Ins & Outs (by the numbers)
Earlier this week, Liverpool players arrived for pre-season training in Austria to prepare for the upcoming season. Last season was a campaign that many want to forget, bar a late run of form that helped squeeze out a deserved and surprising third-place finish. Let’s not overlook the importance of the squad never quitting on the objective of qualifying for the upcoming Champions League, even if this author may have quit making Liverpool Football Club matches “must-see TV” blocked off my work calendar. We could’ve been left wanting like Spurs and Arsenal fans this summer. Instead, we have a renewed optimism that LFC will return to glory with trophies in our immediate future. Pre-season fixtures begin in less than a week, with the regular season less than a month away. Is the club ready for another grind? Are you?
The first order of business, and the focus of this story, is to see how the roster will take shape for the upcoming season. Much has been said about the Fenway Sports Group policy of intelligent net spending and trying to grow talent from within the academy. Many supporters don’t agree with this approach, but quite simply it’s just the way it will be now and for the very near future. For that reason, I wanted to take a more practical approach to help understand the transfer strategy in this upcoming transfer window. The best metric that I can think of to analyze the squad requirements is to consider how many players were utilized for the number of meaningful matches played per season. Players are frequently deemed “surplus to requirements”, so I thought it best to figure out exactly what those requirements are. You may have noticed me using the adjective “meaningful” earlier in this paragraph, and that warrants another loose definition. For the purposes of this analysis, let’s consider Premier League and Champions League matches as “meaningful.” It would be nice to make a decent Cup run, and it only takes six wins to bring home silverware, but there are too many variables that get in the way of making an honest attempt to win one of these cups. Case in point: the 2020 League Cup where Liverpool reached the quarterfinals against Aston Villa. Because of the scheduling conflict with the FIFA Club World Cup, a competition ultimately won by Liverpool, the club had to field a squad of youthful reserves whose kit numbers on the day nearly added up to a thousand (995 to be exact; I checked). And so many times we rarely see the top English clubs play a strong squad in the early rounds, so I can’t take these competitions seriously if they don’t.
Last season Liverpool played only 48 meaningful matches thanks to an early exit in the Champions League quarterfinals against Real Madrid. We all are aware of the significant injury crisis our defense experienced last season, and that resulted in plugging 28 players for these matches. You could argue that the final group stage match against Midtjylland had no meaning since Liverpool had already won the group, but that’s why I don’t count Billy Koumetio or Leighton Clarkson amongst those 28 players used as that was their only appearance for the club last season. Last season was the highest player total for the club by far, three more than the 2017-18 campaign when Liverpool marched all the way to Kiev for the Champions League Final with more meaningful matches.
For planning purposes, we must assume that Liverpool will be playing the season out all the way to the finals of every competition entered. Even though I am not considering the domestic cups as “meaningful” I will absolutely concede that a deep run in either competition will necessitate the need to play the strongest lineup in the semifinals or final, if not the quarterfinals, in order to secure silverware. Liverpool must be prepared to play strength in 38 Premier League matches, six Champions League group stage matches, seven Champions League knockout stage matches, and perhaps three League Cup and FA Cup matches each. That’s a total of 57 possible matches in the upcoming campaign. Is the current club depth sufficient to support all of those matches? Let’s check it out.
Goalkeeper is not going to be an issue. Alisson Becker returns along with everyone’s favorite backup Caoimhín Kelleher in support. I was surprised as everyone else when on June 14th the club announced that they had extended Adrian’s deal with the club. I guess it’s good to have an experienced stopper in your stable, but I was certain that he would’ve wanted to leave for greener pastures elsewhere. Suffice to say, depth is not going to be an issue between the pipes this season.
Another position not worth fretting over is wing-back. Andy Robertson (49 meaningful matches played last season) and Trent (45) played a vast majority of the season, and that is expected to continue. Understudies Neco Williams (13) and Kostas Tsimikas (7) offered decent coverage. It might be nice to pick up another wing-back for depth, but I wouldn’t consider it a priority. Rumors persist about a potential Neco Williams departure and that might help to add funds for incoming transfers if the price is right. 18-year old Northern Irishman Conor Bradley could replace Neco in that supporting role. He has impressed enough to warrant an invitation to the Austrian camp, and Klopp has earned the right to make that call if he thinks the kid is ready. And in dire emergencies, there’s always James Milner.
