Deep Dive Diagnosis: Assessing Liverpool FC, and Where They Go From Here
I posted a detailed assessment of the current Liverpool squad on my separate ZenDen site yesterday for the paid subscribers on there (where I seek to find some positives, but not in a vacuum of denial).
I will now share that here as well – but beforehand, 1,500 words by way of an introduction, and to cover the broader context in more detail.
First, I chose the above photo as a reminder of what this current squad did, with only one departure of any note from the team that achieved so much, and which almost achieved the unachievable.
One clear point I want to make, before now sharing yesterday’s piece here for free, is about the broad catastrophising I've seen all season about not finishing in the Champions League positions.
I said earlier in the season that if, as fans, we all make that the minimum requirement, it'll be a long, stressful season devoid of fun, and reduced to the mad scramble to always be on the Euro gravy train, just as 14 (now 13 with Newcastle's elevation?) teams madly scramble to avoid relegation, and all teams in the Championship massively overload on debt in the crazed drive to get onto the domestic gravy train. Is that really all we want from a season?
People talk about Premier League greed, but the insane greed of the second tier – in aiming to win the jackpot – is putting various clubs at risk. It's far more worrying and out of control, as often, no one is forcing them overspend, and it can often be due to the demand from fans to compete and succeed.
For all the talk about the government bailing clubs out and the need for greater handouts from the top division, these clubs have been overspending to insane levels, rather than being self-sustaining and trying to do their best from there. No one should have the right to overspend madly in pursuit of glory and then expect a bailout, in football or any other business.
It's literally like buying insanely expensive lottery tickets each week, that cost twice your weekly wage, knowing that, with only three winners, you will likely lose the gamble. That's what they're doing: wage-bills twice as high as turnover! This is a general point about football, and why I want Liverpool to be 100% self-sustainable, not run by lunatics or murderous regimes.
Not being in the Champions League will be a blow to Liverpool, clearly, but very clever player contracts will reflect the drop in income (and as such, a massive wage bill will become less-massive), and outstanding new players will still be attracted to Liverpool, just as many top-class and world-class ones were between 2011 and 2016.
The success, and the model, was never built on expensive superstars, but hungry young up-and-comers; and despite no Champions League, they were world-class or game-changers in waiting: Luis Suarez, Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mané, Gini Wijnaldum, Joël Matip, Joe Gomez, James Milner, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge (pre-injuries) and Roberto Firmino. Most of those later won the Champions League, and the Premier League.
Just as you can always find value in January, you can always find value when outside the top four, especially if you remain an elite club with an elite manager, full of elite players in the team.
The club won't be in trouble if not in the top four, as it's not set up just to be in the top four. It will be a challenge, but not a disaster. And the catastrophising is crazy-making. It ruins the entire season. I drains all joy, and replaces it with impending dread, month after month.
Jürgen Klopp has turned around every difficult season he's had in his career since 2008, and as long as the club is not in some internal war, he can try and do so this season; and if not successful, start again next season. He doesn't need sacking, clearly, even if the team finishes 17th (which it won’t).
But as I note below, the six-week break that starts in just a fortnight will be an absolute godsend for so many reasons. It provides so many opportunities to assess, diagnose, repair and solve.
Some kind of playing-staff reset is needed anyway, albeit as the piece below discusses, the squad is still excellent, but just beset with fatigue, injuries and light in midfield (an area in which the club bid €100m for a player in the summer, and were quoted £130m on another. The money was there, and the intent was there).
It seems like everyone at the club dropped the ball when finding an alternative to those two elite targets, as no one could agree on a compromise – but that was understood and acknowledged at the end of the transfer window, and I expect it to be addressed already, ahead of the January window. Targets will be lined up, without doubt. Liverpool need midfield reinforcements, and they will surely arrive.
Mistakes happen - by owners, managers, players, coaches, scouts, directors of football, physios, doctors, and yes, football writers (I make a ton, albeit I always try and be honest and analytical; but I still screw up, frequently).
Plus, newfangled injury-avoiding algorithms make mistakes, too. (Or at the very least, stop players from getting new injuries, but mean that the manager can't pick the team he wants and there’s no consistency or balance to selections.)
