Liverpool Needed Midfielders and an Attacker. They Got Them (Free Read)
A deep-dive on the transfer window and why it's often misleading
Liverpool were in chaos before the World Cup with resignations behind the scenes, including the Director of Football, and the club up for sale, but to me, things have stabilised.
The owners are reportedly now only looking for investment rather than a sale, and Liverpool had a "good" transfer window that was distorted by both the madness at Chelsea (which will be their mess to clear up if locked into 9-year deals for players who end up flopping) and also the timing of Liverpool's business. Chelsea are badly distorting the market, as they did 20 years ago.
The Tomkins Times - Main Hub is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
(Man City, by contrast, appear to have just loaned out one of their best players, albeit if he fell out with Pep Guardiola, there's rightly only one winner.)
As noted on The Athletic, "Going back to the end of last January when the deal for Diaz was sealed, Liverpool have committed close to £200million on strengthening their squad over the past 12 months, with a net spend of around £125m."
Now, net spend arguments are flawed in terms of calculating a team's value, not least as it can have arbitrary cutoff points. Yet it's worth noting if someone says a club is not spending anything during a particular period of time.
On TTT we use the £XI, which I co-created with Graeme Riley in late 2009/early 2010 as part of our Transfer Price Index, as it adjusts the cost of the team adjusted to current day prices.
It was created before I'd even heard of John W Henry and NESV/FSG, but it shows that Liverpool (who put a lot of money into wages rather than splashy signings) still have a pretty significant £XI, rising to rank 3rd most seasons, having been lower in their earlier seasons.
It's a way of showing that actually, money goes into the team. So far, this season's figures (with both Liverpool and Chelsea seeing their £XIs lower than they might be due to injury crises) are:
Manchester City £691.8m
Manchester United £573.5m
Tottenham Hotspur £268.8
The psychological concept of the 'peak-end rule' is something I want to apply to all games from now on, and all transfer windows. It's a good rule for life in general.
It totally affects how you experience something; or rather, the lingering aftertaste of that experience.
Think of a game with a late equaliser – and how it feels great if you get it, terrible if you concede it; yet either way it's a draw. Given that conceding a late equaliser also is not only the end experience, but the peak negative experience, it feels terrible.
Wikipedia tells us:
"The peak–end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. The effect occurs regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant.
...The peak–end rule is an elaboration on the snapshot model of remembered utility proposed by Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman."
In other words, had Liverpool signed Cody Gakpo on the final day of the window, rather than having the deal secured before the window even opened, people would rate the window more highly. The end experience would be one of excitement, not frustration, yet the same net effect would be in place.
One of the downsides of Liverpool doing the sensible thing and buying players early in transfer windows is that it leaves fans wanting more. Satisfaction quickly wanes. Gakpo was signed a whole month ago; he's so 2022.
Prior to the World Cup, Liverpool needed midfielders, and arguably another attacker, especially as the injuries shifted towards the front-end of the team. Things changed.
Gakpo, signed for just £37m as the Dutch Footballer of the Year and a World Cup star, is a fast-improving 23-year-old winger who cuts infield to shoot with power and precision, and can go outside to cross especially well with his wrong foot. He's a quick (if not lightning), clever footballer with goals to his game.
But he's being used as a hard-pressing centre-forward link-man, like the new Roberto Firmino.
His shooting has been a bit rushed so far (like that of Darwin Núñez, and indeed, Firmino when he first arrived), but Gakpo is looking increasingly good at linking play, as others start to read his game and he reads theirs in return. It’s a work in progress, but that’s the thing with new signings.
Clearly Jürgen Klopp and Pep Lijnders are prioritising a return to pressing from the front, albeit with a bit of a deeper shape, so as to not be so open at the back. I'd wondered why Gakpo was playing playing that role, as it didn't make sense to me, but Klopp's explanation was logical. (And while I didn’t like seeing Núñez on the wing, he did that role well at Benfica, and cuts inside to good effect.)
Since the World Cup, Naby Keïta has returned to form and fitness, and while that may not last (and he's leaving in the summer) it will do for now; and we've also seen the genuine emergence of a player I've labelled a potential superstar since he turned up aged 16: Stefan Bajcetic.
