Bellingham 2023! Can Liverpool really afford to wait for the ‘perfect’ midfield signing?

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It’s been a busy few weeks at Anfield.

With signings and sales, loan deals and contract renewals, Julian Ward, Liverpool’s new sporting director, has had his hands full as he looks to get the Reds’ house in order ahead of the new season. 

The drama, delight and eventual disappointment of last season has been swiftly forgotten. A new era is well and truly under way, with Jurgen Klopp signed up for the next four years and, he hopes, his second great team emerging quickly.

With Luis Diaz, Fabio Carvalho, Darwin Nunez and Calvin Ramsay all signed in 2022, there is plenty to be excited about, although much of the discussion now, naturally, is centring on whether more business is needed before the transfer window closes.

Club sources, for what it’s worth, suggest that further incomings are unlikely this summer, a stance which will disappoint those hoping to see a little more transfer market action between now and September.

Here, GOAL takes a closer look at the situation…

  • Fabio Carvalho Fulham 2021-22Getty Images

    Do Liverpool need a new midfielder now?

    If you were to chart Liverpool’s squad depth, then you would find few obvious weak points – especially following the signing of Calvin Ramsay, who should provide quality, specialist cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back.

    Midfield, though, is the area which provokes fiercest debate, among supporters and pundits alike. 

    On the face of it, that may seem a little surprising. Jurgen Klopp, after all, has no fewer than eight senior options, with youngster Tyler Morton having enjoyed something of a breakthrough year, and with new signing Fabio Carvalho also capable of operating as a No.8 if needed. 

    Seven of those players featured in 27 or more games last season, and Elliott may well have done so had injury not struck in September. Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara appear to be Klopp's first-choice trio – that was the one which started the Champions League final, after all – but rotation was both regular and necessary, during the course of a 63-game campaign.

    But while the talent at Klopp's disposal is clear, there are also plenty of questions.

    Can Naby Keita, for example, keep form and fitness long enough to turn his obvious talent into something more influential? How long can James Milner, and to a lesser extent Henderson, keep delivering? Will Thiago stay injury-free for a whole season, and are Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott going to nail down a place in this most competitive of teams?

    Sales are not expected at this stage, and nor are first-team signings, with Anfield sources suggesting that it will be next summer before a new midfielder is targeted.

    Whether that is a sensible decision or not, only time will tell.

  • JUDE BELLINGHAM BORUSSIA DORTMUNDGetty Images

    What are the chances of signing Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund?

    So who are Liverpool likely to target, then? 

    We know that they looked at signing Aurelien Tchouameni this summer, only to discover pretty early on that the France international had his heart set on a move to Real Madrid. 

    Tchouameni eventually got his wish, moving to the European champions in a €100m (£86m/$106m), but it is that type of player that Liverpool will seek to bring in: young, athletic, with good experience but also plenty of room to grow and develop.

    ‘A Bellingham-type’, as one source put it earlier this summer.

    What about Bellingham himself, then? The England international will almost certainly leave Borussia Dortmund next year and, at 19 (his birthday is June 29), he represents the ultimate long-term investment, a successor to Henderson and the kind of player who could dominate the Reds’ midfield for a decade or longer.

    Klopp is a fan (who isn’t?) but Liverpool know competition for his signature will be fierce. Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City have all registered their interest, and it would be a surprise if both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich hadn’t done the same.

    A potential fee of £100m ($123m) could also prove prohibitive, especially with Bellingham likely to command a salary which would place him among the highest earners at the club if he were to join. Were he to shine at the World Cup this winter, the numbers, and the interest, will only rise.

    Liverpool’s wage structure is carefully managed – see, for evidence, the difficulty they’ve had agreeing a new deal with Mohamed Salah – so it would be interesting to see just how hard they would be willing to push for someone like Bellingham, even if it is understood the player would be more than interested in a move to Merseyside.

  • Declan Rice West Ham 2022Getty

    Who else could Liverpool look to sign?

    Of course, Liverpool’s recruitment team would not be doing their jobs properly if they had not identified other targets.

    Barry Hunter, the chief scout, and his team are known to operate two or three windows in advance of the present, and Ward's database will be bulging with tons of regularly-updated reports on potential arrivals.

    Declan Rice of West Ham, for example, has admirers, but is seen as expensive, both in terms of transfer fee and wages. Aston Villa youngster Carney Chukwuemeka, currently shining at the European Under-19 Championship with England, is also highly thought of, but might join Dortmund. Could he be the long-term replacement for Bellingham, perhaps?

