Liverpool are set to sign Japan and Stuttgart captain Wataru Endo in a £16M deal. It’s a move that it’s fair to say nobody saw coming and the reintroduction of an unexpectedly veteran presence for a side that lost two key midfield veterans this summer. On paper, it’s also hard to imagine a better profile to fill Liverpool’s defensive midfield gap, with the only real questions being age and how long it might take to adjust to the demands of playing in a Jürgen Klopp side.
Defensive Midfielder | VfB Stuttgart
DOB: February 9, 1993 (30) | Height 5’10” (178cm)
2022-23: 40 appearances (3,523 min) | 6g/5a
Combativeness, tenacity, leadership, and a massive engine. Even before digging into the numbers, those are the things one notices about Wataru Endo any time he plays for Japan or Stuttgart. He’s a player who captains club and country. He’s a player who leaves it all on the pitch no matter the opponent or situation. His got that dawg in him levels are well and truly off the charts.
Since helping to take Stuttgart back to the Bundesliga in 2020-21, no midfielder has won more aerial duels or completed more headed clearances than Endo. In that time, amongst Bundesliga midfielders he’s also made the second-most successful tackles and the second-most possession regains. He’s a player strong at both defensive transitions and attacking transitions, fully capable of both winning the ball back and then knowing when to slow things down with a simple pass or when to quickly spring the counter.
In a Stuttgart side without much creative talent in midfield, Endo has regularly been called on to not only be their primary defensive presence but also at times the primary midfield playmaker. That resulted in progressive passing numbers last season—by volume, xA/90 created, and completion rate metrics—that were nearly identical to fellow new Liverpool midfield signing Alexis Mac Allister. Endo isn’t just in midfield to screen the defence and make tackles, and with Liverpool stacked with attacking talent further up the pitch he should be able to do some damage as a deep-lying playmaker.
He also has a long-range screamer or two in his locker and doesn’t look out of place when he decides to make a late drive to crash the penalty area, while for those fond of basing player valuations around World Cup performances, Endo was stellar against Luka Modric and Croatia’s midfield in a semi-final that ended 1-1 after 120 minutes and only saw Croatia advance past Japan on penalties.
All of that adds up to a player who has some useful flexibility while being good enough as a defensive midfield specialist, at least on paper and assuming he makes the transition to a new club and league quickly, to start today for a side with Liverpool’s aspirations.
Since 2020-21, no Bundesliga midfielder has played more minutes. In fact, over the past three seasons, Endo has played 96% of available minutes for Stuttgart. That could be read as a positive, confirmation of his status as an exceptionally robust player with a massive engine. It’s probably fair to ask, though, just how much he has left in the tank moving to the Premier League at 30 years of age, and his defensive numbers did drop off a little last year compared to the previous two.
Additionally, while some have pointed to Endo’s positional flexibility as a plus, for Liverpool it’s probably worth noting his flexibility likely doesn’t extend far beyond midfield. He has in the past played at centre half and fullback, but it’s been a long time since he’s done either with any kind of regularity and his average height would likely be a liability for Liverpool at centre half no matter how much he over-performs expectations aerially as a midfielder.
As for filling in at fullback, Endo can better be described as quick than fast, which is to say that he’s highly mobile and accelerates quickly. Combined with his engine, it makes him a player capable of covering a great deal of ground shuttling around midfield all day, able to plug gaps and close effectively on late-developing threats. However, he’s not a player one would expect to win many races over distance against high quality wingers and opposition fullbacks on the touchline.
There’s also now the Asian Cup to worry about, scheduled roughly at the same time as the Africa Cup of Nations and running from early January to early February in the new year.
If Endo was four or five years younger, with his statistical profile and reputation as a leader, he would have been on every Liverpool fan’s defensive midfielder wishlist. He’s not four or five years younger, of course, but then not every signing has to be a player with upside who can start for the next eight seasons, and if the club believe they can get two or three good years out of the Japanese international for a reasonable fee and wages, it’s an easy deal to like.
He arrives to, essentially, fill the role for the coming season that the club headed into the summer expecting Fabinho to take while bringing enough flexibility to fill in at the eight—or in a severe injury crisis perhaps to drop back—and everything about his profile suggests he can fill that role, maybe even to a higher level even than Fabinho did in 2022-23 given the Brazilian’s unexpectedly steep physical decline. The big question, perhaps, is what Endo’s own decline curve might look like and how long it might take him to get up to speed and integrate into a Jürgen Klopp side.
Signing him should at least now mean there’s no risk of Liverpool panicking and overpaying for a defensive midfielder with obvious fit issues, though, be it the defensively excellent but terrible on the ball and wildly over-priced João Palhinha or the defensively limited but excellent at ball progressions Sofyan Amrabat or the pretty good at everything but unable to stay healthy Tyler Adams. Even for those who can’t find a way to get excited about the Endo transfer on its own merits, that should be enough to view it in a positive light.