After the Reds decided to forego any major moves in the summer, opting instead to pick up talented youngsters Sepp van den Berg and Harvey Elliott while clearing out some of their own fringe players, there was an increasing expectation that, for once, Jürgen Klopp might decide to dip into the transfer market this January, in an effort to bolster his team’s chances of securing their first league title in three decades.
Some big names were mentioned, and with Klopp himself uncharacteristically unwilling to deny any potential moves, expectations mounted. When the news dropped today that the Reds are in fact going to sign a new player in January, and that that player is Takumi Minamino from recent opponents RB Salzburg, the reception was largely positive, despite the player being relatively unheralded. Below, we try to make a case for whether the reaction was appropriate.
DOB: 16/1/95 (24 years old) | Height: 5’9” (174cm)
2019/20 season: 22 appearances
9 goals | 11 assists
Strengths: As one would expect from an attacking midfielder in a high-tempo offense such as RB Salzburg’s, Minamino is an exceptional technician. Mixing remarkable two-footedness and excellent close control with quick feet and fluid hips, the Japanese international is capable of maneuvering out of tight spaces while maintaining control of the ball, and, crucially, while keeping his head up. This latter attribute is what separates the 24-year old from many a dribbly attacker, and Minamino will typically look for a team-mate whenever approaching the box, attempting to deliver a pass before immediately making a run into a dangerous area.
This unselfish quality is part of the reason why the former Cerezo Osaka man consistently delivers such an even number of goals and assists — scoring 64 and assisting 44 during his time in Austria — and he is equally happy if he is last, second last, or third last on the ball before a goal is scored as long as it benefits the team. Whether nominally starting out wide, up top with a partner, or behind a striker, Minamino will drift into pockets of space in the central areas between the lines, looking to affect the game with quick turns, flicks, passes and runs.
A challenge when analysing players from smaller leagues is collecting data, as, unlike most of the major leagues, the Austrian Bundesliga does not report stats beyond goals, assists and time on the pitch. What we can do, however, is look at the player’s numbers from competitions in which more advanced stats are reported, and extrapolate them onto their overall numbers. Given the relative difference in quality across competitions, this may not paint an entirely accurate picture of the player in question, but it is better than nothing.
Takumi Minamino has scored or assisted a goal every 115 minutes from Salzburg. In European competition, this number sits at 105. This indicates that his performances in Europe do not considerably differ from those in the domestic league, and can be instructive about his overall play. With a shot or shot assist every 19 minutes, a conversion rate on the former of 17.4%, and on the latter of 20.8%, we can infer that Minamino both finishes and creates goalscoring opportunities that are of a higher quality than most players — the average for both sitting around 10% — and that he generates them at a high enough rate that even with a drop in quality, pure volume will ensure that he remains productive.
Furthermore, these numbers have been racked up entirely without contributing from set pieces, suggesting that Minamino will be able to add his productivity to the Liverpool team without detracting from somebody else’s.
So he scores and creates goals from open play. What else can we say about the talents of Salzburg’s number 18? For one, that he works his absolute socks off. With 2.5 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, the Japanese attacker wins the ball for his team more often than any of Liverpool’s current front three. That is hardly a surprise, given how Salzburg prefer pressing from the front, but it is nonetheless exceptionally valuable for Jürgen Klopp, whose counterpress relies heavily on the work rate of his forward line.
Finally, while he is not a stud athlete in the mould of Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, and while he definitely falls into the bracket of quick rather than fast, Minamino is no slouch in the open field and will surprise many would-be challenger with his combination of deceptive body movement and an explosive first step.
Weaknesses: As always when purchasing from less competitive leagues, there will be questions about how well the player’s ability will translate. Certainly Minamino has done it on the European stage already, hanging in there with the Liverpools and Dortmunds and Napolis of the world, but the Premier League remains a unique beast, and whether the 24-year old can reproduce his form in England can not be known for certain until we’ve seen it.
On a related note, standing at a lithe 5’8” and change, there is a chance the physicality of the English game will prove daunting for Minamino, or at the very least, require a period of adaptation. The attacker possesses deceptive body strength, and his low center of gravity along with expert use of his hips ensures that he is unlikely to be completely overwhelmed by the Premier League, but the difference in the overall athleticism of the competition will certainly present a challenge.
Finally, with Minamino turning 25 in January, he is likely the finished product or not far off it, and what you see is what you get at this point. There could be some residual improvements to come simply by virtue of facing better talent on the training ground on a daily basis, but there is unlikely to be any sort of big next step in the player’s development, of the kind one might expect when picking up an athlete in their early 20s.
Summary: Big Mike Edwards seems to have done it again, using his inside information to steal a march on the Reds’ rivals and acquiring a high-level player entering his prime, playing a position of need, for at most a third of Minamino’s actual market value. The Japanese attacker will provide much-needed quality depth for Roberto Firmino in the false nine role while being unlikely to cause any mid-season upheaval in the squad by instantly threatening to take the spot of a first-choice starter, and he can also offer something different in the wide attacking areas when needed.
At half the price of Xherdan Shaqiri, Liverpool have picked up an excellent squad player who can provide cover for their starters without a significant drop in quality, and who — should things break just right — could potentially earn himself a starting spot somewhere down the line as the current first-choice players age out. That is an exceptionally difficult thing to do, and one for which the club should be applauded.