This season has been a fitness disaster, clearly – but it need not lead to a rebuild, as so many people want to burn things down these days and start from scratch, which is almost always dumb. Six weeks is a long time to fix things; an opportunity granted in no other season. Getting the players fit is likely a better solution than selling them all and starting afresh. (Hence, the World Cup provides that chance.)
Liverpool need to continue to be smart, and logical, and rational, and analytical, with Klopp's heart and spirit and wisdom leading the team. The model need not change, even if other clubs are catching up in terms of being smart too, and copying the Reds' ways. Liverpool just have to try and be smarter still, and innovate again.
But you can only try to be as smart as you can be, and it's rarely wise to spend money you don't have in the race to compete with clubs who spend money they don't have (but which miraculously appears from the ground, as if some liquid that oils the wheels of dodgy deals).
The alternatives to being non-sustainable are: cap-in-hand to owners to fund club and become reliant on them*; sell to corrupt zillionaire individuals or states with sickening morals; sell to a genuine hedge-fund (instead of being owned by a company whose individuals had hedge-fund connections), where all kinds of iffy deals will get made in the need for urgent returns on investments; even more insanely, sell-off all your future assets and earnings like Barcelona, which seems like the Leeds 2002 way of heading for potential 15-year oblivion – pull lever after lever on those trapdoors; or ... the Super League, which unpalatable as it is in different ways, is driven by clubs who cannot compete with Middle Eastern states, and who want to earn money from football revenue, not from dubious outside sources (even if they’re hardly a bunch of saints, as big football clubs are all chasing cash, like stokers constantly adding coal to steam engine).
Or remain self-sustainable.
(* If owners are not taking money out, and indeed, loaning interest-free money for infrastructure, then you can you ask them to fund player purchases, if that's never been the model? … And the model made the club the best in the world – as recently as July 2022! – having been ranked 33 in Europe at the time of the takeover. The future increased stadium capacities will help fund player purchases and a hefty wage bill, and keep the Reds competitive. The club is not built on quicksand; quite the opposite these days.)
As you can see from my assessment of the squad below, apart from the midfield, there's mostly no great holes.
I've talked about the age-balance in the XIs all season, and it's an issue that arose with so many 20-something players being injured, leaving teenagers and the oldsters. (Two of these injuries were fairly predictable, but equally, the injuries had been well-managed last season for some players who had previously rarely been fit.) And some injuries are just plain bad luck; the way the hitherto high-octane Luis Díaz fell at Arsenal as an example.
A different set of injuries could have had all the older guys injured, and all the 20-somethings fine: a team this season built around Ibrahima Konaté, Luis Díaz, Darwin Núñez, Diogo Jota, Naby Keïta, Andy Robertson and ideally, an in-form Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fabinho (both of whom haven't looked able to run properly this season), would have been faster and more energetic, with maybe Mo Salah, Virgil Van Dijk and Thiago the only older outfield regulars. That would have made a lot of sense.
Even 26-year-old Arthur got seriously injured barely after getting off the plane, and 21-year-old Curtis Jones is now playing catch-up. Virtually everyone aged 21-29 has had issues. You can moan about James Milner, but at least he's been fit (and done well at times again this season).
A couple of years ago it was having six or seven injured centre-backs, along with other issues, and Liverpool revived once the other players returned, and two rookie centre-backs forged a sufficiently stable partnership; now it's the 20-something players injured or off form, leaving raw kids and some fatigued-looking older guys.
Anyway, onto the article.
It starts with a discussion of some of the general issues, then leads into an assessment of each player, and a few younger ones who could really make the most of this season, just as many younger players only ever come into struggling or injury-hit teams (Robbie Fowler in 1993; Michael Owen in 1997; Steven Gerrard in 1998; Trent Alexander-Arnold in 2016; and so on. Ditto Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United in recent seasons, turning to kids in times of chaos and waiting for them to mature, and then seeing the benefit a year or two down the line).
The Talent Klopp Is Working With – An Assessment of the Liverpool Squad
(Originally published 30th October here, but now with a bit of the introductory section removed, and a couple of minor changes.)
