(Note: I wrote this squad analysis before the news of the European Super League broke, and shelved it as that unfolded; but have since brought it up to date. I discussed the ESL a lot on the site in shorter comments, often in reply to points other people had made, but haven’t written in depth about it. I will do so when I have the energy and mental space to process it all, but my health has not been too good this spring. That said, I do refer to it briefly in this piece. Liverpool have subsequently drawn both games since the ESL fiasco, and the timing of the announcement, on the eve of the Leeds away fixture, was definitely not helpful.)
No Radical Rebuilding Required At Liverpool
Liverpool may need a few things this summer, but a rebuild is not one of them. A recharge, a reset, a restoration – yes. Revamp or rebuild? No.
Which isn’t to say there should be no ins and outs.
Just no churn. Or, to be wary of churn. Churn sounds great to fans – lots of new players! kick out the deadwood! – but it’s rarely that simple. (Just as a change of ownership, even if the owners fuck up, is not that simple.)
Drastic change, while often craved by fans, is frequently counterproductive, unless the situation is dire. Metaphorical babies often get thrown out with the bathwater.
Indeed, a problem for Liverpool in 2020/21 has been too many new players, too many inexperienced players, too many stand-in players, too many players forced into emergency roles; many of whom will benefit hugely from this season (in terms of settling into the league, the club, the 1st team, etc.), but much of the benefit will be in the future.
Again, I always go back to Jordan Henderson’s first season, struggling out on the right of midfield aged 21. He did a steadying job for the team, but did not thrive. But it was a vital education.
According to sports scientist Simon Brundish, before the last week’s two games, “Liverpool players have missed 273 games so far this season,”… and with “18% of the season still to go Liverpool are guaranteed to finish with >300 games missed … That’s twice the number missed by Man City players last season.”
Of course, Nat Phillips, the club’s emergency and emerging centre-back, also got injured, has missed these two games, making Liverpool a small side again.
Virgil Van Dijk, Joel Matip and Phillips are the three aerial kings; all are out, along with the club’s second-tallest midfielder. Joe Gomez and Van Dijk are the pace kings. Both are out. Henderson and van Dijk are leaders – almost the literal kings – and both are out. Phillip’s flourishing as the season unfolded has been a joy; but he’ll never be quick, and with him out, Fabinho gets removed from the midfield, and the midfield (also without Henderson) becomes short of stature and power.
As well as key players, the Reds badly need the fans back, to benefit from the type of football Jürgen Klopp’s teams play, and how that was perfect for the emotion of Anfield – when Anfield is at its best (given that a packed and silent, nervous Anfield can be damaging to the home team). It’s over four years since Liverpool lost a league game in front of a crowd at Anfield, and there were far more wins – not just about being undefeated – than the current run of draws and defeats. If memory serves, the Reds were winning about 80% of their home games before Covid-19.
While Klopp’s football is far more sophisticated than often given credit for, an extra few percent are gained by the buildup of pressure on the opposition goal, which increases the noise from the Kop, in a beneficial feedback loop. Extra energy is found, and while the home records of almost all clubs have suffered in Covid times, an all-time record-breaking Anfield run was turned into the worst losing run in the club’s history, which should tell a story.
It remains an intimidating place to visit when packed and on form; but soulless when empty.
(While the fans don’t “own” Liverpool FC, they are vital, clearly. They are the lifeblood of the club. But in the real world, that doesn’t make them the owners. Whether or not people want fans to own the club – and the last Liverpool fan to own the club was forced to sell as he couldn’t afford to spend enough on players after the gold-plated Roman Abramovich arrived, and many of the rest of the fans wanted big spending – the reality is that it was FSG who saved the club from potential oblivion in 2010, who helped build the Reds into the best team in the world, and then who cocked up badly over the ESL. I don’t see how you can just act like the owners and the structure they put in place, including their faith in Michael Edwards, Ian Graham, et al, with the world-class data and transfer process underpinning the whole enterprise, had nothing to do with the insane success that the equally world-class Jürgen Klopp spearheaded. As much as you can despise the ESL idea, and think the owners made a terrible mistake, they put those pieces in place, and it was they who appointed Klopp who, lest we forget, also wanted to work for them; unlike how he felt about working for Ed Woodward at Manchester United, for example. So you cannot say they just lucked out in getting Klopp, as they had to go out and get him, and entice him, and work with him, and earn his respect. None of this is to suggest the ESL was a good idea, but if FSG were to be forced out, the only likely buyers now would be loathsome oligarchs, a disastrous leveraged buyout that loads debt onto the club as seen with Gillett and Hicks or the Glazers at United, or sportswashing sovereign states who commit genuine evils in the world, beyond simply being very rich. Barring new legislation that changes the way clubs are owned, fans missed the chance in 2007 and 2010 to band together to sort fan ownership. Klopp was owed an apology by the owners, and he got one. Ditto the fans and the staff. Again, the baby and the bathwater spring to mind. And again, that is not a defence of the European Super League.)
Liverpool need to get £200m-worth of players fit again (having been without over £300m of a talent for large portions of the season), rather than necessarily spend £200m.
