Takumi Minamino Liverpool 2020-21Getty Images

What happened to Liverpool's 'perfect signing'? Minamino fighting for his future after just 18 months at Anfield

Takumi Minamino finds himself in familiar territory this pre-season – both literally and metaphorically speaking.

The Japan international is part of the Liverpool squad which is preparing for the new campaign at a four-week training base near Salzburg, the Austrian city in which he spent five years before moving to Merseyside.

Minamino’s time in Salzburg was both happy and successful, but if he wants the same to be said about his Liverpool career then something will need to change, and change quickly. 

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Because 18 months in, the 26-year-old is already fighting for his Reds future.

That may seem harsh, but it is the truth. Having spent the second half of last season out on loan with Southampton, Minamino knows he faces a battle to convince Jurgen Klopp he can be a regular option going forward. 

There were plenty of raised eyebrows when that loan move was confirmed during the final hours of the winter transfer window in February. Liverpool’s form at that point had dipped dramatically, their squad littered with injuries. Letting a first-teamer leave, even temporarily, seemed a somewhat bizarre call.

Klopp disagreed, calling the move a “win-win situation”. Minamino, he claimed, was “a long-term project” who had not had enough chances at Liverpool, for a number of different reasons.

“He just has to enjoy his football there again,” Klopp added. "He doesn’t have to change anything or improve anything, he just has to play football, gain confidence and rhythm, and he will be fine."

Klopp suggested that Minamino might play all 17 of Southampton’s remaining Premier League games, but in the end the number was only 10.

There was a goal, and a well-taken one at that, on his Saints debut at Newcastle, and another in a draw against Chelsea a few weeks later, but he completed 90 minutes only twice, and there was no chance of Southampton looking to make the move permanent come the end of the campaign.

Jurgen Klopp Minamino Liverpool GFXGetty/Goal

Still, Liverpool sources insist the switch was beneficial. Minamino needed game-time and he got it, they point out. The likelihood is that he would not have got it at Anfield, as the club battled to salvage its season and sneak into the Champions League.

It’s a fair point. Minamino, after all, only started two league games for the Reds prior to the end of January. He had scored in the second of those, away at Crystal Palace in December, but managed only six Premier League minutes in the six weeks which followed. He was far from a regular.

“Sometimes, it was just the size when defending set-pieces, because we were not tall enough,” Klopp suggested, shortly after the Southampton move was confirmed. “These kind of things make the difference [as to] why one player plays and another does not.

"He is an outstanding professional, top talent, really good player. But the problem is we have a really good squad [and] my job is to make decisions based on what I imagine could be the outcome in the game. 

“The people fighting for a place with him were in a really good shape, [Xherdan] Shaqiri when he came back was in really good shape and we all know what Divock [Origi] did in the past.”

Now those three – Minamino, Origi and Shaqiri – find themselves in a similar position. They are certainly not being forced out by Liverpool, but they would certainly be seen as dispensable, should the right offer arrive.

That appears unlikely, in Minamino’s case. While Origi has suitors in England and Germany, and while Shaqiri can count the likes of Lazio as admirers, the feeling from inside Liverpool is that permanent interest in Minamino this summer will be minimal, and the club are, as things stand, very reluctant to even consider another loan move.

They hope that a full pre-season – the Reds are five days into a gruelling 28-day Austrian camp – can benefit those on the fringes, and are aware that the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins in Cameroon in January, heightens the need to retain - and likely improve - the squad’s attacking depth, even if the damage done by the tournament is limited with only two Premier League fixtures scheduled in that period.

The chance, then, is there for Minamino – as well as others such as teenage star Harvey Elliott – to prove to Klopp that they can be an option next season. Head down, work hard and show what you’ve learned out on loan, show that you have the hunger to make things work on Merseyside.

He thought he'd done that last summer, and he would start last season in decent form. There was a goal in the Community Shield at Wembley and two in the League Cup away at Lincoln. It proved to be a false dawn.

Minamino Liverpool Arsenal Community Shield GFXGetty/Goal

There is a belief among the coaching staff that there is a player there – Liverpool were on the receiving end of his talents in their Champions League meetings with Salzburg in 2019 – but it is clear that improvements are required.

Minamino’s tendency to drift in and out of games is a concern, and there are question marks over his physicality and durability as well.

There are moments, flashes, when he drops deep to connect the play, or when he leads the press and forces a defender into a mistake, where you see exactly why Liverpool’s players were so taken by him in those Salzburg games, and why sporting director Michael Edwards and his team were so delighted to nab him for just £7.25million ($10m), amid plenty of competition.

He was, to quote one Anfield source, "the perfect signing".

Liverpool believed Minamino’s value, pre-Covid at least, was around three times the fee they paid, but there has been little chance for him to show that since. He has started only a dozen games for the Reds in all competitions, and only four in the Premier League. 

It should be pointed out, of course, that he could hardly have moved to England at a less opportune moment.

The bulk of his 18 months in the country have been spent in some sort of lockdown, as COVID-19 has continued to exert its influence on society. Settling into a new life, in a new culture while learning a new language and building new relationships, is not easy at the best of times, let alone in a world of facemasks, social distancing and constant uncertainty.

It is rare for a player to leave Liverpool on loan and then return to become a first-team regular. A temporary switch is usually the first step towards a permanent exit, as plenty would tell you.

Origi has battled his way back in the past though, and Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams bucked the trend last season, albeit in extreme circumstances. That is the challenge facing Minamino this time around.

It looks a big one, to be perfectly honest, but stranger things have happened.

Takumi, the stage is yours...