Clearly this season has gone very wrong so far – albeit not in the Champions League – and my mantra has been since the earliest draws and defeats to get through the injury crisis and regroup during the World Cup. It’s been a brutal 2022 for a lot of these players.
Big decisions need to be made about the team, albeit those will be easier and clearer come mid-November, when many of the players who may still feel overworked after last season can have a brief holiday to decompress, before harsh training camps; while everyone on the coaching and analytics side assesses what's gone wrong. Leeds not only covered much more distance (which is not so important if you're controlling a game), but they made more than twice as many sprints as Liverpool. It showed. When Liverpool needed to run, they couldn’t.
While Liverpool don't have Man City's money, it only took a short while for City's ageing team circa 2020 to be overhauled, and didn't require lots of new signings (while they also wasted some money in the process). A couple of smart ones for Liverpool, with younger players also improving in the coming months (and others returning from injury), would be enough.
The talent is still there in the squad – they almost won the best quadruple in football history – but there are clear fitness issues, but also, age-profile/balance issues. It's been a season of injured players; half-fit players; players trying (or being rested) to avoid injuries; and others playing too much as a result. As Klopp said, the returning ones have to be rushed back if there's no one else, while others get over-played if there’s no one else. There are clearly tensions as to the whole red-zone issue, as Klopp seems unhappy about what the medical advice is regarding selections. Injuries can be freakish, of course. However, a full medical assessment is required, when there’s time to analyse things (i.e. soon).
It feels like a lot of players will shine again when the team is functioning better, but once levels dip for half the team (for varying reasons), the other half get dragged down.
The squad is big enough, but the injuries, as in 2020/21 – when six home league games in a row were lost – have made it so much more complicated. Back then, it needed the injury crisis to lessen (if not totally abate), and the same is true now. It’s not just the number of injuries but how they can unbalance selections.
Right now, the team lacks energy. The reasons why can be assessed in detail in the midseason break.
There are elite older players, some in form, some not. But too many are being used, and repeating games looks tougher for them. I noted on The Main Hub before the Leeds game that normally I'd expect the Reds to tear into them, but it was on the back of another Wednesday night game, itself on the back of playing every 3/4 games for ages. Leeds are not who you want to face if you're leggy, albeit the game swung on their keeper's saves followed by a late winner (but Leeds earned their luck).
The youngsters coming in are doing very well for their age, but are not yet consistent (a typical trend). They're learning.
So anyway, I thought I'd list the positives in the squad in some detail, and all the players to build around. (While also pointing out where they can improve.)
It's still a great squad, with so much to work with, but the trick is getting a balanced XI from it; and also, some power-running midfielders are required, either from within the squad or elsewhere. The team needs to be able to press again.
Alisson: still elite. Just the best all-round keeper in the world, and at 30, probably at his peak. Caoimhin Kelleher is a brilliant understudy too, who could usurp him one day; but may need to be loaned out in order to not have to sell him (or, to sell him with a buy-back).
Virgil van Dijk: still elite, but looks heavy-footed, and slow to get into his stride, as I noted on The Main Hub after the Leeds game (but the pace is there once he gets going). Thrives with Konaté alongside him, and you'd still build around van Dijk, but it seems he plays too much football, and the World Cup will only add to that. Even though centre-backs don't run as much as other players, it often feels like he's playing at 70% to get through 70 games a season for club and country. It had always been enough, but maybe that's starting to change.
Ibrahima Konaté: a big-pitch player, a theory I've been talking about a lot lately. Can sprint 40 yards and get quicker over the distance, not slower. Liverpool only have a few of these right now. It feels like the team has a lot rondo players, five-a-side players, who are technically great but can't cover distances at speed, or massive KMs to compensate. (I always think of Mike Marsh, apparently the best in club five-a-sides at the turn of the 1990s, but who was not big enough, strong enough or fast enough to become an elite big-pitch player. I always liked watching him, but he was a great training player, never becoming a great football player. Javier Mascherano was not as gifted on the ball, but he was fast and aggressive, and could cover the whole pitch, like Ngolo Kanté, so it’s not just about size, but often stamina and speed, too. But Konaté is someone who can cover the entire defensive half in almost no time at all.)
