Goal scorers win games, but midfielders win trophies. If a team can’t dominate the central area of the pitch, even the best strikers in the world can only take a side so far, and that is a reality that might be causing sleepless nights for Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool are approaching a fork in the road. One direction leads toward the Champions League, while the other heads to the much less glamorous, and less lucrative, destination of the Europa League. But whichever route Klopp’s side take this summer, they will need to rebuild their midfield before embarking on next season’s journey.
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This week’s confirmation that James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will leave Anfield at the end of their contracts this summer was no surprise, but it nevertheless brought into sharp focus the primary issue facing Klopp and the club’s recruitment team during the transfer window. With three midfielders heading out of the club, and Jordan Henderson (33 next month) and Thiago Alcantara (32) already showing signs of age and injuries catching up with them, Liverpool must overhaul their midfield department in order to have any hope of challenging for the Premier League title next season.
Manchester City, on the verge of clinching a third successive title and a first Champions League crown, are overflowing with midfield quality with Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Kalvin Phillips and even John Stones, who has been converted from a defender into a No. 6 by manager Pep Guardiola in recent weeks.
City face losing Ilkay Gundogan when his contract expires, but they are still in the race to sign Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund and could switch to West Ham’s Declan Rice if they fail to thwart Real Madrid’s pursuit of the England midfielder. Liverpool have already abandoned plans to sign Bellingham, with sources telling ESPN last month that a decision has been taken at Anfield to recruit three-to-four new players rather than commit to spending at least €120 million to sign the 19-year-old.
But every signing comes with risk attached. Some succeed, others fail, and even a club as successful in the transfer market as Liverpool makes mistakes. If they sign four new players, perhaps as many as three in midfield, they can’t afford for any of them to struggle to adjust.
Sources have told ESPN that Chelsea’s Mason Mount, Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister and Wolves midfielder Matheus Nunes are all on Liverpool’s summer shortlist. Reports this week have also linked the club with a move for Sporting’s Uruguay international Manuel Ugarte, while speculation continues over Real Madrid’s Aurelien Tchouameni.
All of the above are top players capable of breathing new energy into Liverpool’s midfield, but expecting them to do so at the same is the challenge facing Klopp. His recruitment team must also overcome the departure of sporting director Julian Ward after just one season in the job. With Ward leaving Anfield, potentially to be replaced by former Wolfsburg managing director Jorg Schmadtke, there are more moving parts on and off the pitch at Liverpool than in recent years.
Trying to sign new players without a sporting director in place will make Liverpool’s summer rebuild even more difficult, but they have to get it right. By focusing on attacking reinforcements over the past three windows by signing Luis Diaz (€45m), Darwin Nunez (€100m) and Cody Gakpo (€40m), Liverpool are well placed to move forward following last summer’s €32m departure of Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich and Roberto Firmino’s exit at the end of his contract this year.
Similarly in defense, the €40m arrival of Ibrahima Konate two years ago allowed Klopp to slowly phase out Joel Matip as Virgil van Dijk’s central defensive partner. But by addressing the attack and defense, Liverpool have neglected their midfield and they may have left it too late to rebuild properly in one window.
Youngsters Stefan Bajcetic, Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones have all done well at times this season, but none of them are yet ready to play 40-plus games a season, and neither Henderson nor Thiago can now be relied upon to meet that workload. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s recent deployment in midfield suggests he could be a long-term option, but that would create another hole to fill at right-back, so as it stands, Klopp only has Fabinho as a midfielder who can be expected to play year-round.
Klopp had wanted to bolster his midfield last summer, but financial constraints resulted in a late loan move for Juventus’s Arthur Melo, who has made just one substitute appearance for the club all season in an injury-ravaged year at Anfield.
Failing to push for Bellingham a year ago has cost Liverpool their chance to sign a player regarded by many as one capable of dominating his position for the next decade. Had they been successful with Bellingham last year, even if Dortmund were unwilling to let him leave, this summer’s rebuild would look far less challenging.
If they end up out of the Champions League, the reduced finances that come with competing in the Europa League, not to mention the lack of appeal to top players of performing in that competition, means Liverpool will have to work even harder to make the signings they need.
Liverpool face a crucial period in the weeks ahead. How they emerge from it will not only dictate how competitive they are next season, but the years ahead, too.