Do Liverpool’s Transfer Links Hint at a Tactical Shift?

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The summer is a wonderful time. You can soak up the warm weather and speculate on what the hell your football team of choice will look like next season.

There are so many question marks hanging over Liverpool that Jürgen Klopp might as well dress like The Riddler. Is the tactical shift he implemented for the final 10 games of 2022/23 here to stay? If so, what does that mean for the future of Trent Alexander-Arnold?

Then there’s the midfield. Even if we think we know what the shape of the team will likely be – morphing from a 4-3-3 to a 3-2-2-3 depending on ownership of the ball – how will the new signings fit into that numerical puzzle?

Let’s start with Alexis Mac Allister, the first of hopefully several signings ahead of 2023/24. Brighton started in seven different formations last season, per FBRef, and he featured in all of them. The Reds’ new boy’s role broadly broke down into two options, though; Mac Allister was either in the holding duo, usually with Moises Caicedo, or in the centre of a trio behind the sole striker.

Then there was Argentina’s triumphant march to World Cup glory. Liverpool’s latest acquisition started his side’s final six matches on the left of their midfield, though that varied between being there in 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 5-3-2 formations. Flexibility is an undoubted benefit, but it leaves us none the wiser as to where he might play next season.

For the rest of our theorising, we must dip into the murky waters of transfer speculation. It seems that the Reds are interested in signing Kouadio ‘Manu’ Koné and Khéphren Thuram. It doesn’t mean the deals will be completed even if they are on the shopping list, of course, but let’s use a little dramatic licence and assume both sign on the dotted line.

Starting with Koné. His manager, Daniel Farke, almost exclusively deployed a 4-2-3-1 system for Borussia Mönchengladbach, with the reported Liverpool target on the left of the midfield two. This is where Mac Allister often played when further back, including in Brighton’s home wins over Chelsea and the Reds.

Then there’s Thuram, at Nice. They were more flexible, formation wise (under both managers, Didier Digard filling in as caretaker after Lucien Favre was dismissed). But again, the player Liverpool are interested in was predominantly used on the left in some capacity.

Nothing is set in stone. Klopp turned Gini Wijnaldum from an attacking midfielder to one of the most possession-savvy players around, while he appears to be transforming Cody Gakpo from being a left winger and into the new Roberto Firmino. Great players don’t have to have their roles microscopically defined, even if the Reds are being linked with lots who have prospered on the left.

Liverpool are also rumoured to be interested in Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard; having just signed a World Cup winner for the first time since 2000, maybe the Reds are about to recruit another.

Players who have proven they can contribute to build-up from full-back to the same extent as Trent are rare. Pavard, however, is one who has. Like the Liverpool number 66, the Bayern man was in the top seven players in Europe’s big five leagues for pass progression last season (per Markstats).

This is measured in terms of Fields Gained, a metric which weights passing distance by how close to goal the pass occurs. In 2022/23, Trent was the top player in England, Pavard second in Germany.

With a dribbled past rate which is 14.5 per cent better than Alexander-Arnold’s while also being able to help his side move up the pitch in possession, Pavard could be a canny acquisition. One thing he doesn’t particularly do – which is not to say he cannot – is progress the ball through carrying it at his feet.

And this is where all the speculation and transfers could come together in intriguing fashion. Klopp has spoken in the past of selecting Naby Keïta for his ability to carry the ball, gliding past opponents when at his best. The Guinean showed glimpses of this for the Reds but was never able to deliver consistently.

This ability stands out a mile for the midfield links. Pull up Koné’s FBRef page and sort the stats in the scouting report if you don’t believe me. He’s in the 96th percentile of big league midfielders for successful take-ons per 90 minutes, and his fourth best metric is progressive carries. Repeat the exercise with Thuram and you’ll find these are his top two stats, with him in the top nine percent of his positional peers across England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain for both.

Mac Allister is a little further down these standings but he still completed 22 carries of at least five metres which ended with him taking a shot or creating a chance last season, eight more than any Liverpool midfielder mustered. Thuram (30) and Koné (19) topped anyone from the Reds’ midfield too.

Again, tactical decisions made by managers contribute here, and this isn’t to say that Klopp’s existing squad members can’t perform this task. It’s fascinating to ponder if Liverpool’s style of attack is set to change if these players sign though.

Adjust the total figures to account for possession and the Reds were third bottom in the 2022-23 Premier League for dribbles, both attempted and completed. This could prove to be a less obvious issue which the club is looking to address this summer.

Regardless of that, this is one puzzle which will remain unsolved for a good while longer. Riddle me this, Jürgen.

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