Buried in the ludicrous, baffling logic of Jordan Henderson’s recent interview with The Athletic, in which he attempted to explain his decision to leave Liverpool for the riches of Saudi Arabia and Al Ettifaq while sacrificing the reputation built up over 12 years on Merseyside, there was an element of black comedy.
“I won’t go into detail about the conversation because it’s private, but it put me in a position where I knew that I wasn’t going to be playing as much,” he said of a conversation with Jürgen Klopp in pre-season that “sent alarm bells ringing” over his role. “I knew there were going to be new players coming in my position.”
Henderson later added: “That’s not to say that they forced me out of the club or they were saying they wanted me to leave but at no point did I feel wanted by the club or anyone to stay.”
Having arrived at Liverpool’s AXA Training Centre for the start of preparations for what would be his 13th season with the club, after working tirelessly to improve his physique during the off-season, he was greeted by the eager smile of Dominik Szoboszlai.
Arriving on the same day of pre-season, the two midfielders could not have been in more contrasting situations.
A £60 million signing from RB Leipzig, the Hungary captain was, for all intents and purposes, the Henderson replacement many fans had long called out for; the 33-year-old a punchline as he looked to convince himself a move to the Saudi Pro League was not, in fact, motivated by money.
It may be early days for Szoboszlai, but he looks every bit the upgrade on Henderson as Liverpool’s new right-sided midfielder.
A stud in the No. 8 shirt, the Red Bull alumni is also swiftly erasing mixed memories of Naby Keita’s stint wearing the number made iconic by Steven Gerrard.
It has come, too, in perhaps a slightly different role than many expected upon his move from the Bundesliga, having scored 20 goals and laid on 22 assists in 91 games for Leipzig while primarily operating as one of two No. 10s or on the right wing.
The signings of Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister suggested that Klopp could be planning to flood the final third with his new system incorporating a box midfield, but both have served as all-round midfielders instead.
Starting all four games for Liverpool so far this season, much of the 22-year-old’s best work has, in fact, come in ensuring structure as part of a new-look side still searching for it. For example, Andy Robertson, with 34, is the only player so far to record more ball recoveries than Szoboszlai, who is tied with Mac Allister on 26.
He was central to finding stability against both Bournemouth and Newcastle when, following red cards to Mac Allister and Virgil van Dijk respectively, Liverpool were forced to change shape and he was required to sit in as part of a two-man midfield.
“He was the only one who really felt like he had power for more, because he was part of the double six and running everywhere,” Klopp said of Szoboszlai following a relentless display in the 3-1 win over Bournemouth that saw Mac Allister wrongly dismissed.
“I had to hold him back a little bit!”
Only full-backs Robertson (349) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (286) have had more touches of the ball than his 268, which matches up when it comes to passes completed – Robertson’s tally is 256, Alexander-Arnold’s 189 and Szoboszlai’s 186.
Of players to clock at least 180 minutes on the pitch over those four fixtures, only centre-backs Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate (both 89.7%) have a higher pass success rate than the Hungarian (86.1%).
That those players are primarily defensive and Szoboszlai’s remit is, fundamentally, to support the attack makes his output all the more impressive – particularly as he has also lent himself outstandingly to the attacking cause.
Alexander-Arnold, with nine, is the only Liverpool player to create more chances, as Szoboszlai matches Mohamed Salah with seven. Only Luis Díaz, with 2.1, averages more successful dribbles per 90 minutes than his 1.8. And though he is yet to register a definition assist, he is behind only Salah (0.6) when it comes to expected assists, of which he has 0.5.
Szoboszlai is also up there when it comes to shots on goal, with only Darwin Núñez (7.6), Salah (3.7), Diogo Jota (3.2) and Díaz (3.1) – all, it must be said, members of the forward line – looking to test the goalkeeper more times on average than the midfielder’s two per 90.
One of those led to a goal from Jota in the victory over Bournemouth, Szoboszlai’s drive palmed out into the path of his team-mate during a game in which he also won the opening penalty; another, three minutes into the visit of Aston Villa to Anfield, resulted in a sensational goal of his own.
The purity of his first-time strike, gliding in off his left foot through a throng of bodies following Alexander-Arnold’s corner, revealed the technique that has left Hungary manager Marco Rossi convinced he has only seen “five players in the last 50 years that have a shot like him.”
Watching Szoboszlai wheel away before pulling off a textbook knee slide, the No. 8 adorning his back, brought back vivid memories of a player who could very comfortably make that five-man list: Gerrard himself.
Only turning 23 in October, the Reds look to have acquired a gem in Szoboszlai, a 6’1”, all-action midfielder, composed on the ball, with an eye for goal and – to borrow the words of Dirk Kuyt when describing another former Liverpool midfielder, Gini Wijnaldum – the lungs of a horse.
That he is only four games into his career at Anfield and is already showing such promise is tantalising, with the glow-up from Henderson’s tired stasis to Szoboszlai’s boundless potential one Klopp’s midfield had been desperate for.