Darwin Núñez – great goals-per-90, and great xG. Makes things happen. Not yet in synch with everyone, but has searing pace and a deft finish when full of confidence. Denied by great keeping against Leeds, that Alisson would have been proud of. Also a big-pitch player, who has not only been clocked as the fastest-ever Premier League player, but can sprint 40 yards at pace – something not many in this Liverpool squad seem capable of right now. (Some of the midfielders can't sprint at all, it seems.) Needs a season of adjustment, but some great signs, amid the mixups.
Luis Díaz, 25: the Reds' best player this season, and another big-pitch player who can stretch the game by carrying the ball or going in behind with pace. Great stamina and hunger. Losing Sadio Mané is one thing; to lose Jota and Díaz to serious injury makes life much harder. Díaz is fast, skilful, energetic, and can score and create goals. He's also a great outlet ball. He was doing better, numbers-wise, than Mané did last season, but suffered a rare injury after 350+ games so far in his career.
Mo Salah: elite. It was worrying that he doesn't appear as quick on the wing, but when I analysed the defenders he'd been up against, they were all early-20s sprinters, to show how the game has changed in just the last couple of years (and this is maybe where Liverpool have been caught in multiple areas, in terms of being trendsetters who others have copied). However, he's been banging in goals from a more central area, and having been a notoriously weak finisher at 21, the work on his game over the years makes him look a natural (even if he needs to trust his right foot more). The issue is the balance of the front-line, with so many injuries making it difficult. Still has pace if he runs in behind the last man, but if running at a full-back from deeper, he's less likely to outrun them. Seems to be as fit as ever.
Thiago: elite playmaker, but needs younger, more physical "assistants". Had a serious ear infection, so won't have been 100% vs Leeds, but you can carry one slower midfielder (Xabi Alonso) – just not a slow midfield (see the balancing pace and running power of Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Momo Sissoko). At his best, Thiago buzzes around, but is often late into tackles. Makes the ball do the work, with super-progressive passes, when the team is clicking.
Harvey Elliott: going to be elite, and more than elite for his age. Does lots of great things, and is improving all areas of his game. But I still worry about how his body shape, due to only wanting to use his left foot 99% of the time, has him facing the centre of the pitch, rather than ever facing up to an opponent face-on. If he's cutting inside all the time – often cutting inside because he takes the ball facing that way – he could use a forceful over-lapper as either a decoy or for a disguised reverse-pass, and Trent Alexander-Arnold is not that right now, and neither is Mo Salah. The right-side is a mess at the moment, with Salah looking isolated out there before moving central, Alexander-Arnold lacking energy, and Elliott – despite doing lots of good things – cutting inside into traffic.
Fabio Carvalho: going to be elite, and more than elite for his age. Lots of lovely things about his game. But nippy, and not electric, which limits anyone in a wing role. Still quite slight, and not yet quite at the pace of the Premier League, which means he flits in and out of games (which is understandable). Like Elliott, it's unclear what position suits him best and what position suits the team best. Both he and Elliott should really push on in the next 1-2 years (they're ahead aged 19/20 of where most of this Liverpool team were at 19/20), but Carvalho is not helped by joining a new team in flux. Like Elliott and Thiago, though, he currently feels more like a small-pitch player, who needs the harder runners to pass to. More stamina would allow him to burst forward more often.
Joe Gomez: still lots to work with, but had been doing well at right-back, with just one good game at centre-back (against Man City, when Liverpool were more compact and energetic). Felt like he was back to his best after the Napoli debacle, but apparently not. Has everything bar aerial dominance, but he's making too many errors this season (as he does when his confidence crashes, which also happened later in 2019/20, after a superb season pre-Covid break). If he cuts out the errors, he's elite, but once a player gets into that habit it becomes more likely to keep repeating them out of anxiety. You just don't want him in the first XI right now, certainly after several games where he's made bad errors, but an excellent squad player, and still only 25. (Thankfully he's played himself out of World Cup contention.)
