years.
Liverpool can win the title with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The Reds won the Champions League without him, but Klopp still laments the one that got away.
Last year, they were on their way. Oxlade-Chamberlain had pushed his exhausted body to breaking point in his bid for European glory.
But his body betrayed him. The anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee ruptured and a season was shattered. Liverpool lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid.
Oxlade-Chamberlain might have made the difference in Europe back then, just as he did against Genk yesterday morning (Singapore time).
He scored twice, but his second goal, so effortless, so exquisite, displayed the kind of creative risk rarely seen in Liverpool’s midfield.
The front three are typically relied on to conjure up the magic tricks. The automatons, playing just behind, busy themselves with the water-carrying.
But Oxlade-Chamberlain does not think that way.
When the ball rolled towards him, he had not enough time and too much distance to fashion a conventional strike. So he went for the unconventional.
Despite being sideways to goal, he clipped an arching, spinning strike over the goalkeeper and into the top corner.
Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner don’t score goals like that. Most midfielders don’t even see the opportunity, lacking the artistry to paint the right picture as the pass heads their way.
But Manchester City’s midfielders can.
Until yesterday, the only difference between City and Liverpool – that infinitesimal edge that separated the two sides by a single point last season – was the midfield ingenuity that Oxlade-Chamberlain displayed.
City are a hive of impish, buzzing No. 10s, threading lines and slipping passes to grateful finishers.
The Reds are usually highpressing, high-energy road runners, beeping along the touchlines before whipping crosses towards the front three.
Their invigorating speed and intensity were enough to win the Champions League, but not quite sufficient to supplant City at the summit.
That’s why Oxlade-Chamber lain’s lengthy absence pained his manager. Klopp was denied a quick, intelligent midfielder in his prime.
When Oxlade-Chamberlain suffered the injury after a sliding tackle on Aleksandar Kolarov during Liverpool’s 5-2 win against AS Roma on April 24, 2018, he was 24.
Now, he’s 26. The speedster lost almost two years and Liverpool lost a creative alternative to their regular 4-3-3 line-up.
Klopp has choices now.
He tested a new central trio against Genk, fielding Naby Keita and Fabinho alongside Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Obviously, the limited Belgians afforded Klopp the luxury of tinkering, but he’s also seeking a Plan B, particularly after Manchester United’s successful neutering of their enemies last Sunday.
And it worked.
The timing was impeccable, considering Tottenham Hotspur head to Anfield on Monday morning (Singapore time).
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s resurgence elevated those around him. Keita made a game-high 118 passes (80 in the opponents’ half). He completed 93 per cent of them. He also had the most touches and contested duels.
Fabinho picked up the slack behind Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain as the pair ventured forward.
Liverpool effectively played with one anchor, rather than two, which was a riskier proposition, but a more attacking one. The personnel may not all return against Spurs, as Klopp ponders a more defenceminded approach, but OxladeChamberlain must stay.
Aside from his mercurial form, Henderson does not score Oxlade-Chamberlain’s kind of goals. He wouldn’t entertain the possibility of such an outlandish strike.
Oxlade-Chamberlain may not score a similar goal again either. Perfection is rare, even among the elite.
But he’ll keep trying. He’ll glimpse chances that others won’t see.
He’ll present his manager with another route to goal. He will be the kind of midfielder that used to be the exclusive property of City.
Just as central defence was – and remains – the exposed exhaust port in City’s Death Star, central midfield was always the weak spot for Liverpool.
But Klopp has options now. He has Henderson’s combo of honest toilers.
He also has Oxlade-Chamberlain’s jazz trio of improvisers.
They hit different notes for different audiences.
And Oxlade-Chamberlain has earned his second act.
His commitment to a punishing rehabilitation schedule earned the admiration of his teammates and his manager in particular.
Klopp remembers OxladeChamberlain gripping his crutches, head down, trying to hide his tears after watching Liverpool lose the 2018 Champions League final.
Both men instinctively understood how much Oxlade-Chamberlain’s absence had cost the club that day. Both men are eager to make amends now.
There’s no guarantee that the Reds will win a title with Oxlade-Chamberlain. But they’ve already proved that they could not win one without him.