Part 5: What’s Needed for 2021-22?
After winning the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League in 2020 before 2020-21’s third-place finish in the midst of a difficult season, the goal heading into 2021-22 will be for the Reds to be back fighting for the game’s biggest trophies. What, if anything, will they need to do to get there?
Buy a centre back. That’s it. That’s the one thing the club had to do, and with Ibrahima Konaté’s signing, they’ve already done it.
Really though, if we do nothing else, the addition of Konaté, the return of fans to Anfield, and a normalisation of injury, finishing, and VAR margins should see us comfortably back in the title race, pushing for that 90-point mark that should be the target for any side that wants to be in the title race.
Ideally, though, we also find new homes for a bunch of fringe players, add a central midfielder to replace Gini and refresh an aging position group, begin turning over our front line, and get cover for Trent that isn’t a teenager. It’s going to be a weird, unpredictable summer, one complicated further by the Euros, so it’ll be very interesting to see how much movement there is in the market.
Adding Konate is nice. If this was FIFA, I would have kept Ozan Kabak too, but £18m for what would be a fifth choice CB if the club don’t think Joël Matip is departing just isn’t practical in the real world. Still, another midfielder should be on the shopping list with Wijnaldum’s departure, and, regardless of whether Harvey Elliott gets his shot this year or not, I’d like to see another promising young attacker brought in.
Also, Andy Robertson has played so much in the last couple years that a trusted left-back deputy is an absolute necessity. If Jürgen Klopp thinks that’s Tsimikas, perfect, but if the club doesn’t think he’s up for the task then they really need to find someone that is. You’re playing with fire if you’re relying on Robbo to continue starting every single match. More than anything, though, most of these guys just need a damn break. It’s too bad so many of them won’t get it thanks to summer international duty.
In order of importance: announce Ibrahima Konaté (done), replace Gini Wijnaldum’s minutes (pending), continue the front three’s transition and help Harvey Elliott take the next developmental step (fingers crossed).
The centre half issue may look largely solved, but a singular Diogo Jota as backup to the triple threat of Salah, Firmino, and Mane seems like another potential risk to address. We saw what happened when Jota got injured and the front three simultaneously lost their scoring boots, and it would be nice to have another goal threat.
It would also be great to have a Gini replacement, and viable backup options for Trent and Robbo, since it feels as though Neco Williams and Kostas Tsimikas haven’t been deemed ready. This may be unpopular, but Shaqiri, Keita and Origi are deadwood at this point, and I wouldn’t mind them being sold this summer if it means bringing in a few new players.
And maybe while they’re at it, FSG could quit embarrassing us by not investing in LFCW and trying to join breakaway leagues. It absolutely doesn’t help with the banter and the morals and stuff.
Depth, depth, depth. Kostas Tsimikas and Neco Williams barely getting onto the pitch in a season where Trent and Robbo looked severely overworked is concerning. The midfield needs someone who’ll be able to soak up big minutes from Gini’s departure, and we’ll see if Keita or Ox can fight their way back into Klopp’s rotation. Harvey Elliot will be nice to have but it’d be really cool to have another experienced attacking option if Shaqiri or Origi do depart this summer.
It’d also be really great to see the Anfield faithful getting to show up in force for big games again, but before that happens, I’d like to see the club’s management make more overtures to those so-called legacy fans to repair the damage they did trying to found the ESL.
Konaté was the first must do, and kudos to the club for getting it done quickly. The second is signing a midfielder. This is not an option. This is not a situation where the club can cross their fingers and hope someone steps up to replace Gini Wijnaldum. Because Gini played 51 games last season. He played just a game shy of 5,000 minutes. He played 1,500 minutes—or nearly 17 games—more than any other Liverpool midfielder.
Fabinho played 3,434 minutes, Thiago played 2,203, Henderson played 2,114, Jones played 1,920, Milner played 1,752, Keïta played 714, and Oxlade-Chamberlain played 286. That’s the breakdown, and while Fabinho might be able to play a little more it would be reckless to expect Thiago or Henderson to do so. And while Jones might well be ready to take on Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s minutes, asking him to take on even more than that would be similarly reckless. Then you’ve got Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain, who’ve spent most of the past three seasons alternating between being injured and struggling to find form.
I firmly believe Jones is ready to take on a bigger role, but trying to replace Wijnaldum’s 5,000 minutes with our current midfield group would be as reckless as heading into the 2020-21 season with three senior centre halves was. Ideally, and probably to everybody’s benefit, Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain could be found new homes where they would have a clearer path to regular playing time and their departures would fund a new signing who could take on 3,500 to 4,000 minutes.
Beyond that, there are no real musts dos. James Milner can still cover fullback on occasion and Neco Williams is a year older and hopefully able to deputise at right back a little better. If Adrian departs, Kelleher is the backup. If Shaqiri and Origi leave, perhaps a promising young attacker will arrive—but even then, Harvey Elliott is a very promising young attacker already on the books who will need minutes. And so other things may happen, but having brought in Konaté there’s only one other thing that must.
It really is time for the players to finally, hopefully get a chance rest and recuperate. Beyond that, even after Konaté I’d like at least one more capable senior centre back for depth. I also want to continue to bring in some younger talent to begin integrating it into the midfield and attack. Hendo and Thiago will be 31 and 30 respectively to start next season, so someone in their early to mid-20s with an eye towards a starting role in a couple seasons would be ideal.
For the attack, another body is going to be needed for when Mo and Sadio leave for AFCON in the winter. With the entire front line ageing in place, it would be nice to see someone in their early to mid-twenties coming in that could be considered a successor for one of the front three that can push for minutes, like Jota was, rather than a Shaqiri-type stop gap.
I’m not stressed about centre backs. I know everyone else—and probably everyone in their right mind—is a little, even with the signing of Konaté, but what this season has done is get our panic stations straight. There’s only an issue if Virgil or Joe have picked up recurring injuries, and if they haven’t I remain absolutely sound with having one new signing plus Matip to round out the top four and Fabinho as an emergency option. It’s tough on Kabak, and I’d have had no qualms with keeping him, but I also would rather spend £20 million elsewhere as I’m not convinced we have loads to spend.
With that in mind, Gini’s minutes are my main worry. It’s not lost on me that he’s played the most in the midfield every single year it seems, and prior to this season that level of consistency I think added a lot to what the front three could manage. I’m not 100% sure Jones is ready to fill that role consistently, and as much as I do love and appreciate our captain, he’s not one I back to miss fewer games as he ages. Then there’s Thiago, who was never brought in, I don’t think, to play 100% of the minutes available.
So at this point, I would buy a midfielder. We no longer have a single player in that area who has remained fit for a full season, if I’m not mistaken, and a solid spine is crucial. James Milner can cover a lot of ground but here it seems he’s still playing as a backup fullback as well. I don’t want someone flashy really, as consistency is really key here. Maybe there’s an intelligent Dutch fella playing some place like Newcastle who could adapt to what we’re doing really seamlessly so as to let players like Trent and the front three and Jota shine.
All of this is the same reasoning that would have had me letting Gini write his own contract to stick around while selling a few of the fellas who made more minor impacts in the last two seasons, but here we are. This is why it’s not my job to make difficult footballing decisions. And who knows, maybe Jones is ready, maybe what we really need is a player who can play right back and also centrally.
We legitimately are in “players returning from injury are like new signings” territory in a very major way, though, and buying a couple of succession-planning players with an eye to the season after next would make a lot of sense. Even as things stand I would be scared of us if I were any other team in the league.