Soccer

Liverpool cannot spend their way out of this mess

As the 2022-23 Premier League season began, the FiveThirtyEight Club Soccer Predictions model gave Liverpool the second best odds to win the title. More than five months and 20 game weeks later, however, the Reds sit ninth in the table, behind minnows Brentford, newly promoted Fulham and Brighton & Hove Albion, and the model gives them less than a 1 per cent chance of domestic glory.

At the same time last season, Liverpool sat in third place, nine points behind eventual champions Manchester City, but with a game in hand. The model favored City at the time – and was eventually vindicated – but Liverpool played near-flawless football from then on, bolstered by the signing of former Porto striker and Colombian international superstar Luis Díaz in the winter transfer window. Overall, the Díaz signing was one of the great championships in the history of Premier League winter signings: his expected goals without penalties plus expected assists per 90 minutes played (npxG+xAG/90) ranked tied for ninth (with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez) among players with at least 11 starts.

Of course, the Reds ultimately fell painfully short in their quest for a record 20th English top-flight title – thanks to an Aston Villa collapse – but their brilliant winter transfer business gave them a chance to beat them.

The same cannot be said this season, although they recently lured Dutch forward Cody Gakpo – one of Europe’s most exciting young attacking talents and one of the breakout stars of the 2022 World Cup – away from PSV Eindhoven. As good as Gakpo is now (and as world-class as he may eventually become), it’s too little, too late. Furthermore, Liverpool’s problems are not with its forward line – they are (mostly) with its midfield (and an inability to prevent opponents from scoring first).

To put it simply, Liverpool’s midfield is a mess. It’s a miserable combination of being too old and too injured. Club captain Jordan Henderson – whose presence at Liverpool has been simultaneously fraught (unfairly) and decorated – was probably never meant to play as many minutes as he has in his 32-year-old season. The same goes for maestro Thiago Alcántara and destroyer Fabinho, both of whom are on the wrong side of 29.

A year ago, these three made up one of the best midfields in world football – a combination that (more or less) brought Liverpool to the brink of an unprecedented quadruple. As such, they each played more than 2,300 minutes across all competitions, which is a lot of minutes for any player, let alone players in (or approaching) their 30s. It’s impossible to know what manager Jürgen Klopp was thinking at the start of the season, but it’s also a little unbelievable to think he planned to play his midfield elder statesmen as much as he’s been forced to this season. But long-term injuries to Curtis Jones, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and on-loan Arthur have left Klopp with precious few options other than running back.

Signing a midfielder during the transfer window (which ends January 31) would make sense – probably more sensible than signing a striker, even with Díaz and fellow player Diogo Jota out with long-term injuries of their own – but for now, Liverpool has not dipped its toes into the market to improve its fortunes. And it just might be that Liverpool can’t be fixed (at least not this season). When a team relies on a strong press – that is, when a team relies on defending from the front (Díaz and Jota are two great pressing forwards but have been out for months) – and the press is broken, it does the job of the midfield, and the job of the back line, much more difficult.

So is Liverpool’s season over? Not exactly. The league title is almost certainly out of reach, and the same can be said for a top-four finish, which would be borderline financial – Champions League qualification equates to tens of millions of dollars for clubs to reinvest in the squad and the facilities, making them more attractive to potential future signings. But the Reds are still alive in the FA Cup and the Champions League. Klopp’s sides have historically been knockout tournament monsters – Liverpool have reached the final in three of the last five Champions League campaigns, winning one and winning the FA Cup last season – so silverware remains a possibility. But without signing a midfielder (or two or three), that opportunity is dwindling by the day.

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