Liverpool’s injuries this season have become one of the narratives of a fascinating Premier League campaign, the champions having seen their title defence derailed following a series of misfortune to key personnel.
Options obliterated, the club’s hierarchy moved to make new signings on deadline day with the captures of Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak, and depending on which side of the fence your allegiances are you will have come across contrasting views on the business.
Some have laughed loudly at Liverpool’s perceived panic buying of unheralded names so late in the window, whilst others have praised the board’s bolstering of the squad with limited risk involved.
The truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.
Virgil van Dijk’s season-ending injury in October’s Merseyside derby draw at Everton was viewed as significant given the impact the centre-back has had on Liverpool in recent seasons, though the subsequent losses of Joe Gomez and, more recently, Joel Matip appear to have all but ended the Reds’ hopes of defending the crown they won in record-breaking fashion last season.
Jurgen Klopp’s transfer business during the summer was widely praised with his addressing of key issues in signing Diogo Jota and Kostas Tsimikas, adding much-needed depth to his forward and left-back positions respectively in addition to the marquee arrival of Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara.
No one could have envisaged the bad luck Liverpool would come across with centre-back injuries, but the decision not to sign a replacement for Dejan Lovren following his summer sale to Zenit St Petersburg has come back to bite in some style.
Van Dijk played every minute of the club’s title-winning season and has been an almost ever-present since his arrival from Southampton, but both Gomez and Matip have a history of injuries and heading into the season with just three senior options appeared a risk even without the benefit of hindsight.
The absences have seen Liverpool patch up their backline with a mix of auxiliary midfielders shoe-horned in at centre-back and inexperienced youngsters who are currently not, and may never be, of the required standard.
For all of Nathaniel Phillips’ commitment and willingness to throw his head through a brick wall for the cause, there are unlikely to have been many at Anfield who anticipated a 23-year-old without any top-flight experience would play such a prominent role this season.
Rhys Williams has also done okay on occasion but has looked out of his depth too often, the step-up from National League North football last season to the Champions League unsurprisingly proving difficult to navigate for a teenager thrown to the lions.
Klopp has praised the performances of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson too, the former in particular having adjusted to the new role in fine style, but the absence of the two in Liverpool’s engine room for much of the season has seen a midfield famed for its tenacity and running power lose its drive.
It has resulted in some insipid performances as the Reds have failed to break down the defences of struggling Newcastle, Fulham and West Brom, whilst the aura of invincibility at Anfield has gone following back-to-back home losses to Burnley and Brighton.
All of which leads us on to Liverpool’s deadline day dealings, an act of necessity given the predictability of Matip suffering yet another injury issue.
The deal for Preston North End’s Ben Davies came virtually out of nowhere, and whilst the secrecy of the deal is not overly unusual for Liverpool’s recruitment team the profile of the target most certainly is.
Davies has won plenty of plaudits for his performances in the Championship and appeared close to a summer move to Celtic, only for Liverpool to gazump the Scottish champions and secure his signing for an initial fee of £500,000.
The signing of a player with clubs such as York, Tranmere and Southport on his CV seems a throwback to the bygone eras of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, far from the modern game where almost every player can be instantly profiled via the internet.
Liverpool’s recruitment team have rarely faltered in recent seasons and there are facets to Davies’ game which make him appear well-suited to the Reds, the 25-year-old’s confidence in possession and ability to play long passes from deep will provide an option Klopp’s side have missed since Van Dijk’s season was curtailed.
For all the demands for clever inter-changes, sometimes going back to front quickly and accurately can be the most devastating form of attack.
The fee makes the deal minimal risk and ensures that even should Davies never kick a ball in Liverpool colours, he’ll likely be sold on for a profit with the defender having had no shortage of suitors elsewhere as his contract ran down at Deepdale.
The second deal, however, is the one that represents the most intrigue with Ozan Kabak signing on a loan deal until the end of the season, a move including an option to buy for an initial £18m.
Kabak has been on the club’s radar for some time and was linked with a €35m move to Merseyside only last summer, whilst AC Milan and Manchester United are amongst the clubs to have monitored a player named as the Bundesliga’s best young talent in 2018/19.
After impressing at Stuttgart the 20-year-old has endured a difficult period since moving to Bundesliga rivals Schalke, though a club in turmoil both on and off the pitch is hardly the best environment for a youthful player to develop.
There are many who feel Liverpool can now provide Kabak with that platform and despite standing just 6ft 1 the centre-back is a bull of a defender, dominant aerially and possessing the physical profile to thrive in the Premier League.
A position alongside makeshift defender Fabinho could bring the best out of his talents, the Brazilian a calming influence and constant communicator in his role organising the backline in Van Dijk’s absence.
Questions will be asked regarding his temperament and character, having been banned for five Bundesliga games this season after spitting at an opponent, an act he has since claimed was accidental.
His loan with an option, not an obligation, to buy removes virtually all risk. If he flourishes the deal can be made permanent for a relatively modest fee, and if he struggles Liverpool can assess the summer market.
The €42m release clause of RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano becomes active this summer and Europe’s leading clubs, including the Reds, are reportedly clambering for his signature, the German side unwilling to sanction his sale this winter given their hopes of winning the Bundesliga and an impending Champions League date with Liverpool of all sides.
Make no mistake, if Liverpool had the financial resources available it appears unlikely either Davies or Kabak would have made their way to Anfield this winter, but there is undoubtedly value to be found in both deals and no inherent sense of risk.
The defensive duo provide much-needed bodies and both deals have potential upside, though are unlikely to turn Liverpool’s title hopes around as the Manchester City juggernaut prepares to roll into Anfield this weekend.
Acts of deadline day desperation or clever cut-price moves, the truth remains somewhat muddied in the waters and perhaps only time will truly tell.
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