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Tackling the big Liverpool midfield question
Liverpool's squad is in excellent shape – but would it be a mistake not to freshen up the midfield with a new addition this summer?
Following the arrivals of Darwin Nunez and Calvin Ramsay from Benfica and Aberdeen, and with Fabio Carvalho to complete his move from Fulham on 1st July, the word is that Liverpool, as it stands, don’t intend to make any further signings this summer. Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen, and it’s worth remembering how these things can quickly change, but for now, let’s take it at face value and assume Liverpool are done in terms of incoming transfers.
In both defence and in attack, the squad is now at a stage whereby realistically, it’s hard for Liverpool to improve on the options they currently have at their disposal. In Virgil van Dijk, Ibrahima Konate, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, Liverpool have four excellent centre-backs, all of whom bring a slightly different set of qualities to the table. Kostas Tsimikas has proven himself to be an outstanding deputy for Andy Robertson, and the hope is that with time, Calvin Ramsay will become a similarly able understudy to Trent Alexander-Arnold. The goalkeeper department also remains stacked with quality, of course.
Despite the departures of Sadio Mane and Divock Origi, and with Takumi Minamino also nearing the exit door, Jürgen Klopp will be able to pick from a tantalizing variety of options up top in 2022/23, with Nunez bringing a whole new dimension to the attack alongside Mohamed Salah, Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino. Carvalho, too, could conceivably be another potent final third asset.
In midfield, however, the waters are considerably muddier – not so much in terms of numbers per se, but more to do with the quality of the existing options and also the durability of those at the front end of the pecking order. At present, there are eight senior midfielders in the squad (nine if Tyler Morton is included), although that number could be trimmed if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain moves on at some point this summer.
Over the course of last season, it became clear that Klopp had a quartet of go-to midfielders, three of whom he wanted on the pitch as much as possible: Fabinho, Thiago, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita. They’re a fantastic set of options to have, all of whom played a hugely important role in Liverpool going the distance in every competition in 2021/22. The key issue, I would argue, is the extent of the drop-off from them to the likes of James Milner, Curtis Jones and Oxlade-Chamberlain – especially given the fact that all of Fabinho, Thiago, Henderson and Keita have been susceptible to missing significant chunks of games through injury in the past (albeit, Henderson’s fitness record last season was exceptional).
Playing Jones or Milner alongside two of the first choice midfielders is absolutely fine against certain types of opponents, but relying on them to perform at the required level on a consistent basis over a period of several weeks or months is a totally different scenario. Jones may eventually be capable of it as he continues to mature, but we haven’t quite seen it just yet.
Last season, Thiago only started two of the first 11 Premier League games, and Liverpool dropped points on five of those occasions – a slow start which ultimately proved costly, despite a phenomenal run in the second half of the campaign to take Man City right to the wire. Overall, Liverpool dropped just 22 points in the entire season, and 18 of those points were dropped in games that Thiago didn’t start. The Spaniard wasn’t involved in the 3-3 draw to Brentford away, the 2-2 draw to Brighton at home and the 1-0 defeat to Leicester away. In the 3-2 defeat to West Ham, he only came off the bench late on.
Liverpool didn’t beat any of Man City, Chelsea or Tottenham in the league, drawing on all six occasions, and Thiago didn’t start in four of those due to Covid and injury. Other factors were obviously at play, and it would be a wild oversimplification to suggest that Thiago’s absence was the reason Liverpool struggled against the other top four sides, but it’s hardly a coincidence that on so many occasions, they weren’t able to exert the same level of control in games without him.
It speaks volumes, too, that Klopp felt compelled to start both Thiago and Fabinho in the Champions League final despite both players clearly not being fully fit due to recent injury issues at the time. Looking ahead to next season, it feels like a pretty big gamble to hope that all of Fabinho, Thiago, Henderson and Keita can stay fit (and fresh) enough for Liverpool to mount another serious challenge on all fronts.
It may well be that Klopp views Jones at a much higher level than a lot of onlookers, and that he anticipates Harvey Elliott having a major role to play, as he did at the start of last season before injury curtailed his form just as he was establishing himself as a regular first team player. It may also be the case that he intends to play a variation of 4-2-3-1 on a more regular basis with one of Firmino, Carvalho or Elliott as a number ten ahead of a midfield double pivot.
