Sunday’s drab goalless draw in the FA Cup 3rd round vs Plymouth at Anfield was not a game from which many conclusions should be drawn. After a hectic festive fixture schedule and a midweek League Cup semi-final first leg away at Southampton before a crunch time Premier League clash on Sunday at Old Trafford, Klopp was always going to use this as an opportunity to rest tired legs.
Joe Gomez made his first senior appearance in 462 days after working his way back from an ACL injury, while Sheyi Ojo made his first appearance of the season after fitness problems of his own. With Ben Woodburn making his first ever start for the club, this was Liverpool’s youngest ever side at an average age of 21 years and 296 days.
Liverpool dominated the game with 69% of possession but struggled to break down a compact, disciplined and determined Plymouth backline. Liverpool’s decision-making in the final third was admittedly poor, but the League Two outfit deserve credit for a spirited performance.
Regardless of the standard of opposition, playing against such a pumped up side who sat very deep in numbers and aimed to frustrate was never going to be a simple task for such an inexperienced group of players. This will have provided a valuable learning experience and the replay will likely offer another chance for Liverpool’s youngsters to test themselves at senior level.
The priority, however, remains staying in the Premier League title race and keeping the heat up on Chelsea at the top of the table. Although the draw against Plymouth should not be any major cause for concern, it does mean another fixture added to an already jam-packed January schedule. Klopp will probably field a similarly rotated XI once again, but it will stretch the resources of his squad.
The departure of Sadio Mane to the AFCON with Senegal is hugely inconvenient given Liverpool’s situation in the league, with several very high-pressure games coming up. His blistering pace has transformed the way Liverpool play this season, offering an entirely new dimension to Klopp’s front line, as well as chipping in with nine goals- more than any other Liverpool player.
Philippe Coutinho’s long-awaited return from an ankle injury is imminent and the return of the Brazilian will be a major boost, but the loss of Mane will mean Liverpool must find a different way of playing without Mane’s direct running and ability to stretch opposition defences.
There is not another player of Mane’s ilk in the current Liverpool squad. Sheyi Ojo probably comes closest in terms of offering a similar skillset, but the 19-year-old has only just returned from a lengthy injury lay-off and looked far from match-sharp against Plymouth. His decision making and goal threat are also nowhere near the level of Mane and it would be unfair to expect him to step up and fill that void.
Klopp does have other options in attacking areas- Mane’s absence could open the door for Sturridge to get a run of games, while Origi, although not as refined, could potentially do a job in a wider role. Another possibility might be moving Lallana further forward, as was the case in the 1-0 victory over Man City- although Lallana’s influence in midfield is so pivotal to the balance of this Liverpool team.
With the Reds sitting in 2nd place, 5 points off the leaders with 18 games still left to play, the title race is still very much on. The gap has also been closed behind them with the impressive form of Spurs and Man United, so the pressure is very much on. We’ve been in this situation before- most recently in 2013/14, with the whole Konoplyanka saga.
A smart signing in the right position in January could provide that extra boost for Liverpool in the title race. Although there is depth in Liverpool’s squad, injuries have stretched Klopp’s resources already this season and it would seem something of a missed opportunity not to dip into the January transfer window.
Klopp has spoken at length about how he prefers to work with the resources at his disposal, but now might be the time to adopt a degree of pragmatism and take advantage of Liverpool’s position in the league. Any signing Liverpool might make this January would have to be a player who can contribute in the long-term- not just a stop-gap for the rest of this season.
It is well known by now that Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic is Klopp’s priority transfer target, but his signature seems all but an impossibility this January. That will have to wait until the summer, most likely. However, the Dutch winger, Quincy Promes, at Spartak Moscow has been heavily linked with a move to Liverpool and would seem to fit the bill perfectly.
Having just turned 25, Promes is approaching the prime years of his career and most importantly, his playing style is of a similar profile to Mane. Blessed with searing pace and trickery on the ball, Promes also provides a significant goal threat, with 37 goals in 72 appearances for his current club- albeit in the Russian League. He has the added bonus of being an excellent set-piece taker, an area Liverpool are currently lacking in.
A close friend of Gini Wijnaldum, who has already spoken of how he’d like to play with his compatriot at Liverpool, a move for Promes would seem a very wise move this January- a player who can contribute in the title race, but also someone who has the potential to offer plenty to the club in the long run.
January might not be Klopp’s favorite time to spend, and Promes is reported to be valued at around £25 million by Spartak. Clubs always look to get a premium fee for players in mid-season, but for a player who still has his best years ahead of him, with plenty of potential to improve, it’s far from extortionate.
It would be a huge shame if Liverpool were to fall just short this season by virtue of lacking one or two extra bodies in the squad. That added boost of quality in January could prove decisive come the end of the season. If a £25 million signing made the difference between winning the league or not, the money would never be spoken about again.
Written by Joel Rabinowitz.