Jurgen Klopp might have built his 'second' Liverpool team
After Liverpool won the Champions League in 2019, the Reds were criticised for not investing heavily in their squad heading into the new campaign.
Having missed out on the Premier League title by a single point to Man City, such fears were understandable. But Jurgen Klopp had every faith in the squad he had at his disposal.
"There was never the intention to spend again because of the team we had last year which is a wonderful age group,” he told reporters in August 2019.
"It’s only in England where you come up with 'now bring in more quality and new faces' and all that stuff at the end of a season.
"Divock Origi has a new contract and all the others have stayed. That is transfer business. I know people smile and even laugh about it, that’s just how it is.
"But keeping a team like this together is not easy. Half the world would like to have these guys. And they (other clubs) don’t throw nuts - they have money as well! It’s like this.
"We wanted to keep that team together and it means consolidation, pay the bills, play football, go for everything then after the season we can have a look what happened.
"But this team deserves another year together - that’s how it is. So absolutely it’s a bonus just keeping these guys together for another year."
Storming to their first Premier League title by 19 points, to be crowned champions of England for the first time in 30 years, the Reds’ critics were emphatically silenced as Klopp’s faith in his squad was more than rewarded.
Yet, fast forward little over six months after Liverpool’s title triumph and the German was again having to defend a lack of transfer activity, this time in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as injuries decimated his side’s title defence and left doubts about the Reds’ strength in depth greater than ever.
The Liverpool had been given the extra year Klopp said they deserved and justified that loyalty by winning the title, but now they were perceived as an aging squad in need of upheaval who were already past their peak.
Again, the Reds boss wasn’t having any of it.
"What is a ‘rebuild’ exactly?" Klopp said in February 2021. "A rebuild means ten out ten in? Changes to which XI?
"I know what you mean, but I don’t think it is time for a massive rebuild like how I understand it, [which is] six or seven out, running contracts, but trying to get rid of them and bring in all the new faces.
"The squad of this year didn’t have the chance to play together one time really. I think it would make sense to have a look at that but on top of that of course little readjustments will happen.
"Reacting on the situation but planning at the same time for the future and all these kinds of things.
"I am not sure we can do that in the summer but that is what we will try."
Liverpool would go on to sign just one player in the summer in Ibrahima Konate, yet their planning for the future became crystal clear courtesy of business going on behind the scenes at Anfield during the close-season.
Again prioritising retaining their current squad, new long-term contracts were handed out to Jordan Henderson, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Fabinho, Harvey Elliott, Caoimhin Kelleher, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips, while the Reds would very much like to make Mohamed Salah the next player to commit his future to the club.
As first Man City and then Manchester United moved to sign 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in August, Klopp would admit such a deal would never be for Liverpool as the Reds continued to think long-term.
“It’s not about me to judge that. It’s about if other clubs can do things like this, it’s obviously not business for the future,” he told reporters. “In three or four years we will have the benefit of that, it’s for now and immediately if that happens.
“That is how some clubs are obviously working and that is absolutely fine, but there must be different ways. There must be a team a year later and two years later, for us at least. And three years later as well.
“You need success. We felt that if you can win trophies it is great but it’s not, even with the best squad in the world, possible every year. If that’s not possible, you still need to make sure you develop as a team and a club.
“That’s what we did and that’s what we do. Anything else is really not in our hands. We watch it like all of you and will see what happens.”
So Liverpool are building a team for in two years, three years and even four years’ time. Having already won both the Champions League and the Premier League, it’ll be Klopp’s second great Reds side if executed successfully, with Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley both having to undergo such revamps during the club’s heyday.
But with the German’s contract set to expire in 2024, it’ll also be the side he leaves in the hands of his successor if he resists the urge to agree extended terms.
So how is this Liverpool side of the future looking? Well, at a first glance, little change has been made to even the side that won the Champions League in 2019.
Takumi Minamino, Kostas Tsimikas, Thiago Alcantara, Diogo Jota and Konate are the only senior stars to have joined the club in the past two years.
Meanwhile, the likes of first-teamers Daniel Sturridge, Alberto Moreno, Simon Mignolet, Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Gini Wijnaldum and Xherdan Shaqiri have all moved on after lifting the Champions League and Premier League.
But they're not the only departees, with the likes of Ki-Jana Hoever, Rhian Brewster, Marko Grujic and Harry Wilson also making way, despite initial hopes that they could all be part of the Reds’ long-term future.
Yet, despite such outgoings with limited incomings, Klopp is very much right when he insists contract renewals are transfer business. Afterall, a lack of signings may look to have left Liverpool at the risk of standing still, but scratch beneath the surface and this side of the future is quietly very much nearly already in place.
