With only days remaining in the summer transfer window, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for wondering if the club has done enough to solve its problems. So far, it stands at seven senior players out and three in as Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai and Wataru Endo comprise the rebuild.
Losing Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and, on loan, Fabio Carvalho, made bolstering the middle of the park an essential task.
But now, as the deadline approaches, Jurgen Klopp and the club’s recruitment staff should make another area of the pitch their priority – as signing a new centre-back is more important than a fourth midfielder.
Ideally, it will be both. Reports suggest that a “multi-functional” midfielder is still on the agenda, with the likes of OGC Nice’s Khephren Thuram, Bayern Munich’s Ryan Gravenberch and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Manu Kone obvious candidates.
However, those familiar with Klopp’s squad-building – and owners Fenway Sports Group’s risk-averse spending – will be aware that a smaller group with a reliable, versatile core is often the manager’s preference.
In Mac Allister, Szoboszlai, Endo, Thiago, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Stefan Bajcetic, Liverpool have seven midfielders for three positions – plus the option of dropping Cody Gakpo deeper as has been the case already this season.
All of those players will be afforded considerable game time over the course of the campaign, and Klopp can be assured that none will be left feeling like spare parts come May.
When it comes to his centre-back ranks, though, there is a clear shortage.
To explain this requires a brief summary of Liverpool’s new setup: though a 4-3-3 from kickoff, the hybrid role of Trent Alexander-Arnold means it becomes a 3-4-3 in possession, with the left-back becoming a third centre-back.
So when Alexander-Arnold pushes into midfield as is his remit, Andy Robertson moves alongside Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate to form a three-man unit.
The flaws of this approach are hotly debated, but in plain terms, Liverpool now operate with three centre-backs – and unlike the midfield, where seven (or even eight) goes into three, Klopp only has five recognised centre-back options to cover three positions.
Van Dijk and Konate are the first-choice pairing; Robertson is first choice in the second hybrid role of left-back and centre-back; and Joel Matip and Joe Gomez are deputies for the central positions.
As recent seasons have taught us, Liverpool are one, frustratingly likely, injury away from a less-than-desirable defensive line.
Matip has already admitted that he “needs to adapt” to the new system, as he found when filling in for Konate that “the right-back will not be there in the first moment.” Meanwhile Gomez, who to many resembles a useful option in Robertson’s role, was overlooked entirely throughout pre-season, instead filling in for Alexander-Arnold as an orthodox right-back. Kostas Tsimikas has long served as backup left-back, but a move to centre-back is doubtful.
Both Gomez and Matip are capable top-level centre-backs, but there are doubts over whether they fit into Klopp’s new setup – whether raised by supporters or, in his selection, the manager himself.
If Konate picks up a long-term injury, then, Liverpool will require Matip to step in alongside Van Dijk. But as shown during pre-season, the 32-year-old Matip’s lack of pace can be exposed repeatedly as Konate is effectively needed to cover both centre-back and right-back in the defensive phase.
Having another, more suitable option candidate would relieve this concern, while retaining Matip and Gomez as useful squad players to allow Klopp to shuffle his pack in a season when Liverpool will enter the Europa League for the first time since 2015/16.
While this would suggest that Liverpool should be targeting another right-sided centre-back, this season runs the risk of an elephant entering the room in the shape of Robertson on the opposite side.
Widely considered one of the world’s best left-backs at his peak, Robertson is now nearing his 30th birthday, and though still a formidable presence going forward, the minutes in his legs looked to have taken their toll of late. Now, the Scotland captain is tasked with performing a new role but appears caught in two minds as to whether to stay in defence or barrel forward, as usual, into attack.
Unlike Konate on the opposite side, Robertson does not possess the dominant physicality to cover the wide spaces in a three-man unit, and though the hope is that he can eventually adjust, the early signs are that he is not a long-term solution at centre-back.
It certainly raises the question of whether the shift in system is worth diluting Robertson’s natural quality as a full-back, but as it stands, the 3-4-3 seems set to stay.
So, then, the priority may well become signing a more suitable candidate as centre-back – a left-sided Konate clone, if you will. The issue there, of course, is that it may prove much harder in practice than on paper.
Levi Colwill was the perfect candidate, only to commit his long-term future to Chelsea with a new six-year contract. Josko Gvardiol may have been an upgrade on Colwill even, but the Croatian joined Manchester City in a deal worth £77.6 million. Micky van de Ven, another player coveted among Klopp’s staff, headed to Tottenham for £43 million. Jurrien Timber, Lucas Hernandez, Castello Lukeba and even Aymeric Laporte have all switched clubs, too.
There remain options, with Sporting CP’s Goncalo Inacio, Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi and West Ham’s Nayed Aguerd all touted with moves to Merseyside in recent months, but Liverpool are seemingly not set on any of their mooted targets.
But in a summer in which so much rests on Liverpool’s ability to evolve, to not bring in another centre-back – to challenge or, at least eventually, replace Robertson on that left-hand side – would be negligent.