Liverpool Can’t Spend Its Way Out Of This Mess

When the 2022-23 Premier League season began, the FiveThirtyEight Club Soccer Predictions model gave Liverpool the second best chance of winning the title. More than five months and 20 weeks later, however, the Reds sit ninth in the table, behind the likes of 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 were in third place, nine points behind eventual champions Manchester City, but with a game in hand. The model favored City then – and eventually it was vindicated – but Liverpool played near-flawless football from that point onwards, boosted by the signing of former Porto forward and Colombia superstar Luis Diaz in the winter transfer window. Díaz’s signing was, by and large, one of the great masterpieces in the Premier League’s winter transfer history: expected non-penalty goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes of play (npxG+xAG/90) ranked ninth ( with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez) among players with at least 11 starts.

Of course, the Reds eventually fell agonizingly short in their pursuit of a 20th English top-flight title – thanks to a collapse at Aston Villa – but their brilliant winter transfer business gave them the chance to win the title.

The same can’t be said this season, even if they recently lured Dutch forward Cody Gakpo – one of Europe’s most exciting young attacking talents and one of the 2022 World Cup champions – 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. After all, Liverpool’s issues aren’t in their forward line – they’re (mostly) in their midfield (and an inability to stop opponents from scoring first).

To put it mildly, Liverpool’s midfield is a mess. It’s a miserable combination of too big and too injured. Club captain Jordan Henderson – whose presence at Liverpool was both fraught (unfairly) and celebrated – was probably never meant to play as many minutes as he did in his 32-year-old season. The same goes for maestro Thiago Alcantara 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 have each played over 2,300 minutes in all competitions, which is a lot of minutes for any player, let alone a player 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 somewhat unbelievable to think that he planned to play his elder statesmen in midfield as much as he’s been forced to this season. However, long-term injuries to Curtis Jones, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the on-loan Arthur have given Klopp precious little choice but to back it up.

Signing a midfielder during the transfer window (which ends on January 31) would make sense – probably more sense than signing a striker, even with Diaz and fellow striker Diogo Jota out with long-term deals of their own injuries – but at this point, Liverpool have not dipped their toes into the market to improve their fortunes. And Liverpool just might not be fixed (at least not this season). When a team relies on strong pressing – that is, when a team relies on defending from the front (Diaz and Jota are two fantastic pressing forwards, but have been sidelined for months) – and the press is broken, it does the work of the midfield line, and the job of the back, 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 marginally disastrous financially – qualifying for the Champions League equates to tens of millions of dollars for clubs to use to reinvest in the team and 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 monsters in the knockout tournaments – Liverpool have reached the final in three of the last five Champions League campaigns, won one and won the FA Cup last season – so the golden ratio is still possible. But without signing a midfielder (or two, or three), that chance dwindles by the day.

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