Liverpool Football Club have been one of the most successful clubs in Europe in the past 5 years, winning every piece of silverware available to them – bar the UEFA Europa League. After a sustained period of success, mounting multiple 90+ point seasons and taking part in three Champions League finals, this season sees a very different output from the squad.
Many fans may forget that the club were in a similar situation throughout the 2020-21 season, when Liverpool were hit with season long injury issues. Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip were all out and Dejan Lovren had recently departed, so LFC found themselves struggling for centre-backs.
Fabinho and Jordan Henderson deputised there for a while, before the signings of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, though in truth neither of these additions helped much.
Sitting in eight place in March, having lost 7 of their last 8 games, Liverpool were worried they would miss out on European football at Anfield the next season. Clop finally found a consistent centre back pairing in Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, and the Reds ended the season on fire – winning 8 and drawing 2 of their last 10 games to finish the season in a very respectable 3rd place.
Fast forward to the current day, the injury list is once again an issue – this time at the opposite end of the field with Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz sidelined. However, many of the squad still fit to play aren’t performing like they once were. James Milner (37), Jordan Henderson (32), Thiago (31), Joel Matip (31), Roberto Firmino (31), Virgil van Dijk (31), Alisson (30) and Mohamed Salah (30) are now all aged 30 and above, with the majority in decline. The average age of the squad is much higher than in years gone by, and there are gaps in quality that were previously not an issue.
How to fix the playing squad
There has been some activity in the transfer market and also throughout the academy to begin rebuilding the squad for the future. The likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold (24), Ibrahima Konate (23), Darwin Nunez (23), Cody Gakpo (23), Fabio Carvalho (20), Harvey Elliott (19), Calvin Ramsay (19) and Stefan Bajcetic (18) all look to be the future of the club.
In that list, you’ll notice a distinct lack of midfielders that fit the mould of an athletic and physical runner that has played in the Liverpool midfield three for years. There are also no midfielders in their ‘peak years’ – they are either extremely young and inexperienced, or past their prime and lacking legs.
The first issue to address is to bring in midfielders that fit that mould – young enough to still grow with the squad, but experienced enough to command respect in the heart of the team with the legs and ability to be a Jurgen Klopp player.
One of my picks for this role would be Lazio’s Sergej Milenkovic-Savic. Standing at 6’3″, the Spanish-born Serbian national is the epitome of a box-to-box midfielder. Looking at his stats on fbref.com, he is averaging a combined 0.46 xG and xA this season, which puts him in the 97th percentile when compared with his midfield counterparts this season. He is also adept at the other end of the pitch, averaging 3.16 tackles and interceptions per 90, showcasing his ability to break up play.
On top of these individual stats, Lazio as a team play in a different style to Liverpool. Lazio have averaged around 53% possession in Serie A this year, whereas Liverpool have averaged just below 58% – meaning the Serbian will be in a system that would allow him to better utilise his talents on the ball.
As well as being good on and off the ball, the player is just 27 years old with only 18 months left on his contract, meaning Liverpool would likely be able to secure his signature for less than the £52 million he is valued at by Transfermarkt.com. He ticks every box for the next generation of the Liverpool midfield, however there will be a need for more than just one signing in this department.
The Liverpool backline already has strong foundations in Ibrahima Konate, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Virgil van Dijk has been arguably the most influential Liverpool signing in the Premier League era, but at 31 – and as much as it pains me to admit – he isn’t at the level he once was and his body seems more vulnerable to damage. He will be in the back four for at least another season or two, but it does look like it’s time to think about a replacement.
Joe Gomez is only 25 – perhaps he can find his 2019-20 form again and become Virgil’s successor? Maybe Rhys Williams can return from loan and crack on? Regardless, there will need to be a signing at centre back with Joel Matip also 31-years-old and Nat Phillips linked with a move away from the club.
My pick would be another player from the Balkans – Josko Gvardiol of RB Leipzig.
Having recently turned 21, the Croatian has proven to be an extremely capable defender but also similar to VVD, he is a progressive passer of the ball from centre-back. Averaging 4.6 progressive passes per 90 and an 89.3% pass completion rate (according to fbref.com), he would be comfortable in the possession-heavy style of Liverpool.
