Liverpool Currently Have a Great Team (But the Lineup vs Palace Was Not It)
Look for the forest between the trees
TTT stalwart for over a dozen years and champion BBC quizzer Andrew Beasley asked on here this morning:
"What is this team, then, as I have no idea anymore?"
As I said to Andrew in reply, the problem is seeing this as one team.
Because it's not.
As such, I thought I'd expand on it, to make it clearer for all, in this free read (maybe the last freebie for a while.)
I'm not quite sure why the "team" are all lumped in as one right now, when I've clearly pointed out how, within a mixed squad, there are at least two Liverpool teams:
– One that is more than good enough, and would be challenging for the title in normal circumstances;
– And when too many of those players are absent, one that is old, slow and creaking. (And where injuries can mean less impact from the bench, too.)
Until after the Brighton debacle, it seemed hard to work out where Jürgen Klopp saw the team going; after that, changes made it clear to me that his ideal XI now would underpin Liverpool 2.0, and he has made it clear that the squad needs support until the end of the season, but then changes will be made. To me, that will mostly be about two new midfielders.
Yesterday, however, was Liverpool's oldest league XI of the season, touching 30. Hence, when I saw the lineup, I felt it was too weak. Too old, too slow.
But also, what else could be done?
Of Liverpool's nine fastest players, five were absent. Many happen to amongst the tallest players, too.
But the selection was clearly dictated by injuries and the exertions against Real Madrid in midweek – where Liverpool broke their own pressing record with 332 presses during the game, with Bajcetic, Gakpo and Henderson leading the charge, and Alexander-Arnold breaking his own record. See this post for more details.
I think it should be clear that this was a tricky game, in the circumstances.
To go away to an up-and-at-'em side days after the exertions against Real Madrid (which came on the back of several other big games), when the Reds ran like maniacs and Madrid walked off with the luck and the goals, is never going to be easy. Again, I'm not being wise after the event: I said it before kick-off.
I don't think Klopp is choosing to field Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Naby Keïta in his first-choice midfield; maybe none would be (and certainly won't next season).
Henderson put in a great shift in midweek, but so did the young Bajcetic, who needs protecting from burnout and injuries aged just 18. He wasn't injured but he would have been in the red-zone, I'd guess.
Fabinho did well in the first half against Madrid, but he came on against Palace and looked like he has for 99% of the season: off the pace, slow to get back, and late to the tackle.
We talk about injuries, but all season I've been talking about the lack of energy, pace, height and youthfulness. It's not so much the injuries as the types of players affected, as well as what's left behind.
Take Keïta. At 27 he should be at his physical peak. In his first couple of years the team got better results when he played.
Instead, after countless injuries, he can't even seem to run much anymore. It's painful to watch, albeit he's only a squad player now anyway.
His lack of height was not a problem when he pressed like a dervish and dribbled like a magician. Now he's slow, cumbersome and a deadweight. Maybe he's disinterested too, albeit I fear he is just a physical burnout. You'll struggle to see a worse 45 minutes, albeit it was only last season when he starred in a 5-0 win at Man United, before almost having his leg broken.
Again, I love this clip of showing what a fast midfielder could do on the cover, even if this is of a Liverpool striker:
Tall vs Short, Old vs Young
When Liverpool have an average age that is not above what is ideal, they win roughly 30% more points (nine games vs 14, +28.57% difference), and when the team is at its tallest, across 12 lineups vs 11 smaller lineups, it wins ... almost 30% more points (+28.67% difference).
These may be correlation but not causation, but obviously, having also tracked results vs height in 2020/21, when the Reds also struggled with injuries, the taller the team, the better it did.
But even then, these 2022/23 teams, whether tall and short, young and old, have still missed a lot of key players in general, who’d make them even more effective – the injury list being 5-10 for so many games this season.
Best XI, Best Subs
I have zero doubt that Liverpool's best XI now, and for next season, includes:
Darwin Núñez (23)
Luis Díaz (25)
Stefan Bajcetic (18)
Ibrahima Konaté (23)
Cody Gakpo (23)
All very quick, three of them over 6ft, all of them very strong (but with Bajcetic in need of beefing up over time – he's tough and brave and aggressive, but not yet able to knock opponents off the ball with his heft, nor to protect it with body strength, and not yet powerful enough to last 90 minutes at full-tilt).
None of the first four started yesterday. Three were injured, one was in desperate need of rest. All should be better next season, as none are at their peak, and all are relatively new to the team, as is Cody Gakpo.
Take Núñez. For various reasons, he's started just 13 of the 23 league games.
In the league, his "expected non-penalty goals and expected assists per 90" is 1.06, compared to Erling Haaland's 0.90.
Haaland's finishing has been better, clearly, but that's an exceptionally dangerous player, whose finishing has been hit-and-miss, but who – often playing wide – makes more happen than almost any other player in world football.
