It wasn’t the transfer most Liverpool fans were talking about. Enter two centre-backs, representing untold riches after a month when it seemed like none would join, and exit Takumi Minamino. Having officially joined on the first day of the winter window in 2020, he left on the last for 2021, reversing the normal direction of travel between Southampton and Liverpool by trading Anfield for St Mary’s for the rest of the season.
Given Saints’ recent success at recruiting from Merseyside – most obviously Danny Ings, but Theo Walcott has also been an influential loanee – there is a temptation to wonder if this is a quiet coup. Schooled at RB Salzburg, Minamino’s footballing education equips him for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s high-energy brand of football; the same, though, could be said for Jurgen Klopp’s style of play and Minamino has often had a minimal impact.
But there is also an element of mystery about his departure. Minamino’s absence was lamented by many a Liverpool supporter during their recent goal drought. Since the 7-0 win at Crystal Palace, when he started and scored, he has had six minutes of top-flight football. Divock Origi has had 146, spread over five appearances. Xherdan Shaqiri has had 274. Klopp attributed it in part to a lack of height for defending set-pieces, though Shaqiri is scarcely a giant either. His pecking order has changed. Rather than replacing or phasing out the surprise stars of 2019’s comeback against Barcelona, Minamino has lost out to them.
Klopp has a tendency to pick on what he sees in training; as Minamino’s last league start was the biggest top-flight away victory in Liverpool’s history, it is safe to say he has been unimpressed by what he has witnessed at Kirkby; indeed, there must have been elements he did not like amid the rout at Selhurst Park.
A season that began with the encouragement of a Community Shield goal against Arsenal has been a stop-start affair: six of his substitute appearances have lasted a maximum of seven minutes. He has never recaptured the momentum he had in Austria; Klopp’s decision to take Minamino, along with more established players, away for a winter break last February cost him an FA Cup outing against Shrewsbury that could have given him an early opportunity to open his account.
Now there is a rush to declare him a bad buy. Financially, he definitely isn’t. At £7.25 million, Minamino was always a low-risk signing. Liverpool were never likely to lose much. His initial price promised profit. Time will tell if returns to Anfield to resume his Liverpool career.
But in the meantime, he may be better suited to Hasenhuttl’s 4-2-2-2 than Klopp’s 4-3-3. It is easy to imagine him buzzing around either alongside Ings or, more likely, as one of the wingers who operate infield.
At Anfield, with the inverted forward line, it is not merely the excellence of the front three or the fact that, as Minamino’s brief substitute appearances indicate, their understudies can have limited opportunities to impress, that makes them irreplaceable.
The inverted front three have such unique roles that their performances are hard to recreate. Minamino has not been the goalscoring winger in the mould of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah who can be the furthest man forward when bursting through the channels; nor has he proved the Roberto Firmino replica, as ball-winner, link man, false nine and frenetic runner.
A recurring theme of Klopp’s reign is that none of the alternatives can replicate Firmino’s contribution. Some, such as Daniel Sturridge and Christian Benteke, represented opposites. Origi has been a startling success at times and a blunt force at others without resembling Firmino. Ings might have been able to offer some of the same qualities but for injury. Diogo Jota’s early-season form suggested that, while very different, he could compensate with goals. Minamino has some of Firmino’s profile – indeed, he has the majority of his surname – but perhaps he suffered by comparison with the Brazilian at Anfield and was deemed neither a prolific winger nor a false nine. The demands will be separate at Southampton, the reference points other players, the system one he may like more.
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