“Are we looking for transfers and for players? Yes. Are we close to signing them? No.”
As much as Jurgen Klopp dislikes discussions about purchasing players, he set the scene for Liverpool’s summer activity with his weekend comments. The German has admitted his current squad has proved too small and, with European football of some sort next season a near-certainty, it will have to be bigger. He has accepted that some of his current charges have not shown the consistency required over an entire campaign.
Klopp tends to reject the simplistic notion that answers are always available in the transfer market. That may be particularly true in Liverpool’s case, and not just because of their tendency in recent years to be gazumped by some of their rivals or to miss out on many of their major targets.
The initial difficulty is not completing deals, but in identifying possible arrivals. Klopp’s tactics are so idiosyncratic that it seems easier to rule players out than in. Even when strangely intent on not signing a goalkeeping upgrade on Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, it may leave him looking for a striker who isn’t really a striker, a winger who isn’t really a winger, a full-back who isn’t really a full-back and a centre-back who allies ability with mobility. His charges need to be formidably fit, capable of topping the running statistics, and also technically adept.
Look at it position by position and complications abound. Klopp’s ideal striker, it is clear, is neither the target man Christian Benteke nor the predatory Daniel Sturridge. His fondness for the false nine Roberto Firmino shows he wants a forward who is the first line of the defence, leading the pressing game, dragging opposing centre-backs out of position with decoy runs to the flanks. He wants a multi-tasker, not a specialist. Firmino, he said on Sky Sports in September, “can play all of the offensive positions.” Any incoming attacker must be able to interchange positions. He needs to provide the promise of chemistry with Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana.
Any new winger cannot be of the touchline-hugging variety. Klopp’s nominal wide men often operate within the width of the penalty area. They are more inside-forwards than outside-left and outside-right. Given the current glut of attacking midfielders, the market may seem to offer options. Yet it is significant that, while Mane added another dimension with the pace to accelerate beyond defences, no one else can replicate his contribution. Plus, Liverpool’s harmony was disrupted as others were pulled out of position first when Coutinho was injured and then when Mane left for Africa Nation’s Cup duty. The ideal acquisition would be both speedy and versatile, so he can to slot in seamlessly on either flank if the Senegalese or the Brazilian is ever absent.
Klopp may be in the market for a midfielder, especially with doubts about Emre Can’s future. If so, deep-lying holding players should not apply. His side operate further up the field than most. “If you play really high, they [opponents] don’t play,” Klopp rationalised a few months ago. It is why his No. 6, to use his term, is Jordan Henderson, never previously seen as a specialist defensive midfielder and why the closest thing to a No. 6 in his current squad, Lucas Leiva, tends to be used at the back. A personal theory is that he should restore James Milner to the midfield even if some of its duties, like the No. 6 dropping in between the centre-backs, may be new to the vice-captain.
That, in turn, would create a vacancy at left-back, even before Liverpool considered looking for someone less prone to proving a defensive liability than Alberto Moreno. Yet conventional left-backs may be disqualified. The job description is rather different for Klopp. “It changed over the last few years,” he said, though he has been a pioneer of that change. “It’s much more a midfield player. They play in half spaces. They have to play really high. They are wingers sometimes, sometimes centre-midfielders.” That Milner has put in the second most crosses in the Premier League this season indicates how much more time he spends in attack than the average left-back. He is a one-man left flank.
And that has a knock-on effect for Klopp’s central defenders. With questions surrounding whether Mamadou Sakho will return to Anfield, Lucas out of contract, Dejan Lovren contriving new ways of getting injured and Ragnar Klavan veering between reliable and unreliable, an addition is essential. He will need to have the athleticism to cover the space the league’s most attacking full-backs leave behind them. With Klopp an advocate of a high defensive line, he also needs the recovery pace when a ball is played over the top and which Lucas lacked when pitted in a race with Jamie Vardy last month. Once again, the aged seem ill-suited to a role that requires energy. Once again, Klopp, like Pep Guardiola, seems to want players with a midfielder’s skillset throughout the side. And, as with each of the other positions, an ultra-modern, highly demanding style of play necessitates high-calibre footballers. Many of them are already tied down by the world’s leading clubs.
Liverpool’s differences from the norm make them difficult to play against. But when it comes to recruitment, the problems they create are for themselves. If Klopp seems unique, Klopp-style players are few and far between. Looking is not as easy as finding.
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