This is the sixth and final piece in a series assessing Premier League teams and their transfer priorities for the summer. Read more on Arsenal and its progression under Mikel Arteta, how Tottenham must rebuild on a budget under Jose Mourinho, why Chelsea has the look of a team going all in, where Manchester United needs to develop significant depth and who can fit Manchester City's specific stylistic needs.
Until February, this was a season of extraordinary brilliance from Liverpool. It added the Club World Cup title to its trophy cabinet, and for a time through the late fall and winter played some of the best football ever seen in the Premier League.
Its end to the season was rather less impressive: four defeats in six games before play was suspended that saw it go out of the Champions League and the FA Cup and lose its unbeaten league record (at Watford, of all places); then five wins in nine to round the season off, meaning it missed out on 100 points and the single-season record tally. Not that many in Liverpool seemed to care: winning the title after 30 years was all that mattered–and doing so with an 18-point gap over Manchester City and a 33-point gap over Man United and Chelsea certainly requires no further credentials.
But what those final games of the season showed was just how precarious brilliance can be. A side only has to lose a fraction of its focus for the aura of invincibility to slip. After two almost impeccable seasons, as Manchester City showed in this campaign, there are no guarantees that form can just be maintained. When Liverpool didn’t make any senior outfield signings last summer, it seemed like a reasonable move given how well-balanced and coherent the squad was and given that none of the regular starters were over 30. But however solid things still look, regeneration has to begin sometime.
That is easier said than done. The case of Takumi Minamino, signed from Salzburg in January, demonstrates how difficult rejuvenation can be. He is 25. He is not a young prospect to be slowly developed. He is approaching his peak. He was exceptional for Salzburg not only in the Austrian Bundesliga but also in the Champions League. And yet the excellence, not only individually but as a unit, of Liverpool's established front three has meant he has only started two league games since his arrival.
Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are all 28. They make up as good of an attacking unit as has probably ever played in the Premier League. But how long can you leave them together? A year more? Two years? At some point one or more of them will have to be replaced, and the danger when they are all the same age is that they all wear out at the same time. So exceptional as they are, it probably is necessary for Minamino, or another forward, to get more playing time next season, to start to form new relationships and to allow Salah, Firmino and Mane to be rested every now and again.
But the forward line is a microcosm of a wider issue. This is not an old squad in any sense–only Jordan Henderson of a putative first XI is 30 (although James Milner is 34)–but it is one that is near or possibly at its peak. There are a lot of players in their late 20s, which in one sense is a good thing: one of the reasons they have hit such heights is that they have all peaked together. And there are good younger players in the squad, from the 23-year-old Joe Gomez to the 19-year-old Curtis Jones. The issue is integration.
Center back depth
The one area where Liverpool’s squad does perhaps look deficient is in central defense. Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, of course, are all fine players, but if two of them were unavailable, there was a clear drop-off. Dejan Lovren has moved to Zenit Saint Petersburg, freeing up a space in the squad. Sevilla’s Diego Carlos is reportedly a target, although he is also believed to be of interest to Manchester City, as well. It’s been a reported, meanwhile, that a $12 million bid has already been made for Real Betis’s Aissa Mandi, a right back who can also operate in the center.
It’s been a couple of weeks now since reports first emerged linking Liverpool with Thiago Alcantara, who has told Bayern he wants to leave. He has the benefit of being used to a pressing game, and he would add a more cerebral passing aspect to a Liverpool midfield that remains focused on energy. That, perhaps, indicates a willingness of Jurgen Klopp’s part to begin to evolve or at least diversify the playing style.
As Milner ages, it’s not reasonable to expect him to provide cover in midfield and both fullback positions. Left back is a particular issue given the lack of other cover for Andy Robertson, which perhaps explains the link with Olympiakos’s 24-year-old Konstantinos Tsimikas, who is believed to be available for around $9 million.