(I said the same of Ben Doak, also aged 16, within two U18 games. The Reds have hoovered up some absolutely outstanding young players with superb attitudes in the last two years – often sons or younger brothers of professional footballers with a built-in sensible mindset – including Kaide Gordon as well, when he was 16, and who is also nearing fitness after a year of hip issues, as one of a few teenagers suffering growing pains. Don't forget these gems. And while Chelsea sign everyone on the planet, that will surely turn their academy into a wasteland.)
Bajcetic is already good enough to start every game, even if he's not as strong and imposing as he will become in a year or two (more on that next week), and he can't quite last the 90 at full-pelt.
He's easily the best young Liverpool midfielder I've seen in 20 years (as I keep saying, a fraction better than Steven Gerrard at the same age).
While all good players, I didn't get the hype around Jay Spearing, Jordan Rossiter, Leighton Clarkson and others, Bajcetic just had that all-round game – skill, speed, bravery, anticipation, tactical nous, passing range, and though still in need of filling out (like a young Gerrard), a fraction over 6ft tall.
Every match Bajcetic plays in the second half of this season will be a huge education, and then in the summer he can work in the weights room, to beef up a bit (albeit you can't overdo it in your teens, and it often needs the metabolism to slow a little in the late teens/early 20s to add bulk when doing so much cardio work, unless endomorphic to start with).
I'd rather see that than spend £107m on a player who cost £10m a few months earlier, as good as he might be; because to me, Bajcetic now is better than Fernandez aged 20, let alone just turned 18. Bajcetic is part of the group, already in the team zone, and someone to proud of helping develop from a player Man United, Barca and Real Madrid were all begging him to join.
And so, while a midfield signing would have been nice, if it means not blocking the pathway for Bajcetic, I'm all for that, too. Just as Liverpool were not perfect while the young Steven Gerrard learnt his trade, and we lived through his mistakes and steep learning curve.
Meanwhile, on loan at Blackburn, Tyler Morton, who just turned 20, is playing like the kind of midfielder you'd rave about were you to watch this YouTube video (below) of just half a season (for most of which he was aged 19) and were told he'd be arriving for £30m.
I’ve watched the video several times now, just to make sure I’m not hallucinating, and even though highlights reels can be misleading, he appears exactly what Liverpool will need next season, whether as a starter or an early-choice sub. (Because these are some very impressive highlights.)
Now, admittedly I hadn't quite got the hype about Morton either (as I didn't see as many of his youth games), despite good goalscoring and assisting stats at U18 and U21 level, but now I can see it. The Blackburn fans can tell he's a gem, and Klopp knows it too.
There has to be be midfield changes in the summer (not least as several are out of contract, and Morton will return), but until then, there are plenty of players to choose from.
To me, Morton can easily take the place of Naby Keïta in the squad next season, with a busy playing style that also mirrors Thiago's passing and tight-turning ability. Perhaps he could have been brought back from his loan, but he’s getting brilliant experience in a promotion battle to the Premier League.
Almost going under the radar, Arthur Melo is nearly fit again. That's a bonus.
Now, his season has been a bit of a joke, getting injured after 13 minutes. But he was once an fairly elite player (part of the Brazil team that won the Copa America with Bobby Firmino and Alisson in 2019), and is still aged only 26. I didn't think he'd be fit again before the run-in, so to be fit by just after the halfway point would be helpful.
He's a good player, even if he may be back in Italy in the summer. He must have had something about him to be signed in the first place (just as he played for Juventus and Barcelona, as well as Brazil), and if anything, he was trying too hard to get fit after no preseason and overdid it. His attitude was spot-on. That's a good sign.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has done okay in 2023, and is another bonus. He can play in midfield, his preferred position, and his running may be helpful there. He's fully fit again, for the time being. He'll be gone in the summer, but as with someone like Divock Origi, he can be made use of – to give his all, trying to put himself in the shop window – before he leaves for free.
Harvey Elliott, still only 19, has also come through a difficult period, and while still perhaps neither a midfielder nor a winger, is into double-figures for open-play career goals and big on assists too, at an age before (as I keep pointing out) various greats-to-be had even made their debuts or played a handful of games.