Núñez's expected assists per 90 – i.e. quantifying the quality and quantity of chances he creates for others (and which is therefore not his fault if it's not a goal) is 0.33, which is nearly double Haaland's 0.18, and ditto the creative striker Harry Kane, 0.18.
An expected assists per 90 of 0.33 has only been bettered once in a season by Alexander-Arnold (last season, 0.38, which came after steady increases each year but the Reds' no.66; and is also better than in one of Kevin de Bruyne's recent title-winning seasons).
Plus, of course, Núñez doesn't take set-pieces. His stats, taken from FBRef, are sensational, and before the shoulder injury, he’d started to find the back of the net again.
Unlike the alternatives (certainly when struggling for match fitness), Núñez's pace terrifies teams, and he makes things happen. He changes the entire complexion of the team. He covers the whole pitch at breakneck speed.
Settling in, and currently with an injury from a nasty fall (like Díaz), Núñez has played about half the league minutes.
His underlying numbers far outstrip the player he is currently replacing as the wide attacker, Sadio Mané (who in Germany has joined those who are seriously injured this season, after the efforts of last season.) Díaz was also doing a nice job of replacing Mané.
Konaté has played just 382 league minutes this season, in part due to a horrific collision of knees in preseason. He is not 'injury prone' based on someone sliding full force into his knee.
Luis Díaz has played just 613 minutes, having played the most football of any professional on the planet last season, with 70+ games. He's not injury prone either, but landed awkwardly.
Add the league minutes played by Konaté, Díaz and Núñez together, and it's less than the number played by Alisson.
Núñez, like Konaté (until the World Cup) and Díaz, is sidelined by a freak collision: in his case, an awkward fall on his shoulder.
I thinks Cody Gakpo, new to the league, fresh from a lot of games for PSV and Holland, has looked increasingly impressive, and is playing a lot of football as a new arrival.
(Two players I heralded while others didn't see the point initially: Firmino and Gini Wijnaldum. The latter has in part been missed, but he's also had a poor time since leaving Liverpool, and turns 33 this year.)
At 6'4" and aged 23, Gakpo doesn't yet use his height in the aggressive way required in the Premier League, but that tends to improve with age, experience and additional upper body strength. (Height is a massive correlate of aerial domination, but aerial success rates tend to improve with age, too.)
However, he plays the false 9 role extremely well, and should only get better with time, age, experience and settling into the league.
To me, the Liverpool team of next season, if Jürgen Klopp gets his wish for two new number 8s, would be something like this:
Alexander-Arnold, Konaté, Van Dijk, Robertson
Bellingham, Bajcetic, Gravenberch
Salah, Gakpo, Núñez
(But more like a rotating 3 of 4 from Salah, Gakpo, Núñez and Díaz, plus Jota if he returns to full sharpness, as he should by then; and Firmino is such a clever player that you'd be happy to have him as an option.)
You'd then be talking about a young team, a tall team, a fast team, a strong team, a clever team, a goalscoring team. And with minimal new additions, if not cheap additions.
The extra pace and size in midfield would help both van Dijk at the back and Salah up front to belie their years.
(I picked Ryan Gravenberch out of many players linked lately, as he's massively experienced at the age of 20, is a middle cog between van Dijk and Gakpo for the Dutch team, and is 6'3" but also talented. I think he’d settle at Liverpool under Klopp better than at Bayern. Obviously Jude Bellingham remains the main target, and I think he’s gettable, but as I keep saying – there are lots of good players out there. Klopp said the same this week; it’s not all-or-nothing.)
Younger bench options who – injuries permitting – will be stronger and more 'ready' next season:
Curtis Jones **
Sepp van den Berg**
*currently doing well on loan;
**excellent at U18s/U21s and some promising or exciting first-team minutes, and/or had loan experience;
***excelled as a teen at a good level at previous clubs.
(I'd also put Mateusz Musialowski down as a dark horse, after losing his way a bit, but still only 19 he looks back on track. Others will emerge, and some will have to wait their turn.)
When he’s fit again, Kaide Gordon remains a sensational prospect, still only 18. Ramsay is a huge talent, his season destroyed by growing issues. And Doak is as good a winger as I’ve ever seen at 16, as he was earlier in the season.
I think Caoimhín Kelleher is exceptional, but needs to be sold for his sake, with a 100% buyback clause for 2/3 years' time; raising around £20m in the process (ditto selling Nat Phillips)
Interlude: I've written in depth behind the separate ZenDen paywall on these younger players in recent months, often before they made a first-team impact:
Of the young players with the asterisks, and excluding Elliott, Carvalho and Jones who are already 'established' as bench players (but who can still improve), Doak, Ramsay, Koumetio, Bradley and Quansah have elite physical characteristics: blistering pace and/or adult physiques.