Alisson turned 29 earlier this week and his contract will keep him at Anfield until 2027, ensuring he will spend his peak years on Merseyside. Even if he suffers a dip in form or ability, 22-year-old Kelleher has proven himself to be a capable stand-in, and under contract himself until 2026, ensures Liverpool’s future in goal, between the duo, is in safe hands.
In defence, 27-year-old Robertson's new contract is until 2026, while Alexander-Arnold's expires in 2025 with one reason behind the 22-year-old not matching the Scot's longevity being the club will expect to have to offer him improved terms once again in the mid-term future.
Van Dijk might now be 30 but his new deal runs until 2025, meaning, like Alisson, he too is contracted to enjoy the rest of his peak years at Anfield.
And while he might not still be the best defender in the world when that deal nears its end, Konate is just 22 and under contract until 2026, while 24-year-old Joe Gomez will be looking for a new deal beyond his current 2024 expiry date, to suggest there is the potential for a new long-term centre-back partnership waiting in the wings.
With Tsimikas aged 25, under contract until 2025 and already pushing to take Robertson’s place, it means Liverpool’s first-choice back four for life after Klopp could easily already be in place at the club.
Step forward into midfield and we notice the biggest nod to the future with both Elliott and Curtis Jones excelling and exciting during the opening weeks of the current season.
Aged just 18 and 20 respectively, their deals run until 2026 and 2025 and they could easily form two-thirds of a Reds midfield for the majority of the next decade, with such a prospect mouth-watering if they continue to push on.
Meanwhile, Fabinho and Henderson's new deals keep them at the club until 2026 and 2025 also, with the Brazilian aged 27 and set to retain his position for years to come.
It's a different story for the club captain, however. Aged 31, his new deal will see him adjust to life as an elder statesman in the squad, providing vital experience while gradually merging into a squad player, as James Milner has done in recent seasons.
But while it is rather straightforward mapping out the majority of a potential Liverpool starting XI for when Klopp’s contract runs out, work does still need to be done in the forward positions.
Jota is contracted until 2025 and, aged 24, has been brought to the club as the first player tasked with breaking up the Reds’ famous front three, showing the club are planning for a future beyond Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and even Salah.
Of course, they don’t want to let the Egyptian leave just yet with his current displays, which are arguably the best of his career, demonstrating why he is the next player Liverpool wish to tie down to new terms.
And that form suggests he could follow in the footsteps of Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski by maintaining such form deep into his thirties, even if that could require a slight change of role and for him to be increasingly utilised more as a central striker.
It is a slightly different story for Mane and Firmino, however. The Brazilian turned 30 this week, while both the Senegalese and Salah will reach the same landmark this season, and the trio are all out of contract in 2023.
The Reds clearly want to keep Salah, but it remains to be seen if they are so determined to retain Mane or Firmino. With the duo’s form not at their previous highs in the past 18 months, FSG could opt to let either player see out their contracts rather than hand out a hefty new long-term deal to an aging star, the same way they did with Wijnaldum last season.
Of course you can commit to some players into their veteran years, as Liverpool have done with Milner, Van Dijk and Henderson but, even if they retain the remaining duo beyond their current deals, Liverpool’s famous front three will no longer be a first-choice trio when Klopp’s own contract expires in 2024.
Like the three forwards, Naby Keita (26) and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain's (28) contracts expire in 2023 with the duo having it all to do to earn new deals, courtesy of their injury records and limited returns as a result, while a tough decision needs to be made regarding Milner ahead of the 35-year-old’s own deal ending next summer.
Origi’s own deal also expires at the end of the season and, with Klopp admitting the Belgian was available for transfer during the summer, there is unlikely to be another recovery of the 26-year-old’s Anfield future this time around. Elsewhere, Takumi Minamino, aged 26, could fall under the same bracket in 2024 having made a limited impact for the Reds so far.
Meanwhile, Thiago and Joel Matip, both aged 30, could also find themselves edging towards the exit door when their respective deals expire in 2024.
Liverpool do possess talented youngsters in the youth ranks, such as Kaide Gordon, who will be looking to follow in the likes of Alexander-Arnold, Jones and Elliott’s footsteps and could fill one or two gaps in the squad in the years ahead.
But while the spine of Klopp’s next Liverpool side, and indeed his successor’s team, is already in place, big names will depart before, alongside and after the German’s eventual exit.
And while such changes might continue to be gradual integration under the radar, such as Elliott and Jones’ introduction to the first team or Jota’s slow invasion of the Reds front three, there are definitely one or two key positions up for grabs as well as a number of squad competition roles.
New faces are still needing in the attacking positions, while further depth will be needed in defence and midfield but Liverpool are already well-aware of this as they build a side for two, three and four years' time, both with Klopp and for after him, as they continue to plot for the future.
Potential Liverpool team in 2024/25: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Konate, Van Dijk, Tsimikas; Elliott, Fabinho, Jones; Gordon, Salah, Jota.