Trent Alexander-Arnold, 24. An absolutely elite long-range passer. Beyond that, I'm not sure what he is right now in late 2022, given that he's also an elite crosser who doesn't seem to be getting down the line to get into good crossing positions, and is nippy but not as quick as a lot of wingers who seriously trouble him at the other end; still a very mixed-bag defensively; rarely beats a man (albeit nice skill in a rare touchline foray vs Leeds); and doesn't currently have the old energy and/or drive as before. He's got a ton of footballing talent, but he no longer feels like the full-back of old where the demands are immense – yet could he be retooled into his old position in midfield, or does he just need a rest followed by hard physical conditioning? If not selected, not going to the World Cup would allow him to focus on his game, and that could include returning to the role of his youth. Worst outcome would be to go as everyone else injured, then be the scapegoat.
Diogo Jota: had the best goals-per-90 rate (non-penalty) at the club until coming back from injury late last season, and was then on a barren run. But is clever, energetic, quick and versatile, who presses hard. An important player, aged 25.
Calvin Ramsay: has grown to around 6ft, and has a great all-round game for a 19-year-old including (hallelujah!) the use of both feet, with skill to beat a man and great delivery, and increasing running power with age. Feels like he could take the right-back slot, and something new to be done with Alexander-Arnold. Maybe not the ideal time to come into the side, but with Elliott and Carvalho, has at least a season of excelling at a 2nd-tier level under his belt (the top division in Scotland feels like the Championship in England, but with a few teams who compete in Europe). Ramsay is easily where Reece James was when returning from loan at Wigan three years ago (also aged 19), albeit with a different skillset. Speedster Conor Bradley, also 19, is doing well on loan, albeit in the third tier, and is another option for next season. Ramsay's best chance to becoming a regular could be after the World Cup.
Stefan Bajcetic: exceptional promise shown in the first team aged 17 (just turned 18), but a long way to go to be a wily defensive midfielder. Clever, wirily strong (with time to bulk up and maybe add an inch or two to his 6ft frame), skilful and hard-running, he's gonna be some player in the next few years, all being well. But maybe a year too soon to make the starting XI this season, even if he is clearly Fabinho's heir apparent. A year older and more experienced, and he'd have taken Fabinho's place already, but he may now need to compete with a new midfield signing (or two).
Ben Doak (16) and Kaide Gordon (18): I'm putting these young lads in here, as Doak is an absolute flying machine who is strong, super-quick, can beat a man and can score goals – which he's now doing at U21 level for club and country, after tearing the U18s apart to a ridiculous degree. Gordon, a special talent, has had a terrible year with injuries, but both of these could offer something to the attack in early 2023, all being well (and certainly next season, to look ahead). I'd actually put Doak on the bench now, as a wildcard, and let him run at defenders for the last 15 minutes if needed – it has to be better than hitting tired, aimless long-balls to a tired van Dijk. (And seems to make more sense than having various centre-backs, including the willing but limited Nat Phillips, on the bench, or at times, two goalkeepers. I will just add as a new addition here that rushing young players can have issues, but Doak seems to be very robust. However, the coaches know more about these things and whether or not players are ready.)
Andy Robertson: very one-footed, terrible body shape, can't shoot straight – yet somehow seems to make things happen. Still a force of nature, up and down the line, and very good defensively, but turns 29 early next year. How long can he keep up that energy, in a very demanding role? For now, the energy looks good, but early last season he had his first real drop in form at Liverpool. That he regained his mojo after a rest (having played constantly for four years) is perhaps a sign of what a lot of this squad needs, albeit some of them, unlike Robertson, may be melting.
Roberto Firmino: eight goals (no penalties) in 17 games (13 starts), is his best ratio yet. Has had some great games, linking play, creating for others – but at 31, isn't looking like the old running machine, game after game. Great to have, but seems to struggle with too many games in a row right now, like a lot of older players. Superb in tight spaces, but unlikely to lead a breakaway in the way he used to. Looked jaded against Leeds.