Still young, very talented and with time to learn from Virgil van Dijk, Gvardiol would be a very astute acquisition for Liverpool in these rebuilding years. However, he will cost a pretty penny as he is valued at just shy of £66 million by Transfermarkt.com – Leipzig will likely demand more due to Gvardiol’s contract not being set to expire until the summer of 2027.
When I took football more seriously, I started following them, and I definitely want the Premier League and LiverpoolJosko Gvardiol told Croatian news outlet 24Sata
The decision makers
Fenway Sports Group (FSG), have overseen a revolution on Merseyside but they are now being questioned as to their commitment to the side with the lack of investment. Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have a net spend in the transfer market of £207.32 million. In comparison, their closest competitors in this time has been Manchester City, led by Pep Guardiola, who in the same time period have a net spend of £581.8 million.
#FSGOUT has been trending on social media for months now with whispers of interest from the Middle East. This insecurity may also be affecting the performance of the club as a whole, as there is instability in a usually steady ship. On a lower level there are people like Michael Edwards – former Sporting Director – who has left the club after being part of an extremely successful recruitment team. His successor Julian Edwards has now handed in his resignation, only 6 months into his time in the role.
The reasons behind this chaos are unclear, but it does not seem as if the club are set up to succeed off the pitch right now, which has spilled over into on-pitch performances, as is demonstrated with the club sitting at 9th in the Premier League, having been knocked out of both domestic cups they won last season. The club need to plug the holes in the front office if they have any hope of stabilising the shaky season experienced so far.
Is it a simple fix?
In short, no.
With many players’ contacts expiring in the summer, there will be many squad places available. A few of these players are also homegrown – namely James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. With the homegrown rules in the Premier League, Liverpool will need to fill that quota in their squad, which can prove difficult due to the infamous ‘English tax’ in the market and the lack of true English quality not already playing at a rival team.
The club will also need to be offloading players who look to be on the decline, including players like Fabinho who look well past their best. Captain Jordan Henderson also looks to be on the decline, however, what he offers in terms of a voice in the dressing room is invaluable – so maybe his playing time should be restricted while he still has something to add to the squad off-the-pitch.
In addition to this there will need to be a period of adjustment for new players. Most don’t instantly fall into Jurgen Klopp’s favour, and there will need to be a balance of new and old throughout the transition so as to not throw off the chemistry in the side.
As a whole, the process is going to take time. Liverpool aren’t a club to throw hundreds of millions at the problem and hope for it to go away. They will be calculated and calm in their approach, which is frustrating for fans but they will have to be patient. The young players will develop under the tutelage of the veterans and the coaches, and new signings will be the garnish on top of the project, but they won’t be abundant at times.
So what do they do?
Liverpool haven’t become a bad side overnight, having challenged on all fronts last season – but losing key players on the pitch and in the office has derailed the club. They need to replace these key players with quality of the highest level if they are return to the top of the European stage. FSG need to open their wallets, or step aside and sell up to an owner that will. As much as it isn’t ‘the Liverpool way’, spending money is the name of the game in football today, and if you don’t keep up, you get left behind.
Yes, big name players have big price tags, but these are the players that will make instant impacts. The squad needs to have new life injected into it – with ageing legs, the players have been allowed to grow old together and this could lead to a lack of hunger perhaps?
Off the pitch is a little different. The recruitment team may have taken a hit with Michael Edwards leaving, but the data-driven model is still the x-ray of the recruitment strategy, and there are gems available on the market – as demonstrated by Brighton’s signings of Caicedo, Mitoma and others – that will fit the FSG spending model if they aren’t to sell-up.
The coaching staff are equipped to develop the current talent at their disposal but through the academy and signings, the process would be sped up significantly. In conclusion, the next steps may be apparent but they aren’t simple. It is a very uncertain period at Anfield, and the next few months will be pivotal in the direction the club takes. They need to be proactive rather than reactive if they are to stop the bleed.