Can Liverpool’s midfield still excel without fresh blood?

Can Liverpool’s midfield still excel without fresh blood?

The Liverpool squad will report back for the start of pre-season training next Monday. Five days later, they will embark on a week-long tour of the Far East.

Uruguay striker Darwin Nunez, who was signed from Benfica for a fee which could rise to a club-record £85 million, will be the star attraction.

Jurgen Klopp is also relishing the prospect of getting to work with fellow new boys Fabio Carvalho and Calvin Ramsay. Carvalho will provide an exciting injection of attacking quality following his £7.7 million move from Fulham, while fellow teenager Ramsey arrived from Aberdeen in a £6.5 million deal. The Scottish full-back will give Klopp high-calibre cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Sadio Mane, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino have already left Liverpool, with Neco Williams, who has attracted strong interest from Fulham and Nottingham Forest, set to follow.

The Anfield hierarchy have indicated that’s likely to be it in terms of incomings. Klopp is happy with what he’s got. The club’s priorities in the transfer market have already been addressed by new sporting director Julian Ward.

However, there is one remaining area of the squad that could arguably still do with being strengthened.

A year ago, many supporters were concerned when Georginio Wijnaldum wasn’t replaced following his departure on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. Now, a similar debate is raging about Klopp’s midfield options.

Liverpool’s stance was vindicated last summer as they embarked on a remarkable campaign which saw them win both domestic cups and narrowly miss out on both Premier League and Champions League glory. The question is: can they hit those heights again without some fresh blood in the centre of the park?

For Klopp and Ward, it’s a case of finding the right midfielder at the right price rather than settling for second-best or a stop-gap. As a result, they are prepared to wait until 2023 unless an attractive proposition emerges in the coming weeks.

It’s no secret that Liverpool held a strong interest in Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni but they always knew his preference was to sign for Real Madrid. The €100 million price tag was also prohibitive.

England international Jude Bellingham is admired by Klopp and the club’s recruitment staff, but they know signing him this summer isn’t realistic with Borussia Dortmund having already lost Erling Haaland to Manchester City. Bellingham’s contract runs until 2025.

So where does that leave Liverpool?

Certainly, numbers-wise, Klopp isn’t short. He has eight senior midfielders in Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Carvalho’s long-term future is expected to be in midfield, although initially he’s set to get opportunities further forward. The arrival of Nunez gives Klopp greater freedom to switch to playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 at times, having long since favoured a 4-3-3 system. The manager wants an element of unpredictability.

Midfield was the department where Klopp rotated the most during a gruelling season which spanned 63 games in all competitions.

The most common midfield he picked was made up of Fabinho, Henderson and Thiago. They started 11 times together in 2021-22. When fit, they were Klopp’s first-choice unit.

Thiago excelled when he was available and was deservedly named in the PFA Team of the Year, although injuries and illness meant the 31-year-old Spain international was only involved in 25 out of 38 league games.

Fabinho, Henderson and Keita started five times together — the same as the trio of Fabinho, Henderson and Jones. Elliott would have been more heavily involved but for the serious ankle injury he suffered against Leeds United last September. He’s expected to play a much bigger role in 2022-23.

Liverpool

Henderson, who recently turned 32, played more minutes than any other Liverpool midfielder last season. The long-serving captain clocked up 3,869 in all competitions. Fabinho (3,690) was next, followed by Thiago (2,381), Keita (2,083), Jones (1,528), Oxlade-Chamberlain (1,524) and Milner (1,387).

In terms of attacking contributions, Fabinho led the way in terms of goals with eight, while Henderson provided the most assists with six. Thiago and Milner were top in terms of assists per 90 minutes with 0.19.

Earlier this month, Milner signed a new one-year deal to extend his Liverpool career beyond his 37th birthday. He featured in 39 games in 2021-22 (25 as a substitute) and Klopp has made it clear he hasn’t just been retained because of the example he sets in the dressing room.

“A lot is often made of James’ leadership skills and his influence in the dressing room, and of course, that’s correct and justified, but nobody should overlook his quality on the pitch, where he continues to perform to a level that meant we simply couldn’t afford to lose him,” says Klopp. “We had the longest campaign possible last season and Millie only got stronger and better, and more influential as it went on.”

Liverpool

It was another stop-start year for Keita. The Guinea international made some vital contributions, particularly in the second half of the season, but had to settle for a late cameo off the bench in the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid.

Keita actually played more in the Premier League in 2021-22 than in any season since 2018-19, but that was still represented only 34.3 per cent of the club’s minutes. He made 14 top-flight starts. That figure would have been slightly higher but for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Liverpool are in the process of trying to agree a new contract with Keita, whose deal runs out next summer. The 27-year-old’s battle to live up to his £52.75 million transfer fee on a regular basis is ongoing but Klopp’s faith in him remains.

Liverpool

One midfielder who could move on this summer is Oxlade-Chamberlain. Liverpool won’t stand in his way if the right opportunity comes up for him to secure regular game time elsewhere. The 28-year-old, who has a year left on his contract, is valued at around £10 million.

Having played just 7.4 per cent of the club’s top-flight minutes in 2020-21, that figure climbed to 23 per cent last season. However, he still hasn’t played more than a third of the minutes for Liverpool in the Premier League since 2019-20.

Oxlade-Chamberlain made 29 appearances in all competitions in 2021-22 (12 as a sub) but fell increasingly out of favour and didn’t feature again following the FA Cup tie win at Nottingham Forest in March. What happens next depends to a large degree on what other options emerge for him. If he starts pre-season brightly, then Oxlade-Chamberlain may decide he’s better off staying put and backing himself to force his way into Klopp’s plans.

If Liverpool don’t sign a midfielder, then many fans will view his potential departure as a risk. Klopp would be heavily reliant on Fabinho, Thiago and Henderson staying injury-free, Keita progressing, Milner continuing to defy the ageing process, as well as Elliott and Jones stepping up and fulfilling their rich potential.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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