Joël Matip: an elite defender with a unique skill-set, but one who maybe doesn't suit the team's age profile anymore, in that he's 31, the same as van Dijk, Thiago, Firmino, and with Jordan Henderson 32, and Fabinho 29. Also remains injury prone, despite a good 2021/22. Needs to be in a team that can run a lot, if he's to be partnered with van Dijk. Would be a great stand-in for van Dijk, but Konaté feels like the future, as he has that strength and explosive big-pitch pace once into his stride, and more power in the air. Again, the older players are often still elite, but too many of them turns it into a less-hungry side, with not as much energy as before.
Jordan Henderson and James Milner: the elite leaders, but not ones you'd want to be starting lots of games. Fading forces, clearly, albeit Milner has had good games at right-back and Henderson has impressed in the diamond. But they're 32 and 36 respectively, and the team is too old overall. The issue is that these are the two vocal leaders; the rest are quiet leaders. Maybe it needs a balance.
I defended keeping the squad together in the summer, with a few younger additions, but the older guys have played too much; mostly due to necessity, albeit I said during the preseason games that Konaté being behind Matip in the pecking order again seemed odd. That aside, I don't think Klopp has gone out of his way to field older players, but he's never had a team this old before, and has never rebuilt an ageing team before.
Fabinho: has been abysmal all season, but can maybe cling to the fact that he's possibly not fully fit? Seems unable to run this season, and was never a physically imposing player – but could cover the ground and get stuck-in. Seems to be doing nothing at all right now, and now aged 29, it could soon be time to cash in, especially if you don't want to carry yet another 30-something next season. Alternatively, he was elite for a few seasons, but have his legs gone, or is it just temporary? Or is he just part of an overrun midfield?
Naby Keïta: anything between now and the summer is a bonus, assuming he then swans off on a free (ditto Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain). Has the best win-rate of any Liverpool regular who has played over 35 games (otherwise it's Konaté), as I covered in a recent piece, and the best pressing stats by far. Not always looked capable of the pace of old, but can create, score and has great underlying numbers that suggest he makes things happen (when actually on the pitch).
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: has the pace from midfield and can score goals to offer something a little different. Both he and Keïta can aim to be super-fit by the end of the World Cup, and be huge bonuses from the run-in. (But don't bank on it.)
Curtis Jones: it's just hard to know what kind of player he is, nearing 22. Has tons of skill, but seems difficult to know when he's going to pass the ball, which makes it hard to run off him. Could yet return to a wide-forward role, but maybe, like Carvalho, lacks just that little bit of pace to be elite there. Nice to have in the squad, given his talents, and an interesting "project" – but needs a step up in the next 12 months, and injuries this season haven't helped.
Kostas Tsimikas: decent understudy to Robertson with a lovely cross from that left foot, but maybe not as much in other areas as I'd originally hoped: not quite as quick or skilful, but gives his all, and a good bench player. Better than he showed in a poor first season, but maybe not special enough to usurp Robertson.
Arthur Melo: a failed experiment, albeit only costing £4m in a loan fee and some reasonable wages. Arrived undercooked after no preseason, and in trying to get up to speed, almost ended his season. Again, could he get fit, and be of use in 2023? Maybe, but it seems unlikely.
Tyler Morton: could offer some midfield zest and bite as part of a future midfield, but likely to only return from loan at the end of the season. But doing superbly at Blackburn, by the sounds of it, and still only 19 (albeit turns 20 this week). Not sure he's an all-round great, with no standout attributes, but he's an all-rounder all the same, in that he does everything well (and could/should get better at all those things, with age and experience).
Other youngsters will start to emerge, too (Klopp seems to like Bobby Clark, who to me still looks young and lightweight, but talented – albeit he reminds me a bit of Ben Woodburn in that he’s currently a small-pitch player, not super-pacy and dynamic at this point), and as this is becoming a transitional season, it's often when kids can gain experience, before they find consistency, additional strength and power, and the wisdom of experience.
There's plenty of time to make the top four, and Klopp has turned so many seasons around in England and Germany. But it might be that the high-flying of 2021/22 melted some wings, and 2022/23 could be remembered as either the time the wheels fell off, or a new team started to spring into life.
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