When the 2022-23 Premier League season began, the FiveThirtyEight Club Soccer Predictions model gave Liverpool the second-best chance of winning the title. More than five months and 20 game weeks later, however, the Reds sit ninth in the table, behind the likes of Brentford, newly promoted Fulham and Brighton & Hove Albion, and the model gives them less than a 1 per cent chance for inner glory.
At the same time last season, Liverpool were in third place, nine points behind eventual champions Manchester City, but with a game in hand. The pattern favored City then – and eventually vindicated – but Liverpool played near-perfect football from that point forward, boosted by the signing of former Porto striker and Colombia superstar Luis Díaz in the winter transfer window. Díaz’s signing was, overall, one of the biggest coups in Premier League winter signing history: his expected non-penalty goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes played (npxG+xAG/90) ranked at a tie for ninth (with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez) among players with at least 11 starts.
Of course, the Reds ultimately failed miserably in their quest for a record 20th Premier League title – thanks to an Aston Villa collapse – but their excellent winter transfer business gave them the chance of a shot.
The same cannot be said this season, even if they recently lured Dutch striker Cody Gakpo – one of Europe’s most exciting young attacking talents and one of the main stars of the 2022 World Cup – away from PSV Eindhoven. As good as Gakpo is now (and however world-class it eventually becomes), it’s too little, too late. Furthermore, Liverpool’s problems are not about their forward line – they lie (mostly) with their midfield (and their inability to keep opponents from scoring first).
To put it simply, Liverpool’s midfield is a mess. It’s a miserable combination of being too old and too hurt. Club captain Jordan Henderson – whose presence at Liverpool has been both filled (unfairly) and decorated – was probably never meant to play as many minutes as he has in his 32-year-old season. The same goes for the maestro Thiago Alcántara and the destroyer Fabinho, who are both on the wrong side of the 29.
A year ago, those three made up one of the best midfields in world football – a combination that (more or less) brought Liverpool to the brink of an unprecedented quadruple. As such, they each played more than 2,300 minutes in 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 start of the season, but it’s also somewhat unbelievable to think that he planned to play his elder statesmen in midfield as much as he was 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 other than bringing him back.
Signing a midfielder during the transfer window (which ends on January 31) would make sense – perhaps more sense than signing a striker, even though Díaz and fellow striker Diogo Jota are out with long-term injuries of their own – but until at this point, Liverpool have not dipped their toes into the market to improve their fortunes. And it may be that Liverpool can’t be fixed (at least not this season). When a team relies on a strong press – that is, when a team relies on defending up front (Díaz and Jota are two fantastic pressing forwards, but have been out for months) – and the press is broken, this makes midfield and defensive work much more difficult.
So is Liverpool’s season over? Not exactly. The league title is almost certainly untouchable, and the same can be said for a top-four finish, which would be borderline financially disastrous – Champions League qualification equates to tens of millions of dollars that clubs can they use them to reinvest in the team and facilities. , making them more attractive for potential future signatures. But the Reds are still alive in the FA Cup and Champions League. Klopp’s sides have historically been monsters in knockout tournaments – Liverpool have reached the final in three of their last 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 diminishing by the day.
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