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Liverpool’s midfield conundrum: Too many or not enough?

Liverpool midfielders
(Image credit: Getty)

Liverpool have again shown their savvy transfer ability to make decisive moves early in the summer, bringing in Darwin Nunez, Fabio Carvalho and Calvin Ramsay.

The trio of new signings have an average age of 20, with a clear focus on the future now very apparent at Anfield, adding to the signings of Ibrahima Konate (then 22) last summer and Luis Diaz in January (then 25).

There is a need to reduce the age profile of Jurgen Klopp’s squad - a squad that has been extremely stable over the past five years but now is in need of refreshing.

Indeed, an analysis by PA Sport recently found that of players who will be in their thirties at the start of the new season, Liverpool’s squad provided more minutes than any other Premier League club.

46% of Liverpool’s minutes played last season will be in their thirties at the start of the 2022/23 campaign; with Mohamed Salah this summer joining the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Roberto Firmino, Joel Matip, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Thiago and the now-departed Sadio Mane in hitting the milestone age.

Of course, not all good things come to an end at age 30, with Klopp highlighting the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Robert Lewandowski recently when discussing Salah’s contract situation, saying, “Their age is no roof.”

“One or two years ago the first three players of the Ballon d’Or, apart from Salah who is slightly younger, were all 34 or older,” Klopp noted. “There is no peak mid-20s. The massive advantage of early 30s, mid-30s is the player can see things in the right way having learned in his career.”

Klopp’s correct, of course, but he also knows that teams must evolve and that succession planning is a vital part of the job.

With that in mind, Liverpool have brought in new quality at the other end of the age spectrum with Ramsay, Carvalho and Darwin joining the likes of Konate, Diaz and Harvey Elliott as key parts of the club’s future. Don’t forget that Joe Gomez and Diogo Jota, both aged 25, are yet to hit their prime years either.

The Midfield Issue

There is, though, an issue in the squad’s profile and that lies in midfield. Of the club’s first-choice midfield, Henderson is 32, Thiago is 31 and Fabinho turns 29 later this year.

That trio are clearly of the quality required, but from there the drop-off is a concern; there’s veteran James Milner at 36, Naby Keita (27), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (28), plus Elliott (19) and Curtis Jones (21).

That’s eight midfielders. Surely enough? Especially of Klopp may be moving to a 4-2-3-1 formation as many have predicted this summer. However, the age profile and injury record of most of those eight puts into question whether it is enough. It’s clear that the next area that needs strengthening or improving is midfield.

Since signing Fabinho in summer 2018, a transformative addition that elevated Liverpool’s midfield to elite status, Liverpool have added only Thiago in the same position of the pitch.

Earlier this summer, the Merseysiders sought to bring in French midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco but were gazumped by Real Madrid and now reports from well-briefed Merseyside-based journalists say that the Reds have done all their summer business and will instead wait until next year to bring in new midfield recruit(s). Jude Bellingham is the two-plus-two-equals-five name that many supporters hope will be 2023’s big addition.

By then, it will be five years since Fabinho’s arrival and Liverpool could need two new midfielders, not just one. Much of that will depend on how Elliott, Jones and Carvalho - three youngsters with massive potential - get on in the next 12 months.

Thiago’s Importance

One thing that cannot be overstated is the importance of Thiago to Liverpool’s midfield. The Spaniard’s presence, especially alongside Fabinho, completely changes how Liverpool operate in the centre of the pitch.

The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich playmaker missed 13 games last season through injury (or illness). Three of the games missed were over the festive period, a run which saw Klopp’s side take just two points from nine, drawing with Spurs and Chelsea and losing at Leicester

The other run of games he missed earlier in the season saw six points dropped in five games, with draws against Brentford, Man City and Brighton - results that proved vital in the final league table. His return was a substitute in the 3-2 defeat at West Ham, coming on with the score already at 3-1.

It was a six-game run that dented Liverpool’s title hopes, taking nine points from a possible 18 and Thiago didn’t start any of them. Would Thiago’s presence, especially in the disappointing draws against Brentford and Brighton, have resulted in different outcomes? Turning just one of those into a victory would have seen the title back at Anfield.

Those Brentford and West Ham away games were particularly chaotic, missing Thiago’s composure on the ball and ability to control the midfield. In terms of tackles, interceptions, passes, clearances, shots and key passes per 90 minutes, Thiago comes out the top-ranked of all Liverpool’s midfielders last season. 

The Next Steps

As ever, what happens over the course of the 2022/23 season will come down to a little bit of luck. Should Thiago stay fit, plus Fabinho, Liverpool’s chances of success will be heightened dramatically.

Should Elliott shine as he did at the start of last season, and Carvalho come in and surprise with his ability and eye for goal from the No.10 position, then the need to have added a midfielder this summer will be further allayed. 

That then gives Liverpool and their new sporting director, Julian Ward, a year to plan for summer 2023 and recruit a top-class midfielder. Whether that will be Bellingham is a difficult question; Liverpool have tracked the prodigiously talented Englishman since his youth days at Birmingham but he will have plenty of suitors.

One thing is for sure, Klopp and Liverpool’s transfer gurus are well aware of the need in midfield, and given the club’s extremely impressive transfer ability in recent years, they will get it right next summer.

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Matt Ladson

Matt Ladson is the co-founder and editor of This Is Anfield, the independent Liverpool news and comment website, and covers all areas of the Reds for FourFourTwo – including transfer analysis, interviews, title wins and European trophies. As well as writing about Liverpool for FourFourTwo he also contributes to other titles including Yahoo and Bleacher Report. He is a lifelong fan of the Reds.