Jurgen Klopp insists Liverpool won’t play Monopoly, but it looks as though a spot of Russian Roulette could be on the agenda at Anfield this January. How else to describe the Reds’ reluctance to recruit themselves a new midfielder in this transfer window?
If there was any doubt about the need for such reinforcement - and let’s face it, there really wasn’t - then Monday’s defeat at Brentford should have sharpened minds among the club’s owners, staff and recruitment team.
Because the bottom line is clear: if Liverpool don’t do something now, they can forget about playing Champions League football next season.
They already sit seven points off fourth spot, having dropped more points this season than they did in the entirety of the last campaign, and the manner of that defeat at the Gtech Community Stadium - meek and chaotic yet somehow utterly predictable - tells you that despite all the talk of a reset following the World Cup, and despite all the hard work and the analysis meetings of the winter training camp in Dubai, nothing has really changed.
Liverpool are still a team searching for rhythm, confidence and conviction, and which is falling way, way short of its own high standards.
Not much is working. Klopp’s side look OK in parts, but there is a complete absence of certainty in their play, an alarming lack of intensity and cohesion. They look like a team struggling for identity, and that is not something we have been able to say for years.Getty Images
Much of that stems from the centre of the park. At their best, Liverpool’s midfield was the motor which powered their success. They might not have been spectacular, but they would suffocate teams, run them into the ground. Whether it was Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum or anyone else, they would press and harry for 90 minutes, week after week, always focused, always in the right position, always ready to go to the well for the good of the team.
“We don’t press, we chase,” assistant manager Pep Lijnders once said, but they have been chasing shadows for much of this season. The engine is spluttering, and needs fixing.
The warning signs were there from day one, when Klopp’s preferred trio of Fabinho, Henderson and Thiago Alcantara were given the runaround by Fulham on the opening weekend of the Premier League season. Since then, the likes of Crystal Palace, Manchester United, Everton, Brighton, Arsenal, Nottingham Forest, Leeds and now Brentford have been able to take points off the Reds.
Napoli humiliated them in the Champions League while even in the games they’ve won - such as last week’s victory over Leicester at Anfield - Liverpool have often looked loose, leggy and unable to impose themselves as Klopp would hope.
Injuries haven’t helped, with Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and August loan signing Arthur Melo missing for most of the campaign, but it is clear that while Klopp has plenty of ‘options’ in midfield, he has too few that he can truly rely on to play ‘his’ kind of football, and even fewer that will be able to do so in the coming years.Getty Images
The facts are simple. Henderson is 32 and Thiago 31. Milner turns 37 today and is out of contract at the end of the season. So are Keita, who has started 72 games in four-and-a-half years, and Oxlade-Chamberlain, who hasn’t completed 90 minutes in the Premier League since April 2018. Arthur has managed 13 minutes since being dragged in, miles short of fitness, from Juventus on deadline day. The Brazilian won’t be retained once his loan expires in May.
Who does that leave, then? Curtis Jones, who has been beset by freak injury issues over the past 18 months; Harvey Elliott, who at 19 is being turned from a right-sided attacker into a functional midfield player; and Stefan Bajcetic, whose potential is huge but who at 18 needs time, patience and careful management if he is to emerge as a genuine Anfield first-teamer.
Elliott, sadly, has become something of a lightning rod for criticism among supporters recently, having looked increasingly ill-suited to that role on the right of the Reds’ midfield three. He was substituted at half-time at Brentford, having capped a miserable opening 45 minutes by giving the ball away for the Bees’ second goal, and it would be a surprise if he was not taken out of the firing line for a week or two.
Elliott, though, is not to blame for Liverpool’s ills. He is, in fact, the only man to have featured in all 26 of their games this season, and is clearly a player of huge talent and potential, one who should have a long and distinguished career in the game.
Right now, he is a victim of Liverpool’s poor planning. He should not be being asked to play every week, being asked to take on such responsibility while clearly learning and adapting to a new role. He’d started six Premier League games prior to this season, now he’s expected to hold together the midfield of a team that wants to be challenging for everything.Getty Images
Liverpool have, despite some people’s perceptions, taken significant steps to refresh their squad in recent seasons. Darwin Nunez, Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz and now Cody Gakpo have come in to form a new-look attack, Ibrahima Konate should provide a long-term defensive solution, while the likes of Calvin Ramsay, Kostas Tsimikas and Fabio Carvalho have been signed to provide cover and squad depth.
Midfield, though, is another issue. The only senior signing made there since 2018 is Thiago, with the club breaking from its long-held policy of targeting younger, developing players to land the then-29-year-old from Bayern Munich in 2020.
The Spain international has generally done well at Anfield, but Liverpool’s inability - or unwillingness - to further strengthen means they now find themselves here, with their midfield a mix of the ageing, the injured, the expiring and the emerging. In need, in other words, of a complete overhaul.
And that overhaul needs to start now too, because missing out on Champions League qualification will only make things harder. Klopp may have a point when he talks about spending, and in fairness Liverpool have just paid £44 million ($53m) for a new player in Gakpo, but this is a crucial time for the club, short and long term, and Fenway Sports Group, the club’s owners, need to recognise that and act accordingly.
It may not be Jude Bellingham, target No.1 as far as the summer is concerned, but it needs to be somebody, and somebody good. They are out there, and they can make a difference. Look at the way Thomas Partey and Casemiro have transformed Arsenal and Manchester United respectively, or the impact Bruno Guimaraes has had at Newcastle. January isn't the easiest market, but it's a lot easier if you're willing to spend.
That's the challenge FSG face now. Back Klopp and give him the tools he needs to rescue the season.
Letting a young kid like Elliott take the flak for the club’s past failings is not a good look. Liverpool have to act now.