At this point, Liverpool’s roster for next season is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces already have their place, some have yet to be found, and the remainder need to be properly sorted out. Nowhere is this puzzle more complex than in Jurgen Klopp’s midfield — there are plenty of question marks, but far fewer answers. Will Emre Can be a Red next season? Will Jordan Henderson stay healthy? Is Philippe Coutinho actually going to play deeper? Who will Klopp bring in, and will he be a guaranteed starter? What’s to come for Liverpool’s fringe players?
All of these will be answered in time — some quicker than others — but quietly waiting in the wings, Klopp has a young, eager, multi-faceted tool at his disposal. He might not grab the same headlines as the transfer targets and the first-teamers, but Ovie Ejaria is ready to take that next step, and he could have a very important role to play in Liverpool’s busy upcoming campaign.
The blueprint for Liverpool’s up-and-comers
It said a lot when Klopp singled out Ejaria as the role model amongst Liverpool’s crop of young talent. Players from the U23 and U18 squads train with the first team on a regular basis, but Klopp seems to have a very clear idea of what he wants to see before players make the transition to the matchday squad. Interim U23s boss Mike Garrity offered an explanation for why Harry Wilson’s prolific form at Premier League 2 level was not enough to guarantee him a spot at in the senior team. Similarly, Klopp told Sheyi Ojo to stick to his strengths if he wanted to regain a spot in the first team following back-to-back injuries.
That Ejaria possesses the necessary intangibles is a huge positive for his future prospects with Liverpool. Not many 19-year-olds get to hone their games at the first-team level in England, but Klopp’s willingness and trust could well be what accelerate Ejaria’s trajectory beyond that of precocious peers like Wilson and Ojo.
Where does Ejaria fit?
This may sound a bit hyperbolic for a player who’s still largely unproven, but the question with Ejaria should be more of “where doesn’t he fit?” Under Garrity and his predecessor, Michael Beale, Ejaria was largely deployed across the attacking midfield line in a 4-2-3-1 or in the front three of a 4-3-3. Klopp, however, preferred to play Ejaria a bit deeper as part of a midfield three, exploiting a wider breadth of his talents. It was there that he delivered several solid if unspectacular performances across both the EFL Cup and FA Cup competitions. Unfortunately, any momentum was curbed by a nagging ankle injury that kept him out for the better part of 2017. He managed to regain his match fitness in time to join England’s title-winning side at this summer’s Under-20 World Cup, turning in a few abbreviated but encouraging performances in Paul Simpson’s midfield — none of these cameos set the world alight, but they showed a confident, composed figure nearing full fitness again.
When Liverpool kick off their pre-season fixtures in mid-July, we should get a better sense of where Klopp plans to use Ejaria this campaign. And though Ejaria is extremely talented, he does not outshine Liverpool’s existing midfield core in any one department; however, the youngster’s lack of a glaring weakness is what suits him perfectly to be Klopp’s go-to understudy in midfield.
Here’s a look at what Ejaria can bring to several of Liverpool’s midfield “roles” as defined by the players who played them best last season:
The Winjaldum Role
Much of Georginio Wijnaldum’s work last season was unheralded, but he played a vital part in keeping Liverpool’s midfield ticking. He would be best described as a “knitter” in possession, constantly making himself available as a safe but useful passing outlet, then moving the ball on quickly — typically one- or two-touches. He wasn’t tasked with playing the incisive ball, but rather passing efficiently and using a combination of sound decision making and superior football intelligence to help Liverpool craft moves in transition and in the final third.
Ejaria’s performance against Plymouth in the FA Cup replay at Anfield typified this particular role. Deployed on the left side of a midfield three, Ejaria led all players in passes completed (92) and passing percentage (96.7%), including a perfect 44/44 passes completed in the first half. While much of his distribution was sideways and relatively safe, Ejaria also managed to complete five of six long balls and play one key pass.
The one trait Ejaria and Wijnaldum share that is vital to success in this role is their ability to receive the ball on the half turn. Liverpool rely heavily on speed and rhythm of passing through the midfield, and Wijnaldum’s contribution is immeasurable — his ability to simultaneously receive one pass and shape his body to send the next is extremely underrated, and is not something that shows up on the stat sheet. Ejaria receives the ball in much the same manner, though the speed of his release is not quite as quick as Wijnaldum’s. At the end of the day, that’s a nominal tweak for a player of Ejaria’s technical ability.