With every season he will likely improve in midfield, and improve as a wide player, and if ever there's a switch and a need for a floating attacking midfielder, he'll be even better for that. This is all good for him, to go from a useful young player to a very useful player, full-stop. He's not the finished article, as no one ever is at 19.
Like Curtis Jones and Fabio Carvalho, Elliott is stuck in an in-between phase, with Jones having a bad season with injury.
All three also don't suit the system ideally (as none is super-quick), but all three can adapt, as all three are superb on the ball. (My main issue with Jones is that I just don't know when he's going to release the ball, and that makes it hard for everyone else).
So, since just before the World Cup, Liverpool now have Keïta, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jones fit again, Arthur Melo nearing fitness, and have Bajcetic – not even really in the equation at the start of the season – and Elliott playing extremely well.
(Fabinho remains a fast-melting wreck, but actually, James Milner – another who is fit again – has impressed this season, even if you wouldn't want him in the same team at the same time as all the other older guys. And he seems better at right-back these days, where he's had some excellent games this season.)
Now, I'd have liked to have seen Sander Berge added, as I think the Reds need the option of a giant physical presence in midfield (who's also talented), and he seemed a good price at £20m or so. But then Sheffield United changed their mind on selling, leaving various clubs frustrated (I'm not sure if Liverpool were one, but Klopp is a fan).
Although Gakpo and Núñez will help, I do think Liverpool need more height in the team, even if I think having great small players is fine too.
As I always say, ideally need 5-6 big guys, and a big part of Arsenal's improvement has been making the team taller (and therefore doing much better on set-pieces, which was Liverpool's strong suit in most seasons, but was a weak area in 2020/21, and more recently in this season, both due to injuries. Virgil van Dijk is consistently the best aerial player in the Premier League. Konaté has been improving in the air, as big young players tend to do – the height and power are important, but there's also the experience and the improvement in timing that come with age.)
Obviously Moises Caicedo would have been a great signing, but Brighton were also not selling, as Arsenal and Chelsea also discovered. It could be that Liverpool are back in for Caicedo in the summer, as Chelsea and Arsenal buy up other midfielders.
I like Ruben Neves, too, who has a year left this summer; a real leader who is never injured, and a player who'd suit the club's style. Youri Tielemans will be free in the summer – he's gone a bit stale, but so have Leicester on the whole; he has almost 500 career games at the age of 25, so is clearly durable. And obviously everyone wants Bellingham.
As of a year ago, no one in England wanted to pay £10m for Enzo Fernandez. Players emerge all the time.
There are clearly issues with the way Liverpool is run right now with the changes at the top and general uncertainty, but equally, the team is going through a transitional period.
These are never easy, but they are hard to escape. The Covid year perhaps stalled the evolution of the side, with the loss of £100m+ and the inability to make as many transfers, and it complicated matters. Remember, while it hit all clubs hard, it hit Liverpool when at their peak, which meant more to lose, in a sense.
I had worried that Klopp was being too loyal to the older players, but he's made it clear he is not, and has followed that up by leaving out big names to play Bajcetic, and even Keïta, who could have been ignored for the rest of the campaign.
Klopp and Lijnders have excellent records developing younger players, but it’s harder to get them into a title-chasing team. This season will likely be viewed as the one where the next generation started to come through.
I feel the team has a better shape and energy at the moment (despite losing in the cup at Brighton), with a better midfield balance; and the XI and the game-changing subs will be better with Virgil van Dijk, Roberto Firmino, Luis Díaz, Darwin Núñez and Diogo Jota fit (or fully fit) again. And Arthur Melo can only be a bonus.
(The change to a younger, harder-running midfield came only once van Dijk got injured, as well as when lacking three or four of the main attackers. Liverpool are currently struggling with the onslaught of in swinging corners, even since Brentford caused chaos with them.)
For the first half of the season there was a midfield injury crisis (with some other players injured too).
Then it became an attacker injury crisis (with some other players injured too), which remains, but is due to ease soon.
Now, like 2020/21, the issue could move to the centre-backs, with Konaté joining van Dijk on the sidelines, albeit both should be back in a few weeks.
And here's the catch-22. If players stay fit, you can rotate, and keep them fit.
However, if you get a few injuries, it becomes a negative spiral, as you then overplay everyone else, and they get injuries too.
