First, the bright side. When Liverpool eased their injury crisis at centre-back by signing Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies for a combined initial fee of £1.5 million, crisp analysis of the deadline day scramble came from an unlikely source: the UK and Ireland’s Twitter account for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“Michael Edwards could walk into KFC for a Snackbox, but end up walking out with the secret recipe, two of our fryers and the shirt off my back,” was their response to the sporting director somehow managing to get two deals done for the shortest of change even though every football executive and their dog knew of the club’s desperation for defenders.
The champions secured two players with high ceilings, aged 20 and 25, without financially hampering themselves or hindering their long-term planning for the position.
Not a shabby result given the complexities of a coronavirus-shaped window, evident by the lack of mega action across Europe’s top leagues, especially considering Liverpool were forced into the market after injuries late last week to Joel Matip and Fabinho.
The former will miss the rest of the season after suffering ankle ligament damage, which left the club with no option but to seek reinforcements, with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez also enduring lengthy absences.
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There can be appreciation for Edwards delivering quite a sensible solution under trying circumstances mixed with discontent that the Merseysiders didn’t act sooner, leaving them to scratch around as time ticked away.
Liverpool accepted it was a gamble allowing Dejan Lovren to exit in the summer without replacing him as they were confident Fabinho could fill in at centre-back when Gomez or Matip were unavailable.
The operative word being ‘when’ and not ‘if,’ because unfortunately neither have had reliable fitness records across a campaign.
Their plan, however, obviously could not and did not account for the loss of their mainstay.
Van Dijk’s ACL injury in the Merseyside derby on 17 October changed the state of play, but it was hard to find any counter argument when Jurgen Klopp insisted that you can’t click your fingers and replace a figure of that stature in the market.
Players with similar attributes would still not be ‘Big Virg’ and so the club remained calm.
But Liverpool were now effectively down two centre-backs having let Lovren go, and inside 10 days, would also lose Matip to injury.
Less than a month after Van Dijk’s serious setback, Gomez required surgery on the tendon in his knee and Fabinho was nursing a hamstring problem.
And so it was apparent by the second week of November that Liverpool would have gigantic trouble in the heart of defence for the rest of a taxing campaign.
But post-Van Dijk’s injury, the “mentality monsters” continued to deliver, winning five of the next six fixtures in all competitions while only conceding three – one of which was in a draw against Manchester City at the Etihad.
After Gomez’s misfortune, they posted huge victories over Leicester, Wolves, Tottenham and Crystal Palace. There was a sense that the character of the team – a fundamental of them becoming champions of Europe and England – could absorb the absences and carry on.
But that was asking too much of them and the system to function at an elite level without key armoury while fatigue and a lack of recovery time ruled supreme.
By the end of December, that was evident and it was only further underscored in January, with the recent wins at Tottenham and West Ham exceptions to the norm.
Prior to those games, the solitary triumph in seven fixtures was against Aston Villa’s kids in the FA Cup third round.
Although the defence itself wasn’t the issue, with Liverpool only conceding more than once in the defeat to Manchester United in the same competition, the knock-on effects of being without their senior centre-backs proved detrimental.
It affected the positioning and confidence of the full-backs, changed the personnel in midfield, with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson moving back, and reduced the ability to get the ball to the forwards quicker sans Van Dijk’s diagonals and the skill of the other two in stepping out with possession.
Klopp had admitted signing a centre-back would have afforded Liverpool greater stability in different scenarios and became more publicly open about the struggles of the situation.
The club had to always take availability, affordability and skillset into the equation, while balancing out whether quick fixes would stifle any of their longer-term thinking.
When the extent of Matip’s injury was known, there had been unsuccessful attempts to fast track targets for the future. Marseille’s Duje Caleta-Car was one such example, but the Ligue 1 side understandably refused to sanction a move as there was not enough time for them to source a replacement. They rebuffed a £20m proposal for the left-sided, right-footed player, while Braga’s David Carmo and Bayer Leverkusen’s Edmond Tapsoba were also considered.
Kabak was the option most likely to materialise, with Schalke interested in Shkodran Mustafi as a replacement.
Liverpool had assessed the Turkey international for 18 months after he had been strongly recommended to Klopp by the manager’s best friend David Wagner, who coached the 20-year-old at the Veltins-Arena.
Former Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel, who worked with the Reds boss at Mainz, also provided a glowing appraisal of the youngster.
The deal effectively acts as a six-month trial for the 20-year-old.
Davies, rated as one of the best left-sided centre-halves in the Championship, would never have been on Liverpool’s radar if it wasn’t for the unprecedented situation they find themselves in.
“What I like about Ben is it just shows that each situation creates opportunities,” Klopp told Liverpoolfc.com.
“I think it’s probably clear that in a normal transfer window, without any issues, we would not look at Preston if there’s a player for us or something like that. It’s not really likely. But since we saw him and since our situation got clearer and clearer – the problems we had – when we saw him we got really excited about it and thought, ‘Wow.’
“We see the quality and we see the potential as well because he’s 25 and there’s a lot to come for him. I love a lot about his play. He’s a really good footballer, looks like a proper leader in this Preston team, good in challenges, looks football smart, can play different positions because he played in a back three and a back four and all these things.”
Liverpool have ultimately got two interesting players – one very aerially dominant in Kabak and the other highly comfortable in possession, with recovery pace – who have the desire to improve and have come in cheaply.
There can be no perfect answer to how you react to losing all three of your senior centre-backs to devastatingly bad injuries by the end of January in the current climate.
It would be unfair to expect either of the two signings to immediately offer the kind of surety they did. For the pair to cure all ills or morph into the finished article with limited training time.
But that extra bit of stability Klopp had wanted and the team needed can hopefully now be ticked off. Having options at centre-back will eventually allow the manager greater choice again in midfield, for example.
Whatever way you slice it, this has been a horrendous situation for Liverpool to navigate. Perhaps they could have acted quicker, perhaps they could have taken more of a monetary gamble.
But that they still managed to stick to the principles that made them successful at such a trying time deserves more than credit from a KFC Twitter account.
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