The big questions marks in this case surround Ejaria’s fitness and defensive contribution. Everyone in Klopp’s midfield is expected to put in a serious shift, and there would definitely be concerns as to whether Ejaria could adapt to the physical demands of the position. All of Klopp’s players have an exceptional baseline fitness level, but Ejaria has only twice been asked to play 90 minutes under the German. Similarly, Ejaria has only once featured in a match in which Liverpool did not have the majority of possession: a 2-1 EFL Cup victory over Tottenham. He acquitted himself well, recording one tackle and three interceptions, but it’s not a viable sample for his defensive qualities. Until Ejaria has proven his defensive reliability at the first-team level, he’s best served playing this role in matches Liverpool are likely to dominate possession.
The Lallana Role
Adam Lallana’s form in 2016/17 was remarkable, albeit ultimately unsustainable. He took full advantage of Klopp’s decision to play him deeper, influencing play from the middle third and bursting forward to join Liverpool’s attacking trident. He was the catalyst to some of the club’s best attacking play, exhibiting world-class creativity, close control, and movement in the final third. Most importantly, Lallana was the midfield triggerman in Liverpool’s press, a role in which he is virtually irreplaceable. Following his debut under Klopp in 15/16, during which he so famously collapsed into the manager’s arms after being subbed off in the 81st minute, Lallana’s improved fitness levels have made him arguably the hardest working player in the Premier League. It’s no coincidence that this season he set consecutive records for distance covered in back-to-back games against Manchester City (12.88km) and Sunderland (13.22km) — less than 48 hours apart.
To replicate Lallana’s two-way output is far too big an ask for Ejaria, but he is more than capable of filling the role of the most advanced, forward-thinking in Klopp’s midfield three. Ejaria possesses the same kind of crafty, elusive close control that Lallana does and is extremely adept at picking up small pockets of space and operating in and around the box. Look no further than last summer’s pre-season tilt against Chelsea, where only the offside flag denied him a brilliant backheel assist to Roberto Firmino after a quick exchange with Sadio Mané on the edge of the box. The time he spent as part of a front three has made him more than comfortable in possession higher up the pitch, and he possesses the football IQ to effectively interchange with the other members of that fluid attack.
If there’s one aspect Ejaria needs to improve in the final third, it’s once again the speed of his decision making. He continues to look a class above against U23 opposition, but he won’t be afforded the same time and space at the senior level.
The Coutinho Role
This is, of course, a massive stretch — Coutinho’s brief spell in the No. 8 role has already seen him produce staggering numbers that, if even remotely sustained over a longer stretch, would make him one of Europe’s best central midfielders. Much like Lallana’s defensive contribution is impossible to replicate, so too is Coutinho’s offensive wizardry. The role he plays so well, however — that of a free-roaming, deep-lying playmaker — is yet another where Ejaria could deputize if needed.
Though his appearances at senior level have come in a more subdued role, Ejaria’s performances at U23 level have shown a cultured ability to pick out a pass and play an incisive ball. Provided there is movement in front of him, Ejaria has the tools to pull the strings from deep, especially if Klopp can coax him out of his comfort zone a bit and make him more willing to take risks.
The other vital trait Ejaria possesses is his evasive dribbling. While he won’t actively look to take on players and advance the play the way Coutinho might, he does have tremendously quick feet and a sound ability to sidestep tackles in close quarters. This is a valuable tool when it comes to buying time and taking defenders out of the game.
Undoubtedly, Ejaria would need a strong, experienced supporting cast around him if he were charged with playing this role, as he could not and should not be expected to change the game a moment of individual brilliance, a la Coutinho. That being said, there’s no doubting his technical ability to be the playmaking No. 8 in a system like Klopp’s.
The No. 1 intangible: confidence
Klopp knows he has a special group of youngsters coming through the ranks to complement his senior squad. But the thing that made him such a success at Dortmund, and the thing that is rightly to be expected at Liverpool, is his ability to instill belief and confidence in these players. So often he talks about players “expressing themselves” on the pitch, and that really is the perfect embodiment of what Ejaria needs to take that next step. There are a number of different roles for the still-teenager to play this season, but no matter who seems to best personify those roles at Liverpool, Ovie Ejaria can best fill those shoes if he plays like Ovie Ejaria.
Written by Alex Mansfield, @el_mansfield