There were two key questions surrounding Liverpool’s midfield rebuild this summer: which players would comprise it and which formation did the club buy?
More specifically, would Jurgen Klopp return to his traditional 4-3-3 system or continue with the 3-box-3 set-up in which Liverpool ended the season.
The addition of Dominik Szoboszlai appears to have provided more clarity as the 22-year-old looks eminently suited to the right-sided No.10 role in box midfield.
You can already imagine how Liverpool could set themselves up in such a system, with Alexis MacAllister – the second big arrival of the summer so far – operating alongside him.
It’s no surprise manager Jurgen Klopp is such a fan. He profiles as the exact type of player Liverpool are targeting: young (22), entering the prime of his career, with plenty of experience domestically and internationally, and the right qualities such as leadership and maturity.
Playing in a box midfield will not be new to Szoboszlai as he operated on the right side of Marco Rose’s 4-2-2-2 for Leipzig in 2022-23.
One of the main reasons Liverpool were interested in the Hungary international is his ability to slot into different roles in different systems. He can operate as a No. 8, No. 10 and on either flank, but he is obviously an attacking midfielder.
Liverpool’s scouting team have been keen observers for a number of years and the belief is that he can add pace and craft in the final third as a false nine, wide midfielder and No.10, which is considered his best position.
“To be honest, it doesn’t matter to me – I want to be on the pitch,” he said in his first interview with the club’s media. “But of course everyone has their own position. Of course, attacking midfielder as a 10. I can play on both 10s, left, right, on the sides too. I just want to play.”
Following the addition of Mac Allister last month to fill the left-sided No.10 role and the continued links with Nice’s Khephren Thuram and Southampton’s Romeo Lavia, who profile more as No.6s, the right-sided No.10 remained -position an area to address.
Jordan Henderson was shoehorned into that position to finish the season, but it’s a role that doesn’t naturally suit his strengths.
The England international was an important presence due to his leadership and tactical understanding – it helped as Liverpool learned the system as they went along.
However, his lack of creativity and goal contributions was more noticeable in a more advanced midfield role. According to FBref, seven of Henderson’s best eight games for touches came in the attacking third after the switch in the system.
Dominik Szoboszlai: The versatile technician who could be perfect for Liverpool
Henderson did not score and provided just three assists in 43 appearances in all competitions, which pales next to Szoboszlai’s 10 goals and 13 assists in 46 appearances. That’s not to criticize Henderson, who played deeper than number 10 for most of the season, but that’s not the England international’s game.
Henderson has been a central cog in Liverpool’s right triangle alongside Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Liverpool’s right-sided No. 8 has always been taller than the left-sided No. 8, but even more so in midfield.
The new system has changed the positional rotation between the three players, requiring the central midfielder to fill in as the widest of the three more often, with Alexander-Arnold playing narrower.
The graphic below shows Henderson’s touch card from the final 10 games of last season and highlights how often the 33-year-old drifted wide to receive the ball.
Despite Szoboszlai often playing as a right midfielder in a 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-3-1 for Leipzig last season, you wouldn’t label him as an out-and-out winger. Rather, he is a creative attacking midfielder who pulls wide – a crucial part of the job for the right-sided No.10 role in a boxy midfield.
In this example against Ottensen, Szoboszlai picked up the ball on the right flank and darted past the nearest defender.
He drove into the box and got to the byline before delivering a simple cut-back to his team-mate.
Similarly, when Leipzig broke forward, Szoboszlai kept the width of the team…
… and ran on to a pass down the right channel to again provide a cut for a simple tap-in.
Not only is crossing an important part of his creativity, but he shows his intelligence by repeatedly being able to pick the right delivery and teammate.
Across the last two seasons, Szoboszlai created 161 chances, an RB Leipzig team high, and 99 of those were from open play – with Christopher Nkunku, now at Chelsea, the only teammates to register more (132) from open play.
Szoboszlai also produced the fifth-highest xG assist figure in the Bundesliga (7.72), with 5.97 coming from open play.
He averaged 5.5 shot-making actions per game. 90 minutes – the two offensive actions that directly led to a shot, such as passes, take-ons and draw fouls – which was the highest in the Leipzig squad and significantly higher than any of Liverpool’s players in the Premier League last season with Harvey Elliott (4.19), Salah (3.83) and Alexander-Arnold (3.82) make up the top three.
He is adept at finding pockets of space, and then being able to move the ball quickly, or carry the ball forward. He excels in moments of transition, which is ideal for Liverpool’s system, and his technical quality allows him to show off his quick feet and weight of passing.
In this example, Szoboszlai received possession and turned and drove at the opposition defence.
He waited for the perfect moment, held off defenders and slotted in Nkunku.
The Frenchman finished the move with a delicate chip.
In another example, he was patient and stayed in the space he was in when the ball was played into striker Andre Silva.
The Portuguese striker moved the ball to Szoboszlai, who pulled the full-back towards him…
…and he slipped into right-back Mohamed Simakan.
You can almost imagine the same move but replacing Silva and Simakan with Cody Gakpo and Salah.
Alongside the creativity is his well-known long-range shooting, which will be beneficial against deep-lying teams. Cautious opponents can be drawn out of position if they have to shut him down and open up passing lanes around the box.
Szoboszlai’s high pressing and defensive metrics have improved as he has gained more experience, and he should fit into Liverpool’s counter-pressing philosophy, although the intensity of the Premier League and Klopp’s notoriously demanding system should be taken into account.
The absence of Henderson, who is a reliable defensive presence on the right, raises questions about the protection in the right channel in front of right centre-back Ibrahima Konate. Henderson is excellent at closing gaps; Szoboszlai will need to use his athleticism to do the same and give Salah and Alexander-Arnold the freedom to perform.
It will surely be a key question for Liverpool to address in their pre-season training camp in Germany next week. For now, though, their midfield puzzle is closer to being complete, and they now have two exciting young footballers for Klopp to mold to fit his vision of the club’s new era.
(Top photo: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)