As talented as they undoubtedly are, though, it feels like an awful lot to expect of players like Elliott and Carvalho to play such a prominent role at such an early stage in their development for a Liverpool side whose ambitions will be to win at least one of the Premier League or Champions League. There will undoubtedly be certain games where their creative flair and youthful exuberance proves very useful, but it could be that Carvalho gets most of his opportunities in one of the forward positions while he settles, mainly off the bench and in the domestic cups. Elliott, meanwhile, barely featured after returning from a pretty severe injury, so it’s hard to gauge what kind of level he’s at right now, and how long it’ll take him to get fully back up to the level he was at prior to that horrendous piece of misfortune.
Keeping Milner around for another year makes sense, especially for his influence in training and in the dressing room, but his game time will surely be reduced even further. Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the other hand, was completely frozen out for the final few months of last season, and at this point it’s difficult to envisage a scenario in which he revives his Liverpool career from here (if indeed he’s still at the club by the start of the new campaign).
All of which therefore begs the question: why are Liverpool not planning to bring in a midfielder this summer (bearing in mind they also didn’t buy a direct replacement for Gini Wijnaldum last summer)? It’s well documented that they wanted Aurelien Tchouameni before Real Madrid swooped in, so it’s not as though they haven’t considered the possibility of investing heavily in that part of the squad. A credible theory is that they have their sights firmly set on Jude Bellingham, and are willing to play the long game given Borussia Dortmund’s understandable reluctance to lose him and Erling Haaland in the same summer.
Such is the level Liverpool are at now that the pool of players capable of coming in and improving the squad is relatively small – and as we’ve seen countless times before, Liverpool tend to hold out for their preferred target rather than pursuing a lesser alternative, even if it means waiting longer than they’d ideally like.
On the flip side, Liverpool are in a sweet spot right now where many of their best players are in the peak of their careers, and they have one of, if not the best manager in the world at the helm. While there’s plenty of merit in the argument for patience, there is also an understandable sense of urgency that Liverpool need to fully cash in on this era by winning as many trophies as possible, because it won’t last forever.
This squad would be more than good enough to cruise their way to the Premier League title in most seasons in any other era, but the reality Liverpool must deal in is the one that demands them to go head-to-head with a state-funded Man City side, who have raised the bar higher than it has ever been. Last season, and in 2018/19, we’ve seen just how fine the margins are between winning the league and falling agonisingly short – and it’s for this reason that many people want to see Liverpool leave no stone unturned in the transfer market this summer, rather than leaving anything to chance.
There’s a broader point in all of this, too, in that Liverpool have only signed one central midfielder in the past four years now (Thiago), and that they could do with freshening it up as they have done with the attack and the defence as part of a long-term succession plan. Milner will likely be gone next summer, Henderson and Thiago will be 33 and 32 respectively, and Oxlade-Chamberlain almost certainly won’t be part of the picture.
If they don’t sign one now, they’ll need two in a year’s time, as well as potentially needing to find a replacement for Salah if no agreement can be reached around his contract situation. That’s an awful lot of work to do in one window, which would require a pretty hefty amount of spending to get sorted.
Whether it be a more defensive-minded midfielder to provide cover and competition for Fabinho (e.g. PSV Eindhoven’s Ibrahim Sangare), a more attacking option with the ability to add more goals and assists from central areas (e.g. James Maddison, who Liverpool haven’t been linked to but I think is superb), or an all-rounder (e.g. Bellingham or Nicolo Barella) who can do a bit of everything, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there’s a real opportunity there to strengthen. It’s hardly unreasonable to be concerned that Liverpool might end up leaving themselves ever so slightly short if they choose not to do so.
It’s not about being obsessed with transfers for transfers’ sake, not valuing the current players or not trusting the meticulous approach to transfers which has underpinned Liverpool’s success in recent years. It’s quite possible to simultaneously be hugely excited for the season ahead, delighted with the signings so far and confident in the club’s overall strategy, while also really wanting to see a new midfielder added to the mix. Money should hardly be an issue, given that Liverpool will probably recoup the entire fee for Nunez through sales alone.
A perfect squad might not exist, but by strengthening the midfield this summer, Liverpool would be very, very close to it. That’s not to say they can’t still be successful if they don’t buy one, and with a hefty slice of luck with injuries, they may just be fine with what they have. But, if they were able to bring in a midfielder of the right profile at some point in the next few weeks, it may just prove to be a decisive factor that helps get them over the line for one of the big two they so narrowly missed out on last time.
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