A more important defensive position to scrutinize is center-back. Virgil van Dijk (7), Joe Gomez (10), and Joel Matip (12) all saw significant time on the shelf last season. That type of injury fluke can’t happen again, and quite frankly it amazes me to think we finished third place without them. Still, it remains to be seen how much productivity we will get from them next season. Ozan Kabak (13) was brought in on loan from Schalke back in January, but he was sent home after the season as Liverpool declined their option to buy him. As well as Rhys Williams (19) and Nat Phillips (20) performed down the stretch last year, if they must combine for 39 matches played next season then LFC likely won’t be winning much. The departure of Kabak and the expected loss of Williams/Phillips equates to 52 total games played by center backs last season which must be picked up by others. However, remember that we must plan for playing an additional nine meaningful matches times two center backs, so that’s actually 70 more games we are looking for center backs to contribute next season.
The obvious key to our success is going to be Virgil van Dijk. He must be the player that is going to pick up much of the slack, hopefully increasing his paltry seven games from last season by 45-50 games. When Liverpool are playing in either Premier or Champions League matches, I always expect to see Big Virg leading the defense. I’m sure as the fixture congestion settles in during the season, Klopp will rotate and give him some rest. But a healthy Virgil will minimize the need for reinforcements elsewhere in the position. You may have heard that 22-year old French center back Ibrahima Konate recently joined the club from RB Leipzig. He has been impressing early in pre-season and looks to be a solid force in the middle. But before we start building his Anfield statue, we need to consider his injury record as a professional footballer. Last season Konate only played 692 minutes of Bundesliga football over fourteen matches for Leipzig, only eight of which were starts. That’s only 22.6% of available minutes where he was on the pitch. Nine matches were missed due to injury, including an ankle sprain that kept him out all of January. The season before that, Konate tore a muscle that kept him out from October 2019 through May 2020. He hasn’t played much football the past two seasons, and ankle sprains/muscle tears tend to haunt athletes down the road. Consider the fact that he’s still only 22 years old and not quite used to the grind of a full English season yet, and no one should expect that he’ll contribute as much as one would hope. Bookmark this paragraph later in the season when our faithful supporters start calling Konate another wasteful transfer by the club. He has potential, but I’d expect Klopp to bring him along patiently.
That leaves us with Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. Gomez started last season as the first-choice partner for Virgil in the back, but the knee surgery required after injuring it on international duty last November caused him to miss the rest of the season. While it’s true that Gomez also missed significant time in the 2018-19 campaign due to an ankle injury, we can carry some hope that he remains mostly healthy this season. He played in 58.4% of available minutes during our Premier League winning season, and it’s noteworthy that his two major spells of missed time were due to impact injuries, not the kind that tend to reoccur on a regular basis. Joel Matip, on the other hand, is not as reliable. Over the past two seasons, Matip has played in less than 25% of Liverpool’s matches due to a myriad of injuries that include thigh, back, groin, and ankle. It’s a disturbing trend that doesn’t bode well for an aging defender who turns 30 in August. Still, we only need Gomez and Matip to contribute an extra 20-25 matches more than they did last season, and likely not even that much when you consider how much time Konate is going to see on the pitch. Yet I still remember last winter all too well, so let’s just say I’m hopeful they insert an emergency recall clause for any potential loan deal given to Ben Davies, Rhys Williams or Nat Phillips. Just in case.
