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“Too late, too late!” will be the cry, when the midfield rebuild has passed you by.
As Liverpool FC looks increasingly unlikely to finish in the Premier League’s qualification places for next season’s Champions League, further questions can be raised about their inaction when it comes to assembling a new midfield.
While new players have arrived in attacking areas and highly-rated young defender Ibrahima Konaté will form part of the future back line, the midfield has been neglected.
Rather than facilitating a period of transition to a new-look engine room, Jürgen Klopp’s side now face something of an overhaul, exacerbated by the decline of existing squad members in these positions.
It seemed obvious that Liverpool needed a midfielder in the previous summer transfer window. It is also telling that one of Liverpool’s best players in the center of the park this season has been one who wouldn’t have been considered one of the club’s go-to players as the season started.
Few would have predicted a run in the team for Stefan Bajcetic, the 18-year-old Spaniard who joined Liverpool’s academy from Celta Vigo in 2020 at the age of 16.
A handful of outings in the cup competitions may have been on the cards, but the decline of the club’s current midfield lineup has been so stark, and the performances of Bajcetic so composed that he had become a regular starter in the Premier League before picking up an adductor injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season.
Bajcetic’s swift introduction to the side was proof Liverpool needed a new player in this area in the summer, maybe two. Now the club is likely to need more than two if it is to solve this problem. At least it now knows Bajcetic can be part of the solution.
Brazilian midfielder Arthur arrived on loan from Juventus at the end of the 2022 summer window—again an acknowledgement from the club it was aware of the need for a new player in these positions. This loan signing also revealed that Liverpool had not done enough to secure a player who could bed in to be a permanent part of the rebuild that is now even more clearly and desperately needed in this area of the field.
The form of defensive midfielder Fabinho has been at its lowest ebb since he arrived at Anfield in 2018, and the Brazilian will turn 30 this year. The club’s 32-year-old captain, Jordan Henderson, has also suffered a further dip in form.
Naby Keita has been predictably unavailable or out of favour, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Thiago Alcantara have also been unavailable for extended periods through injury.
Thiago, especially, as one of the most talented players on Liverpool’s roster, has been a big miss as the team attempt to finish in the European qualification places, but the lack of backup for him has been a big issue. Bajcetic has looked like the only player who could go some way towards deputising for his compatriot. With both out, the team can look devoid of creativity and guile.
Vice-captain James Milner has been one of the more reliable options when called upon but is 37 years old. This has sometimes told against certain opponents, despite his still-high fitness levels. If Milner does have a part to play in a rebuild it would be more in a mentoring or coaching role within the squad—a reminder to new players that this club now expects success, and has recently experienced it.
Milner might have expected to already be in such a role and not expected to have played as much as he has this season. The Englishman has racked up more minutes than Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Curtis Jones in this campaign.
Liverpool might have got away with signing one player in 2022 as part of a rebuild and a smooth transition to a new-look midfield, but that is no longer the case, and one player will not suffice.
Apart from Thiago, Bajcetic, and perhaps the 22-year-old Jones, none of the aforementioned players has shown they are of the required quality or potential for a team that has ambitions to qualify for the Champions League, let alone challenge for the biggest prizes in England and Europe.
Harvey Elliott, who turned 20 this month, has performed well in bursts in midfield, and could be an option there as his game develops, but he currently looks more comfortable dipping inside onto his left foot from the right wing. With better midfielders around him and behind him, however, he may be a viable option in the centre next season.
Liverpool has left itself in the position of needing a complete refresh in midfield.
Adding a player or two last summer, who would have had a chance to bed in by now, could have meant just one or two signings were needed again during the next offseason, but now all of these players will need to be signed in one go. This could lead to problems bedding in and gelling, something seen at Chelsea this season after the London club signed a whole raft of players in January.
It’s natural for a club to be in transition—most are continuously in some state of flux—and maintain performance levels, but once it becomes a complete overhaul it can be more difficult.
Liverpool now has no real choice but to refresh its midfield if it wants to maintain its place as a force in European football. The problem of good players needing time to bed in is a much better problem to have to deal with than the one it currently has, but there is a sense that had the club acted earlier, it could have avoided both.