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 odds of winning the title. More than five months and 20 matchweeks later, however, the Reds sit ninth in the table, behind minnows like Brentford, newly promoted Fulham, and Brighton & Hove Albion, and the model gives them a less than 1 percent chance of domestic glory.

At the same time last season, Liverpool sat in third, nine points behind eventual champions Manchester City, but with a game in hand. The model favored City then — and was eventually vindicated — but Liverpool played nearly flawless soccer from that point forward, buoyed by the signing of former Porto forward and Colombia national team superstar Luis Díaz during the winter transfer window. The Díaz signing was, by and large, one of the great masterstrokes in the history of Premier League winter signings: His non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes played (npxG+xAG/90) ranked in a tie for ninth ( with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez) among players with at least 11 starts.

Of course, the Reds ultimately fell agonizingly short in their pursuit of a record-tying 20th English top-flight title — thanks to an Aston Villa collapse — but their brilliant winter transfer business gave them a puncher’s chance.

The same can’t be said this season, even if they did recently lure Dutch forward Cody Gakpo — one of Europe’s most exciting young attacking talents, and one of the breakout stars of the 2022 World Cup — away from PSV Eindhoven. As good as Gakpo is now (and as world-class as he may eventually become), it’s far too little, far too late. Besides, Liverpool’s issues don’t lie with its forward line — they lie (mostly) with its midfield (and an inability to keep opponents from scoring first).

To put it lightly, Liverpool’s midfield is a mess. It is a miserable combination of being too old and too injured. Club captain Jordan Henderson — whose presence at Liverpool has been simultaneously fraught (unfairly) and decorated — was probably never meant to play as many minutes as he has in his age-32 season. The same goes for maestro Thiago Alcántara and destroyer Fabinho, both of whom are on the wrong side of 29.

A year ago, those three comprised one of the best midfields in world soccer — a combination that (more or less) brought Liverpool to the precipice of an unprecedented quadruple. As such, they each played more than 2,300 minutes across all competitions, which is a lot of minutes for any player, let alone players in (or approaching) their 30s. It’s impossible to know what manager Jürgen Klopp was thinking at the beginning of the season, but it’s also somewhat unbelievable to think he planned to play his midfield elder statesmen as much as he’s been forced to this season. However, long-term injuries to Curtis Jones, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and loanee Arthur have given Klopp precious few options but to run it back.

Signing a midfielder during the transfer window (which ends Jan. 31) would make sense — probably more sense than signing a forward, even as Díaz and fellow forward Diogo Jota are sidelined with long-term injuries of their own — but to this point, Liverpool hasn’t dipped its toes into the market to improve its fortunes. And it might just be that Liverpool can’t be fixed (at least not this season). When a team relies on a strong press — which is to say, when a team relies on defending from the front (Díaz and Jota are two fantastic pressing forwards, but have been out for months) — and the press is broken, it makes the midfield’s job, and the job of the back line, a lot harder.

So, is Liverpool’s season over? Not exactly. The league title is almost certainly out of touch, and the same can be said for a top-4 finish, which would be borderline catastrophic financially — Champions League qualification equals tens of millions of dollars that clubs can use to reinvest in the squad 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 teams have historically been monsters in knockout tournaments — Liverpool has reached the final in three of the past five Champions League campaigns, winning one, and won the FA Cup last season — so silverware is still a possibility. But without signing a midfielder (or two, or three), that possibility is dwindling by the day.

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