I want to save the midfield for last, so let’s move straight up to the front line. The front three of Salah (51), Mane (47), and Firmino (47) remained remarkably healthy the last few seasons. Long may that continue. The introduction of Diogo Jota (30) provided a helpful spark to the attack, but he did miss significant time last season with a bruised knee. Everyone expects he will build on his individual success next season, and that should help keep the legs fresh for everyone else. The bigger question deals with Divock Origi (17) and Takumi Minamino (17). It’s often assumed that one, or both, will be shipped out in this current transfer window, especially if funds are needed to acquire another shiny new toy. Yet it wouldn’t shock me to see both of them on the squad when this window shuts. Another loan for Minamino might make sense, especially considering the club can only keep seventeen non-homegrown players on the roster. The Japanese forward might be the odd man out. But depth up front continues to be an issue when you consider Klopp’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, and we know that six forwards will turn into four when Salah and Mane depart for the African Cup of Nations on January 9, 2022. Thankfully they will only miss the first two rounds of the FA Cup, when a favorable draw would likely keep them away from the pitch anyway, plus Premier League matches against Brentford and Crystal Palace. Should Senegal and/or Egypt make the final, currently scheduled for February 6th, then the Leicester City match might be in jeopardy as well. I’m sure Klopp can makeshift a lineup for those three matches if needed, but I’m not sure the club can afford to let both Minamino and Origi depart without bringing in suitable replacements. Any significant missed time to the four horsemen up front would create depth issues without experienced support waiting in the wings. One other footnote to mention regarding Divock Origi and his potential departure this window. Remember Jose Enrique? He was deemed “surplus to requirements” for Liverpool back when Klopp took over. Instead of accepting a transfer elsewhere, Enrique chose to let his contract run out. Unwilling to take a pay cut, the Spaniard helped guide the reserves for a few years perfectly content to cash a nice paycheck instead of earning minutes at a lesser club. Fans tend to forget that the player usually wields more transfer power than the club does. Divock has shown no desire to leave Liverpool, and it’s highly unlikely that he will find a club willing to better his current wages. I’ve been wrong before, but I feel confident that Divock Origi will remain a Red until his contract supposedly expires at the end of this season.
Now for the midfield. The obvious discussion will surround the departure of Gini Wijnaldum (50). Set aside the obvious talent he brought to the squad for a minute and focus on the remarkable consistency of the minutes he played every season. The Dutchman missed only eleven Premier League matches over six seasons in England (including his one season at Newcastle). He’s played over 95% of matches available throughout his Premier League career, in a position that requires the most running on the pitch. Even if you ignore the nine additional fixtures we are trying to prepare for, Gini’s departure is going to create an enormous gap to bridge. It means the club will need to account for 77 additional games to be played by midfielders than what was used last season.
Fabinho (41) is the first name that comes to mind, and his consistent play regardless of position makes him an obvious selection on most days. Even though the Brazilian played the majority of matches last season, many of those were as an emergency center back. This season’s goal is to keep the league’s best defensive midfielder in his best position. Both Thiago (30) and Jordan Henderson (27) lost significant time last season due to injury, and their age is a concern for potential future recoveries. While we hope for an increased number of games from both, can we really expect a significant increase? In each of his last four seasons with Bayern Munich, Thiago played three-quarters of the Bundesliga and Champions League matches combined. That’s good news because we can reasonably expect a dozen more games played for the Spaniard this coming season. Henderson has been remarkably consistent with his availability over the years, with last season’s injury his most significant absence for Liverpool to date. Despite what some fans may think of his play on the pitch, Liverpool won trophies in successive seasons when our captain played in over 80% of those matches. Like it or not, Hendo will play most games that his body will allow. That actual number remains the big question, but I’m expecting him to improve on last season’s output. James Milner (35) also provided much depth for the position, but he only started fifteen matches all season. At the age of 35, his minutes will still need to be managed. Curtis Jones (33) proved that he belonged in the first team last season, and I suspect that he will be a source Klopp uses to help bridge the gap of games created by Gini’s departure by increasing his time on the pitch.
