Jürgen Klopp knew the question was coming. The Liverpool manager has spent much of this summer explaining why he does not want to sign a midfielder, but the debate rumbles on whether he likes it or not. Especially following an injury to Thiago Alcantara, who limped out of Saturday’s disappointing draw at Fulham with a muscle problem.
“I know what will come up now,” said Klopp after the match. “It is clear. We said we don’t need a midfielder because we have enough — and we actually have enough, but the problem now is we get punished for something that is not our responsibility, really, because things like this can happen.”
The “punishment” to which Klopp refers is the series of injuries affecting his midfield. Thiago joins Naby Keïta (ill), Curtis Jones (calf) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (hamstring) on the sidelines, leaving Liverpool uncomfortably short in the heart of the pitch.
To be clear, this is not necessarily a long-term issue – Keïta will be back within days, while Jones is missing for only a couple of weeks.
But the loss of Thiago will raise further questions about the quality of Klopp’s midfield options, not least because the first-choice central trio (Thiago, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson) struggled to control the game against newly promoted Fulham.
The question is not so much whether Liverpool have enough midfielders; after all, they have nine senior players for three central positions when everyone is fit and available. It is more whether they have the right balance of players and attributes in this crucial area.
Of those nine midfielders at Klopp’s disposal, three are aged 21 or under and are relatively untested at this level. Harvey Elliott, Jones and Fabio Carvalho have made a combined 61 Premier League appearances between them. At the other end of the scale are Thiago, Henderson and James Milner, who are all in their thirties.
In terms of players in their “prime years”, that leaves the imperious Fabinho, the inconsistent Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain, a long-term absentee.
Elliott and Carvalho might well develop into players capable of scoring regularly, but currently none of these midfield options is a consistent goal threat. None has ever scored more than seven goals in a single league season at Liverpool.
Of course, the lack of goals from midfield has not been an issue for Liverpool before. With record signing Darwin Núñez continuing to impress (he scored one and created the other for Mohamed Salah at Fulham) the goals will no doubt continue to flow for Klopp’s side.
“I know all these things [are said] – that we don’t score enough goals from midfield, this and that – but what do we want?” said Klopp during pre-season. “This ‘golden cow’ that is producing absolutely everything, milk as well!”
Liverpol’s long-term desire is to boost their midfield
Was it possible to detect a slight shift in tone this weekend, a month after those comments about the “golden cow”? The injury situation certainly changes the dynamic of Liverpool’s midfield, and one wonders whether the extent of Thiago’s injury might cause Klopp to be tempted to go shopping for new players after all.
“Look, a transfer must make sense now and in the long-term,” said Klopp on Saturday. “We still have enough midfielders, it’s just that some of them are injured. This is not a good situation, I don’t like it at all. But we have to see how we react on that – but for sure not panicking.”
It is worth remembering the nature of Liverpool’s deal for Luis Díaz, completed in January. The original plan was for Liverpool to move for Diaz this summer, but they struck six months early when it became clear that Tottenham Hotspur were willing to press the button in the middle of the season.
It was a sign that carefully laid strategies can change, or at least be brought forward, and in the case of Díaz it worked out magnificently. So brilliantly, in fact, that other clubs have publicly praised Liverpool’s decision-making. Edu, Arsenal’s technical director, said the move to bring in Díaz six months before the departure of Sadio Mané to Bayern Munich was a “very nice plan”.
There is no doubt that Liverpol’s long-term desire is to boost their midfield, with Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham a top target. The question they must now answer is whether their personnel issues are serious enough to make them, once again, accelerate their plans.