It is easy to focus on Liverpool’s big money buys, but much of Jürgen Klopp’s Anfield revamp is down to finding great value in unusual places.
It can’t surprise anyone that Liverpool’s multi-million pound summer spending spree has heightened expectations of Jurgen Klopp’s team this season. Not only did the Reds splash a league high £170 million on new players, the identity of those new faces means Liverpool are being spoken of as the likeliest challengers to champions Manchester City as the 2018/19 season gets underway.
Goalkeeper Alisson Becker arrived from Roma, defensive midfielder Fabinho from Monaco, the brilliant Naby Keita from RB Leipzig and forward Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke City.
Adding that to a squad that reached a Champions League Final in May and already boasts – in Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Bobby Firmino – Europe’s most prolific strike force, it’s easy to see why Liverpool fans are going into the season perhaps more enthusiastic about their team than at any time in the last 10 years.
Two games into the new season and much of that enthusiasm hardly seems misplaced. A smooth, commanding 4-0 trouncing of West Ham at Anfield on opening day has been followed by a grittier, hard fought 2-0 win at Crystal Palace, and the big money buys are already showing what all the fuss was about. The calming authority and stellar distribution of Alisson Becker in goal, the exquisite midfield drive of Keita, Shaqiri’s energetic impact from the bench, and the towering leadership of Virgil Van Dijk – who arrived for £75m in January – at the back.
But while the focus has – unsurprisingly – been on those big money buys, sprinkled amongst the Anfield stardust are some unsung heroes that have been just as important in Klopp’s Liverpool revival.
They are proof that quality and value need not come with a multi-million pound price tag.
Take James Milner, the 32-year old veteran who continues to defy logic both with his tireless endeavor as well as his underrated quality on the ball. Milner, of course arrived Anfield, after winning two PL titles at Man City, but he joined on a free transfer in 2015 with many thinking his best years where already behind him. Milner started last season on the bench – having spent the whole of the previous season at left back – but still ended the season with the most assists in the CL. He grabbed two assists in the season opener against West Ham while running a game high 12.55 Kms and rightly walked away with the man of the match award.
At right back, 19-year old Trent Alexander-Arnold has continued where he left off last season – despite Nathaniel Clyne’s return from injury – and keeps showing it’s his spot to lose now. TAA came up through Liverpool’s academy – I first saw him as a scrawny 16-year old in Brendan Rodgers pre-season games three years ago – but was quick to catch Klopp’s attention and promptly fast-tracked and repositioned from U-18 midfielder to first team right back.
Thrown into the deep end for a full Premier League debut at Old Trafford last year, he has repaid Klopp’s bravery admirably. He started last season as third choice and ended it starting a CL final and representing England at the World Cup. His usually excellent crossing has been below par so far, but it was his pass to Keita that started the move that led to the opening goal against West Ham and he has proved as solid as any in his defensive remit.
Alongside him, 21-year old Joe Gomez, a £3.5m acquisition from third tier Charlton Athletic, started at centre back primarily because of injuries to Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip. Gomez played a mere 21 games at Charlton before moving to Anfield three years ago.
He then lost a year after rupturing his cruciate ligament shortly afterwards but returned to the first team last season, filling in competently at right back before injury struck again. He was calm and controlled alongside Van Dijk against West Ham and was even more impressive up against a physical, quick Crystal Palace attack on Monday. Not bad for a guy who has only played 30 Premier League games.
Then there’s left back Andrew Robertson who arrived – to little fanfare – from relegated Hull City last summer for £8 million. It took the 23-year old till December to get his chance but it’s one he’s grabbed in the best possible way. Robertson is now one of the best left backs in the Premier League.
His assist for Salah’s goal against West Ham was his 6th for Liverpool in the Premier League (24 appearances), yet his attacking contribution has in no way diminished his defensive solidity. It’s almost laughable now (not in Hull!) to remember that Liverpool sold Kevin Stewart to Hull for the same amount of money they paid for Robertson.
Alexander-Arnold, Gomez and Robertson have contributed significantly to Liverpool’s new found defensive solidity (22 goals conceded in the last 30 Premier League matches) and Milner’s midfield graft and creativity has helped feed Salah, Mane and Firmino upfront.
Those four cost Liverpool a grand total of £11.5m in transfer fees! One is a teenaged homegrown academy graduate, one arrived as a teenager from League One; one arrived on a free transfer, supposedly on the wane, another arrived from a relegated club.
They all played key roles to help Liverpool reach a Champions League Final in May, and – despite all the summer investment – have all started the first two games of the new season. They hardly fit the narrative of a club “buying everything and everyone” or “trying to buy the league” as some have characterized Liverpool’s transfer activity this summer.
In adding the likes of Van Dijk, Alisson, Fabinho, and Keita Liverpool’s owners have shown that they will go to great financial lengths to bring in the right players to execute Klopp’s tactical plans.
But these four unsung players show that finding the right players isn’t always about spending big. Sometimes, good scouting, patient coaching and a little courage can go a long way.