(Carvalho has none of these physical qualities, beyond a decent turn of pace, but will improve as he fills out, as he's got great skill and finishing ability. He’s just too lightweight right now. Meanwhile, Elliott’s underlying creative numbers are superb.)
Some of these kids will go out on loan next season, but each should be closer to the first team in the summer than they were last summer.
Older squad players who could still contribute: Roberto Firmino, Thiago, and becoming more like James Milner, Jordan Henderson; and the Reds could keep Matip and Milner too. But more elite younger players will limit their game-time.
(I worry sometimes that Thiago can take too many touches, even if they are great touches, but he remains a player who can bypass five or six opponents with one pass. For him to shine, I feel it needs to be in a bigger, more athletic XI. Henderson’s pressing against Madrid was elite, but he needs to be used more sparingly.)
I still like the idea that occurred to me recently of Milner taking over from Jay Spearing as the coach/mentor who plays for the U21 team (but in Milner's case, could remain registered with the first team for emergencies; that said, he may want more regular football somewhere else, as he may want another year or two at the top level, but it could also be a good route into the coaching set-up).
I'd continue to put faith in Joe Gomez as a squad player, whose "mistakes" against Real Madrid were far less awful than some made by others at Palace (and individual errors from the defence is worrying, but also a sign of current low confidence), and who is still coming back from an injury that takes two years to fully recover from; and where, aged 25, he can still get better, if he can overcome the nerves he is currently bringing (but where Matip is doing the same, and both Alexander-Arnold and Alisson are catching the bug. That said, individual errors disappear when form is better, and errors on the ball are better than being an open and exposed team.)
Gomez would be an exceptional 4th-choice centre-back – better than Dejan Lovren was when the Reds won the league – and a good 3rd choice; back to his best, he could be even more.
I particularly like the attitude and attributes of Quansah, who is tall, fast and talented, and getting good experience in the third tier, as a star for England U19s' successful team (along with Chambers). It's never easy for young centre-backs, but Quansah can be elite. Unlike the promising Billy Koumetio, and the hitherto handy but unremarkable Phillips and Rhys Williams, Quansah has the pace that makes a huge difference.
“The sky’s the limit for Jarell and I am sure that he really can go on to achieve whatever he wants,” Joey Barton, manager at Bristol Rovers, said of the loanee who's just turned 20, and who helped Rovers to a 3-0 win yesterday. At 6’5”, Quansah has started to fill out nicely, as the picture below, from last summer, shows (but where he can still get stronger, with on average, male strength peaking after 25, and pace peaking around 25).
Otherwise, I could take or leave Kostas Tsimikas, a handy backup to Andy Robertson, but whose lack of searing pace makes for too many full-backs at the club who cannot match the fastest wingers they face. Chambers – singled out by Tsimikas as a special talent, and now on loan at Kilmarnock (where he got an assist in his first 30 minutes of senior action) – could usurp him next season.
Of the 'clear out', Keïta barely plays, and ditto Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – both players robbed of their first-team spots by injuries.
Kelleher and Phillips would be sold to raise funds, and Matip, Firmino and Milner may nor may not stay. (Keeping Firmino but on reduced wages makes sense.)
I’ve said for most of the season that Fabinho would make sense to sell to a slower league, aged 29.
It’s at the stage where none of Keïta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tsimikas, Phillips and the superb Kelleher would be greatly missed, as they don’t play enough, but obviously it would need a new backup keeper. (Ditto Arthur Melo, but anything he can offer from now until the end of May is a bonus.)
Yet as Klopp said, anyone staying needs to be supported, and I’ll continue to hope that Fabinho rediscovers everything he’s lost. Irrespective of how much Liverpool spend, and changes to the wage bill, you’d think selling players could raise £80m.
To me, judging Liverpool right now without Núñez, Díaz, Bajcetic and Konaté (and to have to pick Keïta over Thiago) is almost like watching Liverpool a few years ago without van Dijk, Salah and two or three others – much more hit-and-miss and insipid than with them. (Ditto watching Jota struggling to get match-fit.)
Pace, power, height, skill, creativity, goals, determination: that's what Núñez, Díaz, Bajcetic and Konaté bring, as do some of the others who are missing, and some of the youngsters out on loan.
It's also what the new, youngish and ready signings in the summer will surely bring, too.
I just think we need to look at "this" Liverpool team as two teams: the one that's ready now and for the future; and the one that's already fading away, and will be seen increasingly less this season if (hopefully) all the injuries clear up.
Note: I'll return to publishing more paywalled-only material soon, but the comments and debate remains for paying subscribers only. See my ZenDen side-Substack for more material, as well as other TTT Substacks run by our regulars, as well as Andrew’s own substack.
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