The season may be ten weeks away, but the temperature is already heating up on Merseyside. Coming off a loss in the Champions League final, Liverpool have been hard at work beefing up their squad for next year. Naby Keïta’s signature was secured a year ago, then a wild Fabinho appeared out of the blue two days after the season ended.
Now, as the Nabil Fekir saga nears its €60m conclusion—taking the Reds’ midfield spending to in excess of £150m on the year—we delve into exactly how the newest addition will fit into Jürgen Klopp’s puzzle.
DOB: 18/7/93 (24 years old) | Height: 5’8” (173cm)
2017/18 season: 40 appearances
23 goals | 9 assists
Strengths: First and foremost, Nabil Fekir is an exceptional technician. A combination of outstanding close control, balance and bodywork means that the ball rarely escapes the Frenchman, whether he is in the open field or swarmed by opposition players. Paired with his sturdy frame, this allows him to dance or weave or barge his way past opponents, making him the second most successful dribbler in Ligue 1 last year. Should there be no way out of a situation, Fekir excels at drawing fouls, and the 24-year old earned more free kicks than any other player in France in the 17/18 season.
A left-footer, Fekir is remarkably comfortable using his weaker leg and can produce an impressive array of passes with either foot, from ruler-straight crossfield drives to outside of the boot dinks. That left peg can swing in a tremendous set-piece, too, and having shared free kick and corner duties with Memphis Depay at Lyon, Fekir would be expected to enter the rotation at Anfield as well, offering a different flavour of delivery.
The most pronounced difference between Fekir and Philippe Coutinho, the man he ostensibly replaces six months on from his departure, is shot volume. Having come up as a striker, the 24-year old simply does not generate as many shots as his Brazilian predecessor, particularly from range, and will typically rather look for a secondary or tertiary option—the one-two or the dribble—in order to generate higher quality chances. He can absolutely thump one, though, and while the majority of his goals are striker’s efforts from inside the box, Fekir has enough belters on his resume to keep defenders honest as he closes in.
Having spent time as a striker, out wide, and in the attacking midfield role, Fekir possesses exceptional understanding of the timing and rhythm of an attack, knowing when to play the ball as well as how his strikers wish to receive it in which areas. Off the ball, he puts this understanding to use by locating and moving into dangerous spaces to finish off moves. A goal or assist every 132 minutes in his career is excellent long-term production, and there is no reason to expect it to tail off under Jürgen Klopp.
Finally, Fekir is a ferocious competitor—wary and apprehensive of the media, preferring to focus on his football—combining a touch of on-the-ball arrogance with off-the-ball hustle. While Bruno Génésio’s system at Lyon did not demand the same sort of intensity Klopp will, Fekir possesses the engine and drive to excel in the German’s gegenpressing set-up, as well as the mentality to relish the challenge.
Weaknesses: While he is quick off the mark and his close control, strength and misdirection often takes him past players, Fekir is no sprinter—comparable to Roberto Firmino in terms of raw pace, but with a more powerful initial burst—and he is unlikely to be leading the counter when the Reds break forward. Similarly, his short stature and lack of a meaningful vertical leap makes Fekir a non-factor in the air, having not scored a single header in his career, and mustering only five headed efforts on goal, total.
Having competed in both the Champions and Europa League, Fekir’s underlying quality should not be doubted, but as always when picking up players from less competitive leagues, there is a chance the bustle of the Premier League will require a settling-in period. As Liverpool could possibly start a midfield trio without a single Premier League minute between them on opening day, this is an element worth keeping an eye on.
Finally, there is the knee. The only reason Fekir is even available to be bought from Lyon in the year 2018 is the fact that his 2015/16 season—as he looked to break out from prospect to superstar—was cut devastatingly short by a ruptured cruciate ligament while away on international duty. He made a full recovery, and has arguably been Les Gones’ best player since, but has also missed time with minor knee problems in consecutive seasons. As Liverpool fans will know all too well—most recently through the travails of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—knee injuries are notoriously persistent, and there is always a chance some innocuous stray challenge will put the new Red out of commission for weeks or months.
Summary: Hats off to Michael Edwards and the recruitment team once again. Nabil Fekir is a player of phenomenal ability who will step directly into Liverpool’s starting XI next season. His ability to play a wide variety of positions and comfort in playing off the shoulder, dropping deep, going wide, playmaking from midfield or cutting inside with equal aplomb means that there will always be a place for him in the team, whether it is as the most advanced central midfielder, an inside forward, or a Roberto Firmino surrogate. If he can stay healthy, he will improve an already impressive Liverpool side that is looking increasingly likely to make a serious push for trophies next season.