Liverpool FC dona t have a fit, consistent goal-scorer. Liverpool FC dona t have a stable, reliable goalkeeper. These two facts are all that matter as far as the Merseyside Reds are concerned, but what about whata s in between? One of the reasons manager Brendan Rodgers has faced so much criticism this season is because the team have never looked quite like a single, cohesive unit. The ball doesna t zip across the grass the way it did last season, the players no longer hound their opposition the way they used to, and no one seems to truly enjoy having the ball at their feet.

While Brendan Rodgers has rightly taken the major brunt of the criticism, players like Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho have had their fair share as well. So just how truly horrible, or masterful, are Liverpool midfielders? Are they each, individually horrible, or are some of them just looking bad because of problems in other areas of the pitch?

Comparing The Midfield Core To The Leaguea s Best

In this analysis of the Liverpool midfield core, we have a look at what the numbers say. As a benchmark, it makes sense to use the midfields of the two best sides of the Premier League: Chelsea FC and Manchester City. The focus is on players who have played regularly in the central zones of midfield, and are regular starters there (at least 500 minutes played):

Liverpool FC: Lucas Leiva, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Joe Allen

Chelsea FC: Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, Oscar

Manchester City: Fernandinho, Fernando, Yaya Toure, David Silva

Players who tend to play out wide or in more attacking roles have been excluded. This includes the likes of Eden Hazard, Samir Nasri, James Milner and Lazar Markovic. Also excluded are players who are not regulars in their sides this season, such as Ramires, Frank Lampard and Emre Can.

The Defensive Midfielders

Nemanja_Matic'14Rodgers spent most of this season using Steven Gerrard as the holding midfielder, a strategy that worked well for the team last season. Of course, last season Stevie was able to spray the ball forward into the feet of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling; this season he has only Sterling to pick out. Wea ll pick on Gerrard in greater detail later. For now, leta s focus on Lucas Leiva, who has found his way back into the first team since end of November. The ideal reference points for him are Nemanja Matic, who is universally being regarded as the best defensive midfielder in the League, Fernando and Fernandinho. Herea s a look at how the statistics of these players compare:

LucasGerrardMaticFernandinhoFernando
Minutes Played65014791620950948
Tackles3.923.82.41.5
Interceptions2.10.72.11.51.6
Clearances32.42.81.11.4
Aerials Won20.51.40.90.9

Incredibly, Lucas matches or surpasses Matic in all departments, while leaving his fellow Brazilians of Man City in his dust. He tackles harder, intercepts as well as anyone and clears more balls than the best in the biz. Whata s incredible is that at 5a 10a tall, he is far shorter than Matic (who is 6a 4a ), yet on average he has won more aerial balls than the big Serbian.

Inference 1: Lucas Leiva is doing an excellent job, and his place in the first team should be written on Rodgersa whiteboard with a permanent marker.

So when you look the numbers above, which player sticks out like a sore thumb? Steven Gerrarda s rate of tackling is below average, but his ability to win aerials is quite abysmal. Looking at these numbers, our next inference is quite evident.

Inference 2: Steven Gerrard is NOT a Defensive Midfielder. And with the attack faltering, playing him as a deep-lying midfielder is a waste.

The Central Passers

Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen are the ones tasked with keeping the team ticking from the heart of midfield. Chelsea and Manchester City have two of the worlda s best midfielders (both former Barcelona players) to call upon for this job; namely Cesc Fabregas and Yaya Toure.

GerrardHendoAllenFabregasToure
Minutes Played1479154660815971433
Goals32026
Assists150131
Passes per Game56.354.627.7*86.886.9
Pass Success %86.182.188.587.589.6
Key Passes2.21.90.63.41.1
Crosses1.20.80.220.1
Through Balls0.10.300.50.4
Long Balls6.52.80.45.94.1
Dribbles0.10.50.51.21.5

*Joe Allena s stats are skewed due to a large number of substitute appearances. But nearly all his starts have also seen a maximum of 50 passes in a game.

yaya_toure(c)footiechatterOne things stands out: Fabregas is an incredible, incredible player; his 14 assists are the highest in the League, with the runner up (Gylfi Sigurdsson) having only 8. His stats are truly amazing, and even a world class talent like Yaya Toure only manages to beat him in the number of goals scored and dribbles made. Incidentally, Fabregas is also a better defensive presence, with 2.8 tackles/game against Tourea s 1.1.

One obvious inference from this is that Liverpool are lacking a playmaker in central midfield, someone who can make the team tick. What Rodgers wouldna t give to have a Xabi Alonso, or even the Steven Gerrard from 4 years ago, at his disposal. But whata s worrying is the low number of successful dribbles by these midfielders. Not only are they far behind Cesc and Yaya, even more defensive players like Matic (1.6) and Fernandinho (1.2) outperform Henderson, Allen and Gerrard.

Steven Gerrarda s dribbling statistics are worrying. An average of one dribble in 10 games is completely unacceptable from a midfielder. Ita s seriously confounding considering this is a player who was once famous for his attacking runs past defenders.

Inference 3: Rodgers has to stop playing Steven Gerrard in the holding role, and he shouldna t be started further forward till he gets some of his attacking groove back.

Steven Gerrarda s talents lie primarily in his passing skills right now. With the attack not having the pace or the assurance of last season, Rodgers cana t compromise on the defensive security provided by Lucas. And Gerrard cana t be started in a role further forward if hea s going to continue to show such an unwillingness to dribble forward. A substitute role may be the way to go, atleast until Daniel Sturridge returns to the side and Gerrarda s raking forward balls have atleast 2 targets to pick out.

Attacking Midfielders

Ita s understandable that, with the changes in the forward line of the team, the performances of Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana have also suffered. But they really need to pick up their game in the second half of the season.

CoutinhoLallanaOscarSilva
Minutes Played113492512101059
Goals2436
Assists2252
Passes per Game38.428.354.168.4
Key Passes0.91.31.72.4
Dribbles2.71.211.5
Shots per Game2.31.53.11.5

The passing statistics, just like for the central midfielders, are low. As are the number of key passes, and even the number of shots on goal. Coutinho may be the standout dribbler, but ita s pointless if therea s no end product. Currently Jordan Henderson averages thrice as many average through-balls per game (0.3) than Coutinho, and an equal number of crosses (0.8). As the player further forward, he has to contribute more.

Between the relatively low passing stats and the lower dribbling rates point to a basic problem:

Inference 4: Liverpool are not retaining the ball in midfield enough.

While all the top teams do a better job of retaining the ball in midfield, Liverpool spend more time just passing it around their back-line. This allows the opposition to get on top of the team and force errors.

Conclusion

December has seen an improvement in form for the Reds. The new 3-4-2-1 formation with Raheem Sterling playing furthest forward is paying dividends, and the trio of Coutinho, Lallana and Sterling are finally starting to look like a cohesive attacking unit. But there are still issues for Rodgers to sort out. Figuring out Steven Gerrarda s role in the team is crucial, as is improving the midfielda s ability to retain the ball by passing amongst themselves. Lucas is irreplaceable, but his fellow Brazilian Coutinho needs to increase his output in the coming days.

Data source: a Whoscored.coma . All data as on 30th December 2014.