Below is a graph of how much Liverpool’s £XI cost last season, how much it cost when winning the first three games of the season, and what it has cost more recently. (The £XI is the average cost of the starting XI adjusted for inflation, albeit it’s yet to be adjusted to the latest inflationary changes.)
(Note: Man City’s £XI this season is likely to be over 3x that of Liverpool’s. Last season City, like Man United, were around the £700m mark, and they added expensive players this season. Lately, Liverpool have been running closer to the £200m mark, with so much expensive talent sidelined.)
Not having an injury-ravaged season would help the Reds massively; no team can carry the loss of 8-12 players, including several vital leaders, for large chunks of a campaign. It’s not just the number of injuries, but the injuries to the deputies in the same positions that have provided the killer blow. It has created weaker links in the chain.
Just the inclusion of the usual two giant, gifted centre-backs, in Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip, mean Liverpool score a set-piece goal every three games when they start games; without them, the Reds haven’t even scored one in 2021.
That’s at least ten set-piece goals that have vanished with those injuries, without noting the way Liverpool also scored goals when van Dijk and Matip headed opposition corners clear. Liverpool have zero set-piece threat right now; from the best in the league to the worst, due to injuries.
As Andrew Beasley posted on TTT yesterday, “Liverpool have had 129 corners in the league since they scored from one, and you can add another 21 in Europe in that time frame to make it an even 150 in the main competitions. Even an average conversion rate would see four or five goals from that many corners.”
Obviously van Dijk and Matip enable Liverpool to score from corners at an elite rate, not least as they also free up Fabinho, Henderson and the surprise set-piece goal-getting, Roberto Firmino – perhaps the biggest beneficiary, at 5’11”, of getting on the end of corners because he’s not marked by giants when Liverpool have their own giants. He scored the Reds’ last set-piece goal, in late 2020, and was standing next to 6’5″ Rhys Williams at the time. Firmino has scored ten set-piece goals for Liverpool in recent seasons – as many as van Dijk – but this season they have dried up, because van Dijk creates the havoc.
I predicted a big dip for set-piece production, once Joel Matip joined van Dijk on the out-for-the-season list. I didn’t expect it go get this bad, and the delivery has often remained good. There’s just no height and power; the full-backs get fewer assists as no one can head their corners in.
Indeed, so many things beyond the Reds’ control have worked against the team – lack of a proper preseason and the usual elite fitness work, with preseason plans further hampered by last-minute Covid-related changes; unprecedented levels of injury, illness and even deaths to parents (whose funerals could not be attended); unprecedented officiating surreality; and the uncharacteristic wastefulness of four strikers with almost SEVEN-HUNDRED* senior career goals to their name (but with the randomness of finishing meaning hotter and cooler streaks always occur, and this season some cooler periods have coincided) – that to draw any firm conclusions would be remiss.
(* Jota 86, Mané 187, Salah 245, Firmino 161, for club and country.)
It would be like trying to work out why the world-class sailor isn’t sailing to their usual standards when he or she is currently in the middle of the confluence of a squall, a typhoon, a tornado and a tsunami, after the vessel had just sprung fifteen leaks, and the sailor has just had their leg bitten off by a shark.
You can look at judgement calls, and whether or not this sailor could have tacked or gybed (apparently these are sailing tactics), but ultimately, you cannot untangle the decisions from the chaos.
When things are more “normal” it’s easier to identify simple issues. Fix the vessel, wait for the storms to pass (and sew the leg back on), and you might have something to compare against.
Liverpool also need to stop having twice as many goals disallowed by VAR (ten) as any other club, especially the too-tight-to-call nonsense (for which the technology is not suited), with four or five there-should-be-a-margin-for-error calls against the Reds in 2020/21; and to not have a ludicrous penalty balance of six for and eight against, despite doing two-thirds of the attacking on average. While VAR worked both for against Liverpool against Newcastle, the first big call the officials needed to make was to send off Fernandez for an assault on Diogo Jota. But it’s been years since an opposition player was sent off at Anfield, and has rarely happened in the Klopp era.
As I showed from months of research that covered many Premier League seasons, referees tend to punish foreign players more heavily in both boxes, and Liverpool often have foreign players in both boxes.
Whether or not spending is deemed necessary (and however possible or not a spending spree would be after £100m+ Covid-related losses), the return to fitness of three of the best central defenders in the world, as well as the club’s captain and leader, would surely make for a much stronger team and squad.
It would certainly add four physical players who are all between 6’0″ and 6’5″, who could act as bodyguards for the smaller, more skilful players (such as Thiago), who are more easily overpowered.
Henderson and van Dijk, in particular, are no-nonsense leaders; Joel Matip and Joe Gomez offering the tallest defender and the fastest defender. (The latest bodyguard, Nat Phillips, is now injured too.)
Ibrahima Konaté, outstanding already at just 21, has the physicality and quality; a 6’4″ reader of the game, and he would be a great addition, as, on average, players in the Premier League get taller, and set-pieces remain vital. Ozan Kabak has done very well, but Konaté, at the same age, may offer more necessary skills.
In the remaining two-thirds of this piece I examine the quality, depth, age-profile and contract situations of the squad, and the data suggests there’s plenty to be positive about. I also run the rule over many of the younger players at the club, and those due to return from loan.