Part 5: What’s Needed for 2022-23?
Over the past few years, Liverpool have kept their core intact. Some of that has been because there’s been little need to drastically overhaul such a strong group, but Covid has also played a role in delaying a refresh in attack and midfield. As a result, it appears this will be a summer with some big changes. We tried to figure out what needs to happen for Liverpool to head into next season still competing for every trophy.
Finding an attacker as consistent and versatile as Sadio Mané will be a huge challenge. If the Liverpool brass can’t tie up Mohamed Salah as well, well, that would be a massive problem for any team. Even if you have the best recruitment team in European football on your side that’s going to be tough.
Darwin Núñez is definitely a statement of intent as the club look to a future without at least one of Mané and Salah, though, and he’ll definitely bring a different dimension to the attack than we’ve been used to for much of the Klopp era, so it’s going to be intriguing to see how the coaching staff mould a player who’s so good but still raw and at least doesn’t look suited to playing as a false nine.
The state of the midfield is a little worrying, too. Fitness and injuries were managed just about as well as they possibly could be this past season and still Thiago seemed to pick up a knock whenever a big game appeared on the horizon. Naby Keïta had a better season than any of his previous but it was still a see-saw. Jordan Henderson played the most games of his career but it was probably to the detriment of his play if I’m being honest. I’m not quite sure if he’ll have the legs in him for another 57 game season. I’m not sure any of them do. Which means that a new, prime-age starting caliber needs to be a priority, too.
Liverpool have been sneaky good bringing in fresh faces to contribute the past few seasons, signing some top players like Thiago, Kostas Tsimikas, and Luis Diaz. Plus a fair few promising youngsters like Harvey Elliott, Kaide Gordon, and now Fabio Carvalho. Still, there were always going to be questions in attack and midfield this summer given the way the years do in fact start coming and they don’t stop coming. Combine an aging core with what at times it has to be said looked like a Gini Wijnaldum-sized hole in midfield last season and now the departure of Mané and it’s hard not to think the club need both a starting caliber midfielder and forward in.
The blockbuster signing of Darwin Núñez, the 22-year-old Benfica and Uruguay striker who has the potential at least to be a new Robert Lewandowski, is the club’s £85M answer to the attack side of the question. Plus it looks likely they’ll sign another player in the promising youngster category, Aberdeen’s Calvin Ramsay, to provide depth at right back. To me, that just leaves the midfield question left to answer—and with the club’s interest in Aurélien Tchouaméni, we at least know they’ve been looking.
Make those three signings and, for me, that’s a perfect summer window for a club in the position Liverpool are right now. And while some may see fringe players like Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino on the way out and want more than that, I’ve long since accepted that Jürgen Klopp prefers working with a squad on the small side and I think those minutes are what players like Elliott and Carvalho—and Curtis Jones and maybe Kaide Gordon—are there to cover as they continue to develop.
With Núñez set to arrive, what I want to see next is midfield and right back support. I know that Klopp likes to say that we have that in James Milner and Joe Gomez, but having a player who only plays right back would be really nice for the days when Trent isn’t available. It clearly paid off with having Tsimikas available to help out Robertson this season. And with the prospect of losing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the horizon while Naby Keïta remains unreliable, the middle of the pitch is looking awfully thin.
The problem for the recruitment team in midfield might be finding a player that wouldn’t mind being rotated but who’s good enough to start for a club like Liverpool. And whether it’s in midfield or at right back, I’d like to see another youngling like Carvalho and Elliott arrive, the sort of player who can contribute a little today but will be given the time to get up to speed with the way Liverpool play and to the rigours of the Premier League.
I’d like another midfielder. Really any midfielder would do, but I think a young, promising player who can play as a six would be my ideal scenario of the likely possibilities. Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, and Fabio Carvalho seem to be in the succession plan for the more forward midfield roles, so I’d really love to bring in someone that can learn from and spell Fabinho while he’s in his prime.
I know a lot of people will be hoping for another starting-caliber midfielder, but nothing has really changed from last summer. There is a logjam of players for three spots in the XI when everyone is healthy. A player who is a clear enough improvement to automatically slot into one of those starting roles when everyone is fit is going to be exceptionally expensive—and therefore unlikely. Realistically, someone who can fight for minutes is probably the best we can hope for, but that could be a hard sell given the aforementioned logjam.
That might lead to the choice being between another vet who will accept a diminished role à la James Milner, or another young player who’s willing to accept the challenge of fighting to break into an already strong team and maybe not locking down a starting spot straight away. With the midfield largely comprised of players in or nearing the end of their prime, I’m hoping for the young guy. Other than that, I agree that a dedicated backup at right back would be very nice.
Like Noel mentioned, Liverpool have quietly been rebuilding the squad over the course of the last few seasons while keeping the veteran core intact. The likes of Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota, Ibrahima Konate, Harvey Elliott, and Curtis Jones all seem primed to step into expanded roles. And now Liverpool are going to splash the cash on Darwin Nunez, so I feel the next biggest need is depth for that holding midfield role. Fabinho has been excellent, but he tends to take a knock or two a season. While Jordan Henderson can step into that role, I think a younger player who can serve as depth now with an eye towards being a starter in a couple of seasons should be the priority.
The midfield is the obvious cause for concern in the squad now that Núñez is arriving. There’s quality, and Fabinho is one of the best in the world at his position, but many of our midfielders are getting older or are injury-prone. James Milner is 36, Jordan Henderson is 32, Thiago Alcantara is 31 and missed a lot of time last year. The comparatively young ones are Fabinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at 28 and then Naby Keïta at 27, with Keïta injury prone and Oxlade-Chamberlain expected to depart this summer. The other senior player in the mix is Curtis Jones, who at 21 doesn’t seem quite ready for a regular starting role.
The club brought in young blood in defence with Ibrahima Konaté and Kostas Tsimikas and in attack with Diogo Jota, Luis Díaz, and now Núñez. The next problem to tackle is midfield. I wouldn’t expect a major overhaul, but one or two players added over the next few years to refresh the team is necessary. Do I think Milner might keep coming on for domestic cups and the last 10 minutes of blowouts until long past the heat death of the planet? Yes, and I would cheer for him coming on every time. But there should still be reinforcements added in the meantime.