There are times when Jurgen Klopp can bristle at the mention of transfers. He objects to the simplistic notion that they are the answer to every ill. He can delve into the market expensively – Virgil van Dijk and Alisson commanded record fees for their position – but rarely does so extensively. While others talk of strengthening, sometimes the Liverpool manager is reluctant to act when his squad seems weakened.
For different reasons, two of Liverpool’s most notable sales in recent years were Philippe Coutinho and Dejan Lovren. Neither was replaced. Liverpool flirted with Nabil Fekir and had arranged to sign Naby Keita long before Coutinho’s move to Barcelona, but no successor was signed. Lovren’s move to Zenit St Petersburg reduced them to three senior centre-backs and, while injuries have at times sidelined all three of those, there is no guarantee Liverpool will buy in January.
Which may be a preview of a summer decision. Gini Wijnaldum can now discuss a free-transfer move to a foreign club at the end of the season and he has a high-profile admirer at the Nou Camp, in Ronald Koeman. Klopp has always wanted the Dutchman to stay, but persuasive as he often is and enthusiastically as Wijnaldum follows orders on the pitch, he has proved less willing to abide by his manager’s wishes off it. That contract extension remains unsigned.
Jordan Henderson is captain and PFA Player of the Year. Fabinho was the outstanding defensive midfielder in the country in the first half of last season. But Wijnaldum is both the great constant and the workhorse in the Liverpool midfield, the metronome in possession and the most flexible man within the trio. He has only sat out 11 of Liverpool’s 168 league games since joining. At most other clubs, the search would be on for a replacement. Which, given the combination of attributes he brings, might not be an easy one.
At Liverpool, however, it is easy to envisage a situation where he leaves and no one arrives. It is in part because Klopp has more strength in depth in midfield than in any other department. That is a reflection of Curtis Jones’ progress, even if the Liverpudlian may have leapfrogged Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain for the most attacking berth and is scarcely a duplicate of Wijnaldum.
It depends, too, on whether Fabinho reverts to being a midfielder next season, a question of the fitness of the full-time centre-backs, but also of strategy: does Klopp buy another specialist?
The other factor in the evolution in the midfield is Thiago Alcantara. The buy from Bayern Munich was hired to add another dimension, charged with elegantly unlocking defences from deep. In some senses he is the anti-Wijnaldum. The Dutchman does not have an assist for Liverpool in the Premier or Champions Leagues since 2017/18; instead, however, he supplies those who do provide them. But the Spain international has been limited to 152 minutes of football; fewer than Wijnaldum often clocks up in a week. According to Transfermarkt, he last missed a game due to injury in 2014, when he was sidelined for two.
He has been the great guarantee, the running machine still going when others have broken down. So while his exit could leave Liverpool seemingly well-stocked with seven midfielders – Fabinho, Thiago, Henderson, James Milner, Jones, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain – the man with the 93 per cent pass completion rate and the 100 per cent fitness record stands apart in terms of reliability. Klopp’s keenness to keep him may reflect a belief Wijnaldum is irreplaceable, but Liverpool have to determine if they can afford not to replace him.
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