Then you have Xherdan Shaqiri (22), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (17), and Naby Keita (15) to complete last season’s midfield depth chart. All three missed significant time last season due to injury. It’s difficult to predict what will happen with these three players. In my opinion, Shaqiri never seemed to fit well into the Klopp mold. His appearances usually coupled with a formation shift from the 4-3-3 to the 4-2-3-1. While that sometimes may be useful to use as a tactical shift, I am not certain that Klopp wants to deploy that too often. Shaq impressed with Switzerland during this summer’s European Championships, so perhaps the time to sell him may never be better. Of course, that means the gap would increase with the loss of those 22 matches he contributed for last year, but for the right price, it may be worth it.
Keita has turned into the biggest disappointment thus far, seemingly getting injured more often than his contributions. Yet in three seasons at Liverpool, he’s still played in close to half of the meaningful matches for the club. I’m not sure the club is willing to give up on the Guinean after only three seasons, especially having paid such a large fee for his services. The big mystery surrounds his future availability. We know he will be gone during the African Cup of Nations, but mostly I am uncertain about his injury status. He has missed significant time in each of his three seasons at the club, each year playing fewer matches than the previous one. That seems like a disturbing trend to me. One hopes that to improve, but you can’t count on it. And for the purposes of this discussion, there is little evidence in his recent history to indicate he can help bridge the gap that we need.
That leaves us with Oxlade-Chamberlain. He started last season with a knee injury that kept him unavailable until mid-December. Despite being available for selection for the final 27 Premier League matches plus the Champions League knockout rounds, Oxlade-Chamberlain was only able to accrue 270 minutes of time on the pitch last season. Was this due to a lack of trust? Or did the needs of the time supersede his involvement? His only two starts came during the January losing streak, then he played sporadically in garbage time down the stretch when results mattered most for the club. While Oxlade-Chamberlain remains a potential source to add depth to the midfield, I’m not convinced I know his specific role within Klopp’s scheme. I certainly can’t see many scenarios where he will significantly increase his playing time even if he were to remain healthy.
In sifting through the information necessary for this article, it’s become glaringly clear to me that the gap created by Gini’s departure simply cannot be bridged with what we had last season. We hope to see more games from Hendo and Thiago, but that doesn’t appear to be enough. We need to bring in new blood. Whether that be in the form of an incoming transfer such as Saúl Ñíguez, Renato Sanches, or Yves Bissouma remains to be seen. Players who were away on loan spells last season are options to fill this void, and I expect Harvey Elliott to play a role this season. Elliott has already impressed and was rewarded recently with a new five-year contract. His status as a homegrown player carries value as well, but how many meaningful games can you truly expect Klopp to trust with an 18-year old in midfield? And does anyone really think that Marko Grujic, Harry Wilson, or Ben Woodburn have a future at the club? All three of them have been under contract for multiple seasons, so if they haven’t won over Klopp by now then I’m not sure that they ever will. I’d expect all three will see the shop window this pre-season in hopes that the club can accrue maximum fees to use towards one new midfielder that can add value and minutes.
Whether or not you agree with the net spend policy of the club, it’s not going away under this ownership group. The problem is that player valuations at this level are rarely met early in the window. Clubs will play chicken with each other to see who is more desperate and cave to the other’s demands and that game often carries until the end of the window. The fact that Liverpool has already declined to buy back Kabak for a reduced fee of £8.5M tells me that they might already be counting quid to save up for one more move. Compromises will need to be made as the regular season approaches, and hopefully, we can sell enough assets like maybe Shaqiri (~£10M), Grujic (~£12M), Wilson (~£13M), or possibly Nat Phillips (~£15M). Selling three of those players might be enough to bring in a new midfielder, and the numbers show that to be a position Liverpool desperately needs. I don’t care who that midfielder turns out to be, the sooner he arrives the better off we’ll be. Of course, this entire article will be rightfully dismissed when they sign speedy winger Adama Traore from Wolves instead. As noted earlier, I’ve been wrong before. But I doubt it. Regardless it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. Stay tuned.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect that of LFC Raleigh or Liverpool Football Club. I am the author of the book “Walking Through The Storm” available on Amazon, Kindle, World Soccer Shop, and other book depository outlets. Follow me on Twitter: @kjkendra11