In this series, we will analyse teams, identify
problem areas, and suggest solutions in the form of incoming players. We won’t follow
gossip, rumours or conjecture, we don’t have inside information, and we’re not considering
the brand value of players. Purely, their on-field performance, and their suitability
for the team in question. Today’s team is Liverpool. Welcome to sensible
transfers. Liverpool’s recruitment policy is one of
the most effective in Europe. Despite having access to the vast revenues that come with
being a top Premier League club, they have retained a hunger for finding value in the
transfer market. This helped them to push Manchester City close domestically last season
whilst also triumphing on the continent, winning the Champions League. They don’t need a
major revamp this summer, though there are a couple of areas they would wise to strengthen.
Liverpool are an extremely potent attacking force. Not only are they productive with organised
possession, but they are highly effective in transitions. When they lose the ball, they
press to win it back instantly. And, when they regain the ball, they counter-attack
ruthlessly. These qualities enabled them to obtain the second-highest Premier League totals
in both actual and expected goals last season. While Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane get most
of the attention for their finishing prowess, Roberto Firmino is the central hub around
which the team’s front three is built. The Brazilian, signed in 2015 as a promising attacking
midfielder, has essentially forged his own unique role within Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3
system. His position is anything but fixed: indeed,
he moves into areas that most out-and-out number nines do not. He regularly drops as
deep as the middle third to link attacking moves, and is adept at finding pockets of
space between the lines or in the channels to create passing lanes for Liverpool to progress
the ball through. His involvement in building attacks is underlined by the fact that, of
all the Premier League’s central attacking players, only Eden Hazard of Chelsea averaged
more passes in 2018/19. While he drops deep, Salah and Mane look to
run in behind opposition defences. These opposite movements cause problems as centre-backs cannot
follow Firmino without gaps opening up for Liverpool’s wide forwards to run into. And,
when he gets on the ball, Firmino has the ingenuity and precision to put his teammates
through on goal. The 27-year-old can finish chances himself,
and he also plays a vital part in Klopp’s pressing strategy, pressuring opposition centre-backs
whilst angling his runs intelligently and using cover shadows to block forward passes
into central areas. While Firmino’s tactical importance to Liverpool’s
all-round play is obvious, the club does not have a natural alternative in his absence.
Daniel Sturridge, who occasionally filled in last season, has been released, while Divock
Origi is a completely different type of forward. Finding potential alternates for this role
is not simple as few clubs in Europe’s top five leagues consistently make use of a false
nine type up front. However, through use of data, we can look for players who could potentially
do the job. The areas we focused on were chance creation, pass completion, finishing ability,
and pressing involvement. One player that captured our attention was
Hertha Berlin’s Ondrej Duda. An attacking midfielder who connects attacks well, he showed
last season that he can finish too, scoring 11 goals in 32 Bundesliga appearances. His
defensive numbers are excellent and only stand out further considering he doesn’t play
for an aggressive pressing side. However, his 60.7 per cent accuracy when passing into
the final third is a concern. Another option would be Joaquin Correa. The
Argentine grew into his debut season with Lazio, showing an ability to combine effectively
with teammates in advanced areas, completing an impressive 89 per cent of his passes to
the final third. He also averaged three shots per game and demonstrated an eye for a subtle
through pass, completing 0.6 of them per 90 minutes. However, his defensive numbers suggest
he wouldn’t be naturally suited to fulfilling the pressing aspects of the Firmino role.
Kai Havertz is perhaps the best fit in a purely positional sense – he was deployed as a
false nine by Leverkusen on multiple occasions last term. The German is also the most prolific
finisher we could find. He averages 2.5 shots at an exceptional rate of accuracy, hitting
the target 50.6 per cent of the time. This explains why he scores 0.5 goals per 90 minutes
despite rarely being utilised as an out-and-out striker. Havertz also averages more passes
and more passes to the final third than Firmino, not to mention slightly more dribbles and
similar defensive stats. However, our pick for this role is Nabil Fekir.
The Frenchman was heavily linked with a move to Liverpool last season, and while the transfer
didn’t transpire, it’s easy to see why the club were interested in him. An attacking
midfielder who can also operate in more advanced positions, he averages more passes to the
final third than any player analysed here, while his accuracy of 82.8 per cent is solid.
He also averages 3.8 shots per 90 minutes and hits the target 47.8 per cent of the time
– in both cases, his numbers are higher than Firmino’s.
Fekir is a playmaker who thrives in central areas, can finish as well as create chances,
and – with 6.9 defensive duels, 2 interceptions and 1.8 opposition half ball recoveries – he
isn’t afraid to get involved in pressing. Considering all of this, as well as the recent
reports suggesting Lyon are willing to let him leave for a reduced transfer fee of around
£30 million, and Liverpool would be within reason not only to resurrect their interest
in him, but to make him their Firmino alternate. While Klopp’s favoured system does not make
use of a natural number nine, Liverpool may want to consider signing one this summer.
Whenever their primary approach doesn’t work, they tend to look towards Origi as an
attacking troublemaker late in games, utilising his aerial ability, nose for goal and capacity
for making something from nothing in the final third. The Belgian is a good squad option,
but there are better players out there that could perform the same function.
One possible option is Dodi Lukebakio. The 21-year-old had his best scoring season yet
in 2018/19, averaging 0.4 goals per 90 minutes on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf. While a former
winger, he clearly knows how to find the net, averaging 2.5 shots at an excellent accuracy
rate of 55.2 per cent. Aerially he has similar numbers to Origi, though he is better on the
ground, succeeding with 10 per cent more of his attempted dribbles.
Another, more establish option would be Sebastien Haller. The 25-year-old enjoyed another positive
season at Frankfurt, averaging 0.6 goals per 90 minutes. Not only does he hit the target
with 56.3 per cent of his shots, but he is powerful in the air, winning 6.9 aerial duels
per 90 at a success rate of 48.9 per cent. This would be a good outlet for Liverpool
late on in games, as they can play long or fire crosses towards him should opposition
defences resist their intense pressing and counter-attacking game. However, Haller would
likely be an expensive target, and it wouldn’t make sense to spend big on a player that doesn’t
fit Klopp’s first-choice system. Our pick for this position, therefore, is
Wout Weghorst. Like Haller, Weghorst is aerially dominant,
winning 44.2 per cent of his aerial duels. However, he doesn’t quite have the same
reputation, so may not cost quite as much as his French counterpart. He averages 1.9
shots and 0.5 goals per 90 minutes, though his most eye-catching finishing stat regards
his accuracy – he finds the target with 58.7 per cent of his shots. On top of that,
he is fairly quick for a player standing at 6ft 6ins, and is capable of pressing the opposition,
as his 3.8 defensive duels, 2.2 interceptions and 1.8 opposition-half ball recoveries on
average can confirm. Liverpool have a strong squad, but with a
genuine alternate to Firmino and a different type of striker to use in games where they
require tactical change to break down defences, they could be even more potent going forward
next season. Here is what our team would look like.
Since Klopp arrived at Anfield, 75% of Liverpool’s signings have been between the age of 23 and
26, while few involved an excessive financial outlay by modern Premier League standards.
Fekir and Weghorst, who suit the club’s model on and off the pitch, would be sensible
transfers.

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Dennis Veasley

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