Liverpool’s midfield rebuild appears almost to be complete.
However, it isn’t exactly what people envisioned it would be at the start of the summer. The Reds parted ways with James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before cashing in on Jordan Henderson and Fabinho.
Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai were in through the door early on, with the 2019/20 Premier League champions moving swiftly to secure these key targets before rivals had a chance to shoehorn their way into conversations. Then there was a bit of a lull in proceedings while Liverpool negotiated with Southampton for Romeo Lavia, before a surprise pivot to Moises Caicedo. The 21-year-old opted for Chelsea and he was later joined at Stamford Bridge by Lavia. The Reds reacted to this with the shock signing of Waturu Endo.
Various reports then emerged to claim Jurgen Klopp wanted to add another versatile midfielder to his ranks rather than an out-and-out defensive midfielder. This raised a few eyebrows at the time with many wondering if this was a club tactic to divert attention. A smokescreen while they worked on their primary target behind the scenes.
The late move for Ryan Gravenberch proves this wasn’t the case though.
Gravenberch didn’t have the best of debut seasons with Bayern Munich and his stock has plummeted. He can play a number of roles and is yet to really discover what his best position is. In truth, he has the raw traits to be developed into any type of midfielder you want him to be. He can be part of the build-up phase, he can act as a controller and he has the technical ability to operate in the final third.
READ MORE: How would Ryan Gravenberch fit into Liverpool’s midfield?
But why have Liverpool opted to go down this route? They lost two defensive midfield options this summer and have only signed one. On paper at least, that area of their team is now weaker.
So what is the thought process behind this decision?
I’m going to try and break it down.
For starters, the market for pure defensive midfielders is pretty limited at the minute.
Even Caicedo was more of a double-pivot sort of player. You wouldn’t necessarily categorise him as a ‘destroyer’ and his best form for Brighton under Roberto De Zerbi was when he was deployed as a box-to-box midfielder.
© Proshots – Moises Caicedo
Joao Palhinha has been a defensive juggernaut for Fulham and he was decent on the ball during his time at Sporting. At both clubs he was used in a two-man midfield rather than at the base of a three, so he’d need to adapt his game. Furthermore, he’s 28 and he’s now expected to move to Bayern Munich for in excess of £60m.
Cheick Doucoure has admirers, myself included, but he isn’t a pure defensive midfielder either. He’s adapted his game to the Crystal Palace system and has shown he can be more of a defensive player but he’s an all-rounder. His time at Lens proved that. So, again, he can do a bit of everything rather than being a specialist.
Most defensive midfielders these days aren’t traditional ones. They’re just as good off the ball as they are on it, so they’re, rather lazily, mis-profiled. The same thing happened with N’Golo Kante. He was busy out of possession so viewed as the next Claude Makelele when in reality he was a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who thrived when he had a ball-player next to him in a double-pivot.
It is no coincidence that his worst run of form for Chelsea occurred when Frank Lampard tried to use him as an anchor.
The pool of pure defensive midfielders is almost dry. The modern game dictates that youngsters learn a number of roles and positions so that by the time they reach first-team level they can do a number of things.
Signing a specialist ‘number six’ in the defensive mould now limits what you can and can’t do, and no manager wants that. So it makes sense for the Reds to bring in someone who can be trained up to occupy deeper roles while also being able to do numerous other things.
© Proshots – Ryan Gravenberch
Liverpool’s system is all about fluidity and has been for a couple of seasons now.
READ MORE: Why Liverpool’s new shape is working for them despite the defensive flaws
Klopp needs someone who can play in a double-pivot but then the same player needs to be able to moonlight as a single operator at times. It is easier to develop an all-rounder into more of a defensive midfielder than it is to develop a defensive midfielder into an all-rounder.
Fabinho had defensive traits prior to moving to Anfield but he was primarily used in a two-man midfield at Monaco and if you remember, the Reds switched to a 4-2-3-1 initially to accommodate him and his skill set while he adapted.
Signing Gravenberch might not work out, but at least it is a low-risk move – Gravenberch is reportedly available for around £30m.
It’s a win-win for the Reds in what is a bloated market right now.