With yesterday’s 1-0 result against Watford, Liverpool’s odds of finishing in the top four are now over 90%:

What this means is that the likeliest outcome to this year’s Premier League is Chelsea in first, Spurs in second, Liverpool and City in third and fourth in some order, and United on the outside of Europe in fifth. Of course, if United wins the Europa League, as they ought to, then that would mean five Premier League sides go to next season’s Champions League—and Arsenal isn’t one of them.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Actually, I’m not really sorry.

ANYWAY.

One interesting thought experiment heading into the summer is where each team needs to improve heading into next season. Tottenham need to hold onto their core, potentially sign a right back should Kyle Walker be sold, and add depth in several positions. Chelsea will need to replace the likely-to-depart Diego Costa and then could stand to add some attacking depth, another center back, and probably a wing back. City and United have a number of needs and will have the money to fill them all if they spend well. That brings us to Liverpool.

Liverpool’s needs are obvious: With attacking options that include Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Divock Origi, and Adam Lallana, the Reds have good attacking depth and, when everyone is fit, a formidable front three. The issues are in midfield and central defense. A left back would obviously be a welcome addition as well.

Unfortunately, while the needs are obvious, the solutions are not. Elite attacking talent is not hard to spot, even if it is expensive. Most high-priced attacking signings at Big 6 clubs live up to expectations unless they are a young project who gets lost on the bench during a vital phase in their development. But when teams sign players like Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and so on, they usually get results.

Defensive quality and midfield quality is trickier to evaluate. Man City has spent nearly £100m on Nicolas Otamendi, Eliaquim Mangala, and John Stones and their defense is still probably the worst amongst the big six. Likewise Arsenal spent big on Granit Xhaka this summer to bolster their midfield, a move which has not worked out nearly so well as the Gunners might have hoped.

Liverpool needs a midfielder who can cover a lot of ground, break up play, and control the pace of the game by retaining possession but who is also comfortable pushing the ball forward as part of Jurgen Klopp’s aggressive vertical attacking style. There are midfielders who do all those things well: N’Golo Kante comes to mind, as does Mousa Dembele. You could argue that players like Idrissa Gueye of Everton, Tottenham’s Victor Wanyama, and Manchester City’s Fernandinho are all poor man’s versions of Kante or Dembele.

Other midfielders, like Paul Pogba or a number of elite midfielders just past their prime, like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, or Arturo Vidal, probably check those boxes as well. But this list of names highlights the problem: Midfielders like this are very difficult to find and tend to be enormously expensive. The acquisition strategy for such players is one of two things:

  • Be rich enough to sign world-class midfielders at the peak of their powers.
  • Luck your way into a Vidal, Pogba, Modric, or Kante before they establish themselves as world-class.

Neither of these strategies is what you’d call easily replicable. And while Liverpool might have the financial muscle to attempt the first strategy, they also have to face the fact that Chelsea, City, and Arsenal will all be looking for central midfielders this summer for sure and Manchester United may be as well depending on what the club does with players like Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini. If Liverpool get into a bidding war with Chelsea or City, they will lose.

They face the same problem defensively. Jurgen Klopp’s best Dortmund teams featured a center back pair of Mats Hummels and pre-injury Nevan Subotic. Both players were quick enough to play a high defensive line and were comfortable on the ball. They also had an excellent understanding which made them a better defensive duo than any pairing either has played in since Subotic’s decline due to injury.

Again, these kinds of center backs exist: Spurs have two in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Chelsea has David Luiz. Looking abroad, Barcelona have Gerard Pique, Bayern has the aforementioned Hummels, Juve has a stable of wonderful defenders. If you’re feeling generous, you might include players like Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny in this group. So yes, these sorts of center backs exist. But they don’t exist in huge numbers which means they aren’t cheap.

There is a further complicating factor here: Center backs can be extremely difficult to evaluate due to the way partnerships influence the way a single defender performs. Shkodran Mustafi and Nicolas Otamendi looked very good together at Valencia; neither have come close to replicating their form there since joining Arsenal and Man City.

Indeed, Liverpool fans might reasonably say that they thought they were getting defenders of that caliber when they signed Mamadou Sakho and Joel Matip, perhaps even Dejan Lovren. After all, Lovren parlayed a strong season marshalling the Southampton defense into a move to a Sky Six club just as Toby Alderweireld did. But none of those defenders have quite hit the level of the world-class players mentioned above, even if Matip in particular has often looked like a fully capable, above average center back who could walk into the first XI at Arsenal or Man City.

This, then, is the trouble for Liverpool: Their needs are clear. You could even say that the way to address those needs is obvious enough. But actually addressing those needs is another matter. If Liverpool could even sign a couple players like Gueye and Koscielny that would be a massive step for the club. But even signing players of that caliber, let alone players like Kante or Alderweireld, is extremely difficult and requires both a lot of money and a fair bit of luck. If the Reds want to take the next step this summer, they’ll need a bit of both.

 

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