(The downside of just buying too many players and having a bloated squad is the detriment to harmony caused by pissed-off fringe players, and the hit to the wage bill, and other costs that make a club unsustainable. Again, let Chelsea play with that fire. I've said since 2003 that I don't want to ever see Liverpool run like Leeds United were back then, and some fans are too young to remember that.)
Also, we don't know what's been pre-agreed ahead of the summer.
Liverpool do almost all of their transfer business on the quiet, and sort a lot of it well before the window opens, to seal the deals on July 1st or thereabouts.
The same was true last summer with Aurélien Tchouaméni, but he chose Real Madrid, which is fair enough. Had Madrid not come in for him, he'd have been at Liverpool, and sometimes you will lose out to arguably the biggest club in the world.
Klopp and co. may currently have Jude Bellingham's word that he'll arrive in the summer regardless of where the club finishes, if, at 19, he is as focussed on being treasured and well-treated as part of an exciting rebuild (as I think Klopp will make it, as well as his England teammates, and as a player already fond of the Reds), rather than one of 57 senior players scrabbling for a locker.
Or they may not. We don't know. Ditto Caicedo, and various other players. Situations will change in the summer, and exciting new players will become available.
Liverpool can still finish in the top four, as specialists in run-ins, but obviously this year could be harder still, with more rivals competing. But if not, it's not the end of the world.
People catastrophise, yet Man United and Arsenal have continually signed big-name or high-prospect players when out of the Champions League. Newcastle have done similar in the past year, and actually added in a reasonable sensible manner.
And none of those had Jürgen Klopp as an additional lure. Man United and Arsenal also brought through younger players who are having an impact now, while some 'flop' signings are currently playing much better.
I also think people are assuming that the Liverpool team is totally broken, when the engine has been the issue; that's now partly fixed.
Now, a clear issue to sort is the number of injuries (especially hamstrings), but as noted, both recent terrible injury seasons have come on the back of truncated preseasons.
Last year was also a herculean effort. It's a weird season, and we have to look at the minutes so many players aged 20 or under have got, and the good it will do them and, in the long-term, the team.
One downside of any new signings is getting them integrated; sometimes they click straight away, but often it takes time, and likely takes more time during a transitional period (or when there are lots of absentees) where there's little shared understanding. It takes time to build an entire team's understanding.
In 2020/21, ten players made their league debuts for Liverpool, due to injuries and new signings. So far, in half a season, it's seven Liverpool debuts in either the Premier League or Champions League.
It's a learning process. I don't think anyone saw Arsenal's improvement from a team that lost 13 league games last season to runaway leaders (I certainly didn't), but they came out of their transitional phase, arguably as other clubs were entering theirs. It wasn't done with a big influx of players.
They signed Fábio Vieira for £30m, who has barely played (same fee and much the same situation with Oleksandr Zinchenko), and Gabriel Jesus for around £50m, who started well and then got injured. So all three summer signings haven't played that much of a role. (They signed three more in January, two of them aged 28 and 31 respectively.) Will the new guys help or hinder? Certainly Jorginho could go either way.
They recalled an excellent young centre-back from loan, and in so doing added height to the back four; to become the third-tallest team in the league, having previously been fairly short. Most of the other improvement has been due to a younger batch of players kept together to grow as individuals and as a team; moving from a young team to close to a peak-age team in 2022/23. Meanwhile, Granit Xhaka finally looks good, after about 25 years of looking fairly hopeless.
Plus, Arsenal and Brighton have had the fewest league lineup changes this season, so they've been stable; neither has the Champions League to contend with, obviously (Arsenal also rotate a lot in the Europa League, as you should). Liverpool and Chelsea, beset with injuries, have made the most changes.
(Tableau vizzes by Rob Radburn, data collated by Andrew Beasley for TTT.)
While I had concerns when watching the Reds' ageing midfield get given a good chasing week after week, I have been encouraged by Klopp's words and actions since the league defeat at Brighton.
It feels more like a Kloppian side again, but it will get better still when the faster, more energetic but also experienced players return; and yes, a couple of quality additions in the summer. (As I've been saying all season, Fabinho could be sold to raise funds, if a good preseason can't get him back to his best; and at 29, a sale might make sense, especially if keeping most of the 30-somethings.)
