The 2021/22 campaign saw Liverpool come agonisingly close to an unprecedented quadruple, but next season could be time for a rebuild - writes Andrew Beasley.
Liverpool’s transfer business over the last five years has been the envy of just about every other club around (and particularly those which are not funded by nation states).
However, their fantastic record in the market could be about to put to a severe test. Michael Edwards, the club’s sporting director, is leaving after a very successful decade with the Reds, with the relatively untested Julian Ward replacing him.
This changeover could certainly have occurred at a more fortuitous time from Liverpool’s perspective.
The club’s legendary front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah are about to enter the final year of their existing contracts.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta are in the same position, and while the former appears to have faded from view and may leave this summer anyway, the latter had the most consistent campaign he has enjoyed since arriving in England in 2018.
With excellent utility veteran James Milner yet to agree to an extension to his deal which is about to expire, this could quickly become a summer of transition on the red half of Merseyside.
Liverpool have benefited greatly from having had the core of their starting XI in place for a number of years. While many of their supporters would prefer the club to be more active in the transfer market, the Reds’ analytical approach means they only sign players who they are very confident can fit seamlessly into Jürgen Klopp’s squad.
On the whole they have done this incredibly well. In the last two seasons, Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz have come in to provide competition up front, Thiago Alcântara has added a sheen to a midfield which could often be accused of being workmanlike, while Ibrahima Konaté has ensured at least one berth in the centre of the defence looks secure for years to come.
There is a downside to using many of the same players over an extended period in that they grow old together.
In 2017/18, the season in which Salah and Virgil van Dijk were bought while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson established themselves in the side, Liverpool had the second-youngest team in the Premier League. This season they were the fourth oldest.
While player quality will obviously trump youthfulness, two of the three squads who were older were relegated.
Almost half (46.3%) of the Reds’ league minutes were played by men aged 29-or-older in 2021/22. The squad looks in need of a little refresh, and though this process has started up front, this summer is looking crucial.
When next season gets underway, Firmino, Mane and Salah will all be in their thirties and all in the final 12 months of their contract. At the time of writing, it’s far from certain they’ll all still be with Liverpool when the transfer window closes.
Mane is reportedly looking for a new challenge elsewhere, with Bayern Munich his most likely destination. There’s a case to be made that he could be the hardest forward to replace, as he is capable of performing well in each position across the front three.
The Senegalese AFCON winner was the only player to score at least seven non-penalty goals as both a left and centre forward in the Premier League this season. Diaz looks certain to take the slot on the left, but he hasn’t really played anywhere else so is somewhat limited in a positional sense.
Similarly, Firmino only plays centrally while Salah won the Golden Boot and Playmaker awards while starting on the right, so it seems likely he’ll remain there. Mane moving on would not automatically leave Klopp short of quality options in attack but it would deprive him of a degree of flexibility.
Whatever else happens, the team should get a little younger next season.
Harvey Elliott was regularly in the starting XI in the early weeks of 2021/22 before suffering a horrendous injury, and the Reds have already secured his former Fulham youth team colleague Fabio Carvalho this summer.
Klopp may also be planning tactical tweaks. Though they always started with a 4-3-3 this season, the Reds often switched to something between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-2-4 when they needed a goal.
Liverpool have won 25 of the 30 matches in which Fabinho and Thiago have started together in midfield, so using that pair as a base with four attackers in front of them is certainly an intriguing prospect.
If they are looking to a sign a new forward, the obvious target would be RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku. Liverpool have a good relationship with the Red Bull clubs, which may help.
One of only four players who scored 20+ goals whilst also providing at least 10 assists in the big leagues this season, the 24-year-old is statistically similar to Firmino, Mane and Salah.
While there are many options who match up to two of the trio, Nkunku is the only man lining up well as a replacement for all three.
The Reds are also rumoured to be interested in Martin Terrier of Rennes. He could be a good signing for Liverpool if Mane is to leave as he is capable of playing centrally and on the left as the former Southampton man did for Klopp in 2021/22.
Ligue 1 appears to be a decent source of potential replacements, as Lyon’s Karl Toko-Ekambi and Amine Gouiri of Nice also have similar strengths to Mane.
But whoever leaves or joins the club this summer, the Reds’ ageing squad suggests they could be set for a period of transition.