Like on so many other occasions this summer, Liverpool’s week started with a hint of trepidation.
Once suggestions of Mohamed Salah leaving for Saudi Arabia were squashed by the Egyptian’s agent, back came the longer-lasting concerns just hours later.
What is going on in midfield? Why has a deal still not been agreed for Southampton’s Romeo Lavia? Are there underlying issues in defence? And after dropping off the pace last season after years of going head-to-head with Manchester City in the title race to finish fifth, will this one be any better?
The summer months have not yet been as exciting and transformative as expected, since Liverpool let go of experienced players including James Milner, Roberto Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and, more recently, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho.
Younger and fresher replacements in Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai have started the rebuilding process but the holding-midfield gap still needs to be filled to tighten things up the back end of the team.
With Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago still out injured, the only options available to play that role ahead of the season opener away to Chelsea on Sunday are Mac Allister and Curtis Jones. Both have been deployed in deeper areas this pre-season but are usually more suited to playing further up the pitch.
As Liverpool’s third attempt to sign Lavia was rejected yesterday (Monday), the shortage in midfield is still an issue with the season starting in five days.
The sticking point remains the transfer fee.
Liverpool have offered Southampton around £46million ($58.7m) for Lavia, their top target, but the now Championship club are digging in their heels — in the same way as they are with other players following last season’s relegation — and standing by their £50m valuation.
Supporters, who packed out north-west neighbours Preston North End’s stadium, Deepdale, on Monday night for the 3-1 win over SV Darmstadt of the German Bundesliga in the final warm-up game for 2023-24, had anticipated that by now the squad would be significantly stronger than it was last season.
Long-time Liverpool defender turned top TV pundit Jamie Carragher didn’t hold back in his assessment of the situation, tweeting: “This is embarrassing. Liverpool for years now have got deals done quickly with no fuss. If you don’t think he (Lavia) is worth 50M move on, if you really want him, pay it.”
This is embarrassing.
Liverpool for years now have got deals done quickly with no fuss.
If you don’t think he’s worth 50M move on, if you really want him pay it.
Also not sure why LFC aren’t in for Caicedo, yes it’s a lot of money but Liverpool got big money for JH/FAB 🤷♂️ https://t.co/nNP05udQP8
— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) August 7, 2023
Carragher went on to ask why Liverpool were not in the race for Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder Moises Caicedo, a player Chelsea have made several bids for.
Again, the answer lies in the transfer fee. Brighton want £100million for Caicedo and Liverpool so far haven’t been willing to pay even half that for Lavia. The pursuit, therefore, goes on.
Brazilian club Fluminese’s 22-year-old midfielder, Andre, is another option and understood to be still under consideration.
How disruptive this wait to fill a key position might be will only be known once the Premier League gets underway, with Liverpool entertaining hopes of returning to the top four after missing out last term for the first time since 2015-16 — the year they sacked Brendan Rodgers in the October and brought in Klopp.
With Klopp changing the style of play at the back end of last season and now favouring a 3-box-3 formation, there’s a need to have players in the middle of the pitch who can recover quickly when a move breaks down.
It’s why Lavia, a full Belgium international already at age 19, appeals. His pace is recognised as a key trait in his game and a crucial component of what is needed to play the holding role of this Liverpool team.
With a new system that sees right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold move into midfield when Liverpool have possession, the defence has often been left exposed on the counter-attack, and notably that has continued during this pre-season period.
There were warning signs in the 4-3 defeat to serial Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich in Singapore last week and even Darmstadt, newly promoted to the top tier of German football, scored in a similar way last night. One simple ball over the top split open a defence that has conceded 11 goals in five pre-season games against mixed opposition over the past three weeks.
Mac Allister, who was tasked with playing on the left side of holding midfield, showed positive signs when in possession. He won the ball back in dangerous positions and moved it around nicely. Yet like Jones, who was chosen to play in the position against Bayern, he may be supremely talented but he’s not naturally suited to the role, having only played it occasionally for Brighton.
So Klopp is edging closer towards creating a solution rather than starting with a natural replacement for Fabinho.
Premier League opposition will be a much tougher test than Darmstadt, who were fortunate not to be on the end of a hammering in Preston. Liverpool ran all over them without much fuss and, apart from the one mistake which lead to the goal, were largely in control.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) August 7, 2023
One advantage of playing Mac Allister in a deeper role on the left was that it allowed Klopp to squeeze all of Szoboszlai, Cody Gakpo, Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz and Salah into the team.
Between them those five created havoc, and there’s little doubt of the danger Liverpool now possess in attacking areas. The front line is a dream, but behind them issues remain.
After a summer of change, it’s nothing new.
The hope is that by Sunday afternoon, after Liverpool have completed their trip south to Stamford Bridge, some of the questions that hang over this side will be answered.
The key dilemma is what happens in central midfield — and it’s not easy to predict that.
(Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)