Soccer

Liverpool must make January transfer u-turn as Michael Edwards faces Man City problem

Having lost both of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez to long-term knee injuries in less than a month, Liverpool’s Premier League title credentials are firmly under the microscope. The Reds, England’s defending champions, were already set for a real test after Van Dijk ruptured ligaments against Everton in October and had to undergo surgery – but now have further problems to contend with.

Since then, Gomez has played every game in the Premier League and the Champions League and marshalled lesser experienced players such as Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams through matches.

But in light of Gomez’s knee surgery – which will sideline him for the foreseeable future – Liverpool are without the two centre-halves who helped them win the league for the first time in 30 years last season, and possibly even for the rest of the campaign.

Naturally, attention has turned to the January transfer window already for Liverpool supporters – but not for their board, according to reports.

The Athletic say Liverpool – despite links to the likes of RB Leipzig centre-back Dayot Upamecano and Bayern Munich’s David Alaba – are not planning on any midseason recruits.

Instead, the Reds’ decision-makers are firmly fixed on their plans for the summer, despite Joel Matip being their only fit senior centre-back at the minute.

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Matip, however, has desperately struggled for fitness over the past year. He has not started back-to-back Premier League matches in 14 months and has consistently picked up niggles at Anfield.

Losing him leaves Liverpool down to defensive midfielder Fabinho and youngsters Phillips and Williams, with Billy Koumetio only 17 and Sepp van den Berg well down the pecking order.

Captain Jordan Henderson, midfielder Gini Wijnaldum and left-back Andy Robertson have mentioned as other options but at best they should be ‘break glass in case of emergency’ considerations.

The Athletic have also claimed that Liverpool have identified Upamecano as their top target to bolster their options at the back. The Leipzig ace – also liked by Manchester United – will be available for below £40million thanks to a release clause in his contract active in the summer of 2021.

That then, appears to indicate Liverpool are plotting a bid for Upamecano next year. But why not try for the Frenchman sooner?

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Liverpool, of course, have changed their plans previously with all the noises suggesting they had no plans to buy a goalkeeper before they spent £67million on Alisson Becker.

The Merseyside outfit are fond of keeping deals on the downlow, with the arrival of Diogo Jota from Wolves a massive – and sudden – surprise in the summer. He has been a huge hit since.

But if Liverpool truly are hesitating over a move for a centre-back in the winter window, they are taking a gigantic gamble.

The Premier League champions are said to be confident in the ability of the likes of Williams, 19, and 23-year-old Phillips. As they should be, on the basis of their performances this season. But while the duo have fared well thus far, how they perform in longer stretches in the first team remains to be seen.

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Their inexperience at elite level – with Phillips having made just 24 first-team appearances in his career despite being 23, the same age as Gomez who has enjoyed 145 senior outings – means a greater number of mistakes are inevitable.

Even Van Dijk and Gomez have shown this season they are not infallible to error and asking Phillips and Williams to play up to the level of a title-winning team on a consistent basis is a major ask, should Matip’s body once again betray him.

Manchester City paid for not replacing Aymeric Laporte last season, despite Pep Guardiola having the option to do so in January, and ended up 18 points behind Liverpool come the final game in July.

They have since added Ruben Dias to their team from Benfica and while City are still not quite the near-unbeatable side they were in 2017-18 and 2018-19, the pairing of Laporte and Dias gives them a strong centre-back partnership that will repel far more forward lines than last season.

In Dias’ seven appearances across all competitions, City have kept three clean sheets and conceded just four goals – never conceding more than once in a game, despite facing Leeds United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Portuguese champions Porto and Marseille, Ligue 1’s runners up last year.

The duo of Dias and Laporte – who is as good as any centre-back in Europe after Van Dijk – were impressive in City’s recent Etihad draw with Liverpool, which showed the Citizens are still the biggest threat to Klopp and co for the title.

Chelsea and Tottenham are also possible challengers but City, with an improved defence and a litany of high-quality attackers still searching for their rhythm and best form, are the strongest of the contenders to the throne.

And so Liverpool must learn from their rival’s mistakes. Sporting director Michael Edwards and Klopp are renowned for their long-term planning and their refusal to make short-term panic buys but this is the worst injury crisis the pair have encountered in their time together at the club, given how long Gomez and Van Dijk will be out for.

Whether it is Alaba, Upamecano, Schalke’s Ozan Kabak or another player, they simply must beef up their numbers at the back if they are to realise their ambitions of back-to-back titles and at least having a better go at success in Europe than they did last term, if not winning the Champions League again.

On paper, their squad was capable of doing so before injuries struck. But adding fresh talent at the back, as difficult as that may be in January, would breathe fresh life into such prospects once more.

Opting against signing a new defender in January leaves them needing great fortune with the likes of Matip and Fabinho in a season which will test the fitness of players like no other. That Liverpool would be willing to put their title prospects on the line in the face of such risk would be a hugely surprising decision. 

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