While the issues with injuries have hit different areas of the team at different times (sometimes all areas at once), another issue was that it's been so many aged 21-27 who were injured for long spells: Konaté, Díaz, Jota, Keïta, Jones and Arthur.
That's the portion of the squad that mixes experience with pace and/or energy.
It left some youngsters and some oldsters, and not a great balance. (A young, super-fast player, Conor Bradley, is doing superbly on loan at Bolton; he's also one for next season, without doubt.)
The injury situation may get worse again, but any new signing, cheap or expensive, could also get injured (see: Melo, Arthur).
To me, the main thing is that the team is surely going to benefit from the pain of this season; the question then is the next (perhaps final?) tweaks of the overhaul in the summer, and possible 2-3 signings, given those returning from loan.
It didn't need a complete overhaul after the disappointing 2020/21 season – just players to get fit again, and a good preseason. It needs a bit more work this time, but there's too much quality to throw away.
It also doesn't help that Chelsea – who got to write off £1.6bn of debt last summer and suffered no actual points-based sanctions when they should, by rights, have been in administration – are now taking the piss and distorting everything: the market, the expectations, the sense of how a football club should be run.
They are throwing money at players in a way that Leeds United did twenty years ago when acting like they'd be Champions League regulars, before they had to sell the squad and in so doing, get relegated; except Chelsea are risking 8-9 years of wage obligations and a bloated squad with potential disharmony and youngsters jumping the soulless ship.
One last thing.
"It's negligence" relating to Liverpool is now almost like Godwin's Law and comparing people to Hitler, in that if you utter it about how Liverpool are run then you've already lost the argument.
Negligence was vociferously claimed when Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho.
Negligence was vociferously claimed when the Reds waited for Virgil van Dijk instead of signing Stefan de Vrij or someone else.
Negligence was vociferously claimed when not signing anyone (bar a kid and an ageing reserve keeper) in 2019, which people soon forgot when the Reds won 27 of the first 28 league games.
So can we reserve "negligence" for ... actual negligence?
Not understanding what a manager, director of football or owner is doing does not make it negligent. It doesn't mean that mistakes are not being made, but it's rarely, if ever, negligent.
Waiting for Konaté was another thing seen as negligent, when going for Ben Davies instead. (I've seen talk of Konaté now being injury prone too, but he missed the first chunk of the season when an opponent's full weight smashed into his knee; a bit like the non-injury-prone Luis Díaz suffering a similar fate at Arsenal.)
Liverpool got out of a hole in 2020/21 not via the two signings made but by the two homegrown rookie defenders who knew the system, knew the league, and knew their teammates (unlike Ozan Kabak, who, let's not forget, was incredibly highly rated before his mediocre few games with Liverpool); and via tactical tweaks.
Togetherness was part of the solution.
Thankfully (in this crazy season, at least), Liverpool are out of the domestic cups, so this insane second half of the season will at least allow a bit of coaching time, and the occasional midweek rest.
And Liverpool have made new singings this season. Gakpo is starting to adjust, but Núñez has been individually brilliant at times (wasteful at others), but not yet always on the same wavelength as his teammates; that can develop in the coming months.
Fabio Carvalho will blossom with time and development. Calvin Ramsay is a real talent who happened to suffer growing pains, as many teenagers do. These are all part of a bright future; the next generation.
When the all-conquering late '70s team started to lose big stars and ever-presents like Kevin Keegan, Phil Thompson, Terry McDermott, David Johnson, Steve Heighway and Ray Kennedy, few knew much about Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan and Steve Nicol, just as they wouldn't have known much about Alan Hansen a couple of years earlier.
When Bill Shankly overhauled his super-successful but ageing team after the 1970 defeat at Watford, few knew much about Ray Clemence, Kevin Keegan and Steve Heighway, signed from obscurity, and the young local lad Phil Thompson, who was nearing the point of being ready.
Again, some singings will have to be made this summer.
But so many times in the past, and in recent years under Klopp, we've had to be a bit patient, and then the patience paid off.
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of patience around these days, and even less on transfer deadline day. And for all the accusations of negligence in the past, there has never actually been any negligence.
The Tomkins Times - Main Hub is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Tomkins Times - Main Hub to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.