It has been a strange and very difficult season for Liverpool, who are still officially the Premier League title holders following the postponement of their clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Had that game been played and second-place United failed to win, Manchester City would have been mathematically confirmed as the new champions. As it is, City will need to beat Chelsea on Saturday to be certain of the trophy belonging to them.
With that in mind, the postponement of the United clash looks as a potential blessing in disguise for Liverpool, who need City to to their best to beat the Londoners – Chelsea are a direct rival in the top-four race, the outcome of which is likely to affect the transfer budgets of all clubs involved for the upcoming summer.
Given everything that has happened this season, the most obvious section of the squad in need of a quality reinforcement is the heart of defence. Last year, manager Jurgen Klopp dismissed suggestions Liverpool were particularly thin in that area with only three senior players designated for the role, pointing out that midfielder Fabinho was more than capable of stepping in as a fourth option if need be.
However, the season proved him dreadfully wrong, though it should be said that nobody could have predicted the severity of the crisis that was about to unfold.
It started with Virgil van Dijk, arguably the best centre-back in the world and the 2019 Ballon d’Or runner-up, getting recklessly tackled by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in mid-October and his season ending on that day. A few weeks later, Joe Gomez, who with Van Dijk forms Klopp’s preferred centre-back partnership, collapsed in training with England clutching his knee and joined the Dutchman on the sidelines for the rest of the campaign. Joel Matip, the next in line and the final designated option, troubled by minor niggles from the start, was ruled out until the end of the season in December with ankle ligament damage.
On top of it all, Fabinho missed a chunk of the season too, as did midfielder Thiago Alcantara who was viciously mowed down by Richarlison in the same game when Van Dijk got injured and sat out the following three months. The Reds are now without captain Jordan Henderson as well, and he was another one who sometimes took a place of a centre-back.
With all this going on, the usual names appeared in the press, linked with a switch to Liverpool – Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano, and some tabloid outlets even mentioned the Real Madrid duo – Raphael Varane, and least credibly of all, Sergio Ramos.
However, one by one those rumours got shot down, and well after it became known that Upamecano had sealed his switch to Bayern Munich, Liverpool reportedly agreed personal terms with his teammate Ibrahima Konate.
In a desperate scramble to bridge the gap between January and the summer, Liverpool signed two centre-backs on the last day of the winter window. Ozan Kabak arrived from Schalke on loan for the rest of the season with an option to buy for £18m, while Ben Davies arrived on a permanent deal from Preston North End for £1.5m. While Davies is yet to put on a Liverpool shirt in a competitive fixture, Kabak has been putting in very decent performances and in the absence of the three stalwarts, the 21-year-old Turkey international has established himself as a regular feature of the starting XI, mostly alongside 24-year-old Nathaniel Phillips.
Most believe Kabak has done enough to warrant a permanent move in the summer, and with the prospect of Konate arriving as well, not to mention Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip all back in the fold, Liverpool’s centre-back department should have depth more than satisfactory come the start of 2021-22.
Most of the transfer stories involving Liverpool’s middle section revolve around Georginio Wijnaldum. The Dutchman has been the most consistent player under Klopp’s command for five years now, and his contribution to everything the Merseysiders have achieved has been immeasurable. His contract, however, is about to expire and there has been no progress over a new one for a long time now.
Understandably (up to a point), the Dutch international reportedly wants a new contract which would reflect his past heroics in terms of wages. On the other hand, Liverpool are very reluctant, particularly in the light of the ongoing pandemic and its financial implications, to hand out a long, lucrative contract to a player who will turn 31 in November. Consequently, Wijnaldum’s future with the club is in serious doubt, with Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman very keen to reunite with the player he used to work with at international level.
There have been a few reports suggesting Liverpool were contemplating this player and that to fill the gap, though nothing too concrete; not to mention reliable. But most likely, Klopp will turn to 20-year-old Curtis Jones to step up, who has so far started 12 Premier League games this term and made further nine appearances off the bench. Most importantly, his performances have been very good – he never looked out of place surrounded by vastly more experienced, proven teammates. If that proves the case, Liverpool will probably look to promote or sign another youngster, not to replace Wijnaldum, but to replace Jones, you might say, as a squad player.
Lately there’s been much talk about Naby Keita as well. The Guinean arrived from Leipzig in 2017 for €60m, but injuries have heavily impacted his time at Anfield so far and he hasn’t been able to justify such a price tag. However, Klopp recently moved to openly dispel any notions of his departure, making it very clear the 26-year-old still has a place in the future of the team.
Liverpool scored 85 goals as they strode to the Premier League title in 2019-20. This term, however, despite the addition of Diogo Jota who has proven very valuable, they’ve so far managed 55, with five games remaining. The drop is obvious, and there were a number of occasions – like against Leeds and Newcastle in the last two matches, when they dropped points due to conceding late equalizers after wasting a sack-full of chances to settle the outcome in their favour.
Some believe that Liverpool’s defensive crisis and lack of goals at the other end are related. Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, for example, explained his view that the constant tinkering Klopp has been forced to do, most notably moving midfielders into the back line, has sent ripples through the team. It ruined the midfield balance and forced forwards to drop much deeper than usual to get involved, which in turn made them far less dangerous.
The trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah has been the indisputable first choice for Klopp for years, but the arrival and immediate efficiency of Jota has shaken that situation up somewhat.
Salah is the only one who has managed to keep his numbers up, with his 20 league goals having him second in the race for the Golden Boot at the moment. Mane and Firmino, on the other hand, have both been heavily criticized for the apparent drop in form.
But Liverpool’s biggest attacking problem this term has been the obvious lack of contribution from those whose role is to step up when the regular starters can’t. Divock Origi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri have scored two goals between them in all competitions this term, less than Takumi Minamino (four), on loan at Southampton since January, and the future at the club of all three appears in heavy doubt at the moment. Minamino is, however, likely to return to the club for another chance next season.
It should not be forgotten that 18-year-old Harvey Elliott, who has just been named the Championship Young Player of the Year for his performances on loan at Blackburn Rovers, is due back in the summer too. However, another loan spell is the likeliest path for the youngster from there, probably to a top-tier team this time.
There could, of course, be signings in the attacking section, but the links with the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland are extremely unrealistic, unless a sale in excess of £100m of either Salah or Mane goes through. In the current financial climate, that is hard to imagine.