Have Liverpool given up on this season? Arsenal and Chelsea pursue midfield reinforcements, but the Reds still need them most
Jurgen Klopp insists Liverpool will not “fall apart” despite their FA Cup exit at the hands of Brighton, but are the Reds ready to give up on the idea of salvaging something from this most testing of seasons?
The fact that transfer deadline day looks like being a quiet one at Anfield - at least in terms of incomings - would appear to suggest so.
While Arsenal and Chelsea pursue big-money deals for midfielders, the Reds are prepared to sit on their hands and disappoint their fans, ready to wait until the summer to begin the belated, and clearly much-needed, overhaul of Klopp’s squad.
They’re banking on Jude Bellingham, in other words, with the Borussia Dortmund star still very much top of the agenda and very much seen as the man to lead the club’s next great team. Whether Liverpool can convince the 19-year-old, who is also wanted by Real Madrid and Manchester City, to choose them, however, is another matter entirely.
The Bellingham obsession, although understandable given the England international’s incredible talent and potential, has meant no midfield reinforcements at Anfield this month, with Liverpool concluding their ‘January’ business with the signing of forward Cody Gakpo from PSV Eindhoven on December 28.
There have been plenty of rumours of course, with just about every midfielder with two legs and a half-decent agent linked with a move to Merseyside. The likes of Sofyan Amrabat, Declan Rice, Sander Berge, Joao Palhinha and Teun Koopmeiners have all been mentioned and then swiftly dismissed by sources close to the club.
So too, of course, have Moises Caicedo and Enzo Fernandez, players who certainly fit the bill in terms of profile, and who have plenty of admirers within the club. It must jar with Reds fans, then, to think that not only will neither player be heading to Liverpool, but that both of them could end up lining up against Klopp’s side for Premier League rivals before the end of the season.
Caicedo is wanted by Arsenal, and has made public his desire to move to the Emirates Stadium from Brighton, while Chelsea are hoping to conclude a deal worth €120 million (£106m/$131m) for Benfica’s Fernandez on deadline day, as the Londoners aim to continue their quite remarkable spending spree.
In the meantime, Liverpool look set to persist with what midfield options they have; namely, an 18-year-old rookie anchoring, a player who is out of contract in four months and has started one Premier League game all season next to him, and an underwhelming assortment of the out-of-form, the ageing, the young and the unsuitable besides.
Hardly the type of cast to turn doubters into believers again, is it? Liverpool’s problems in the centre of the park have been clear for months, yet they continue to resist the urge to solve them through spending.
Aside from Stefan Bajcetic, who was signed as a youth player from Celta Vigo two years ago, their only permanent, senior midfield signing since the summer of 2018 has been Thiago Alcantara. They did loan Arthur Melo from Juventus at the end of August, of course, but the Brazilian managed only 13 minutes of competitive football before tearing a thigh muscle in October, and is still at least a fortnight away from a return to full training.
And so what you have now is a group of players that are no longer fit for purpose, certainly not for a team that expects and demands to be challenging for every major trophy, as it has for the past five years. You might reasonably expect Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to improve after poor runs and for Bajcetic, Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones to continue developing, but what more can Klopp squeeze out of a 37-year-old James Milner? Are Liverpool really expecting Thiago, a player with a history of injury issues, to play every game at 32? And if Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are the answer, then why do neither of them have a new contract offer on the table?
Klopp at the moment looks like a man in a dark room searching for the light switch. He speaks of small steps and slight improvements - things like running, closing down opponents and putting in a tackle - and insists there is no quit in either him or his team. “There is no other way than to fight through,” he said after Sunday’s cup loss at the Amex, “and that is what we will do.”
There is, however, a growing suspicion that Liverpool are starting to view this season as a write-off already, that even they believe the gap to fourth place is too big now. Ten points with 19 games left is not impossible to claw back, for a team playing well, but for one playing like Liverpool are? It may as well be 58 points.
The Champions League, in which they face a last-16 tie against old foes Real Madrid, represents their last shot at glory, but even the optimists are starting to worry about that one. After all, the Reds couldn’t beat Carlo Ancelotti’s side when they were at their best last May, why would they be able to do so now, at their worst?
Stranger things have happened, of course - remember 2005? - and Real themselves have hardly been tearing it up this season, but it is hard to have faith in this Liverpool team at the moment. Every game looks like a banana skin, every performance delivered as if under duress. Nothing looks comfortable, home or away. Nobody is in form.
And so they limp on. To Wolves on Saturday, and into a Merseyside derby against Sean Dyche’s Everton nine days later.
And they do so without the morale-boost of a deadline-day signing, a bit of reinforcement for a midfield that is crying out for it and has been for some time. No Caicedo, no Fernandez. Not even an Arthur on this occasion, unless something changes in the next few hours.
It may well prove their undoing, their January reluctance the difference between success and failure come the end of the season.
Probably not, though. One suspects that that ship has already sailed, that nothing can save this campaign now, and that Klopp and Co. have already accepted that.
Bellingham 2023 it is, then. God help them if that one doesn’t come off!