    Inter’s Nicola Barella, and Ibrahim Sangare of PSV are among those who have been linked. Klopp rates Barella in particular, while Salzburg’s Luka Sucic is viewed as a potentially-elite prospect, and Liverpool boast a strong relationship with the Red Bull group, which owns the Austrian champions.

    Whoever is eventually targeted, they are likely to fit a certain profile. Liverpool broke from their usual strategy to sign Thiago, an established star in his late-20s, from Bayern Munich in 2020, but they have been very much back 'on brand' since, with the arrivals of Diogo Jota, Ibrahima Konate, Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez, Carvalho and Ramsay. We can expect that to continue going forward.

  • Naby Keita of Liverpool and Guinea.Getty.

    What about Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the players already at Liverpool?

    Of course, plenty will depend upon the performance of those already at the club, and whether the questions mentioned above can be definitively answered.

    Elliott, for example, showed signs at the start of last season that he could hold down a place on the right of a midfield three – his combination with Mo Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold, in particular, was promising – while Jones has performed well in spells, though needs to influence games more consistently if he is to stay in the team, long-term.

    A lot of Henderson’s best work last season came as a No.6, so perhaps he and Fabinho will share duties there going forward, while the decision to hand Milner a new one-year extension is a smart one, and speaks perhaps to next summer’s plans for a more significant revamp.

    Perhaps most interesting of all is Keita, who made more appearances (40) last season than in any of his previous three campaigns on Merseyside. At his best, the Guinean is the kind of creative, game-changing presence Liverpool are looking for, but consistency has been an issue. 

    He is likely to get a new contract, and the challenge then will be to make more than the 25 starts he managed in all competitions last term, and to become the guaranteed starter we all expected he would be when arriving from Leipzig in 2018.

    As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, the word from inside Liverpool is that he’s likely to stay, but his contract expires next summer and an offer of £12m ($15m) would surely offer plenty of temptation.

    Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t feature at all in the final two months of last season, though he did make valuable contributions throughout the campaign, not least in January when Salah, Keita and Sadio Mane were away at AFCON.

    With games coming thick and fast, especially ahead of the World Cup, it is no surprise that managers are looking to give themselves as many options as possible. The more pertinent question, where Liverpool's midfield is concerned, is whether those options can deliver.

  • 20220522 Jurgen KloppGetty Images

    Could we see a change in formation for Liverpool this season?

    This is an interesting addition to the debate, to say the least.

    We have become accustomed to Klopp operating with a tried-and-trusted 4-3-3 system, relying on a high defensive line, mega attacking output from its full-backs, the magic of Mane and Salah in wide areas and, to balance everything out, legs, endeavour and positional perfection in the centre of midfield.

    But Mane’s departure changes things, and it is now expected that we will see a more flexible Liverpool this season, as the likes of Salah, Diaz, Nunez, Jota, Carvalho and Firmino all jostle for position.

    All of those, as well as Elliott, Jones and even Oxlade-Chamberlain, could operate in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation, and the ability to switch systems would obviously offset, for now at least, the need for midfield reinforcements.

  • Luis Diaz Liverpool 2021-22Getty Images

    How big a risk is it if Liverpool don’t sign anyone else this summer?

    If we know anything about the way Liverpool work by now, it is that they are more than happy to take short-term risks in order to secure long-term targets.

    We saw it with their failed pursuit of Virgil van Dijk in 2017, when they ignored the chance of a ‘stopgap’ signing in order to land their man the following January. We saw it with Keita, whose purchase was agreed a year before he eventually arrived on Merseyside, and with Alisson Becker, who was identified as the one-and-only when it came to upgrading their goalkeeping department.

    Liverpool made no major first-team signings after winning the Champions League in 2019, and only one last summer (Konate) despite a traumatic, injury-hit campaign which had some speaking of an overhaul.

    We have seen that they are ready to move quickly, and for big-money, once the right player is available. In January, Diaz’s signing was expedited once it became apparent that Tottenham were in for the Colombian, while Nunez’s capture was agreed and finalised swiftly as negotiations continued with Bayern Munich over Mane. 

    The feeling at present, it seems, is that the ‘perfect’ midfielder simply isn’t available, and as such it should surprise nobody if Liverpool choose to keep their powder dry.

    Whether it pays off for them in the coming season, however, is another matter entirely.