Slowly, then all at once

Written on 6 September 2022, 04:43pm

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Back in December 2021, after a grim performance at Leicester, it seemed to me that it’s the end of an era for this Liverpool squad.
A second half of the season energized by a mid-season transfer gave me hope that, despite the heartbreaking end of the season, the young players (such as Konate, Eliott or Diaz) will fit in nicely among the world class core. But at the same time, I expected some big decisions from Liverpool in the upcoming transfer windows.

What I did not expect at all was another summer without properly reinforcing the midfield. The deadline-day loan signing of Arthur was only a consequence of a last-minute injury, but it had nothing to do with long (not even medium) term planning. It was reactionary, and it reminds more of the January 2021 fiasco rather than the swift, behind-the-scenes transfers of Fabinho, Salah or Alisson.

The consequences of this passive strategy are already visible: after 6 games against teams that finished last season outside the Top 5, Liverpool have only 9 points out of 18. During the 540 minutes played, they were only in front for less than 90. What’s worrying still, is the lack of intensity in all the departments and the declining quality of the midfield.

The injuries in that department certainly did not help, but they are hardly surprising and should not be an excuse for the bad start of the season. The medical history of players such as Thiago, Keita or Ox tells you that they will all miss significant parts of the season. Add to this the age of Milner and Henderson and you get a very fragile and predictable midfield, where Fabinho will burn out sooner rather than later and a lot will be expected from young players like Eliott, Jones or Carvalho.

The slow start of the season leads to two types of reactions among the LFC supporters. Some of them argue that we are only 5 points behind Manchester City (last season there were 14 at some point) and things will be fine once the players will return from injuries. Some others are writing this season off as a ‘transition’ season.

I think both reactions are wrong.

First, I think it’s a mistake to compare the current results only against Manchester City. Yes, they are the main contenders, and they will probably win the league easily. But I find it borderline arrogant to disconsider teams such as Tottenham, Arsenal, Man United or Chelsea, who are all stronger compared to the last season and are currently ahead of Liverpool in the PL table. Before comparing to Man City, compare to the ones ahead of you.

Second, when saying this is a season of transition, one has to ask the question: ‘Transition to what?‘. At the end of this season, 3 midfielders will be out of contract (Ox, Keita, Milner) and other 3 will be over 30: Henderson 33, Thiago 32 and Fabinho 30. Liverpool will have no midfielder inside the peak age band, as you can see from the chart below. Add to this the fact that Virgil and Matip will be 32 and Firmino (31) will be out of contract and you get a worrying picture. If the current season is one of transition, I cannot imagine a name for the next one.

Source: The Athletic

On top of that, in a well-run club there should be no transition in the first place. The midfield should have been transformed gradually, over the course of the last 2-3 seasons, when Liverpool was in a position of strength. In reality, since the signing of Fabinho in June 2018, the only midfield signings were Thiago (2020), Carvalho and Arthur (2022). Considering the injury record of Thiago, the youth of Carvalho (20) and the fact that Arthur arrived in the last possible moment of the transfer window (on loan), you can see how the midfield area was neglected over the last 4 years during which Liverpool won both the CL and the PL.

There is no transition. This is decline

The decline doesn’t usually happen overnight. Just like bankruptcy, it comes slowly, and then all at once.
I believe that for Liverpool the decline started back in 2019, right after winning the CL. That transfer window, the only additions were Adrian, van den Berg and Minamino.
It continued with the inexplicable lack of reaction in January 2021, when despite half of the team being out injured, the only solution found by the club were two deadline-day sub-mediocre and forgettable loans.
Add to this the consistently neglected midfield area over the last 4 years (described above) and you get plenty of signs of a slow, but inevitable decline.

I believe that this is the season where the decline will become clearly visible. What does that mean? I’d love to be wrong, but I’m afraid that Liverpool will finish this season outside the Top 4 and will have a relatively short CL experience.

What could have been done better?

Liverpool operates with two important constraints: first, they have a ‘sell to buy’ transfer policy and second, they have a relatively risk-averse strategy when it comes to transfers. The first means that you will rarely see the club throwing money to fix expensive mistakes (think Kepa, Lukaku and Werner in Chelsea’s case). The second means that Liverpool prefer to wait for their target men (think Konate), unless other teams threaten to hijack the transfer (think Luis Diaz) and will only bring a player if they are 200% convinced that there is a need for him (think Alisson).

I have doubts that the ‘sell to buy’ policy is sustainable on the long run against other clubs that operate with more flexible financial limits. But it worked for Liverpool until recently, and to make sure it keeps working they should have compensated by making smart signings from a position of strength. Smart signing means players like Bruno Guimaraes, Ryan Gravenberch, Moises Caicedo or Matheus Nunes – all in their early 20s and available for less than 10m in the previous transfer windows.

It’s certainly frustrating to see the club in this situation, especially after an exhausting season when both players and fans were pushed beyond their limits. It’s frustrating to see the world class core of players struggling to make things work by themselves. It’s frustrating for players who are asked to play more minutes than they can handle at their age or to play in different positions because there is simply no alternative. And it’s certainly frustrating for the injured players who cannot help in any way.

But this is the consequence of long-time negligence that cannot be fixed overnight. I’m afraid that the best days of Klopp’s Liverpool are behind…

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