James Pearce is a respected & knowledgeable sports journalist who has been covering Liverpool Football Club for the Liverpool Echo for a decade. There’s no one closer to the action at Anfield or Melwood than James & LFC Transfer Room’s very own Dann A. (@DannLFCTR) spoke to him about Klopp, Van Dijk, Goretzka & more.
What is your assessment of the season thus far?
“There’s been much to admire about Liverpool so far this season. Some of the attacking football has been sensational with Mohamed Salah an absolute revelation since his arrival. They are in the last 16 of the Champions League and only outside the top four in the Premier League on goal difference so there’s plenty to be positive about. It’s been good but it could have been so much better. I still think they have paid the price for not buying a top centre-back last summer. They have carelessly tossed away some winning positions. The two league defeats hurt as they were hammered by both Man City and Spurs but it’s the seven draws that concerns me. They have struggled to grind out results and have carelessly dropped points in games they should have won. If they had turned four of those draws into wins they would be sitting second behind Man City and the mood of the fans would be very different.”
Klopp has come under fire for what many view as poor substitutions — what are your thoughts/theories on his approach to bringing players off the bench?
“I think there have been matches where he’s been too slow to make changes. Games have been allowed to drift rather than throw on fresh legs. The biggest one for me was Chelsea at home when he didn’t react quickly enough to the subs made by Antonio Conte as the Londonders chased an equaliser.”
In your opinion, what are the biggest changes Liverpool need to make to reach their potential as a squad?
“This is a really talented squad. Liverpool’s bench recently has been incredibly strong, even with the likes of Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge still missing. But there are still two areas of real weakness. One is centre midfield and Klopp believes that will be addressed with the arrival of Naby Keita next summer.
The other is centre-back. Liverpool are lacking both in terms of quality and cover.”
Do you believe the work FSG have done behind the scenes since summer makes a January move for Virgil van Dijk reasonable?
“Liverpool have been keen to repair relations with Southampton but whether that will lead to the Van Dijk transfer happening only time will tell. It all depends whether Liverpool offer the kind of fee which would convince the South Coast outfit to do business. Saints weren’t happy with how Liverpool conducted that saga last summer and that’s why they dug their heels in so much. FSG were adamant Liverpool couldn’t be seen to be pursing Van Dijk again during that window after being accused of tapping up the defender but there’s nothing to stop them tabling a bid in January.”
Do you see Leon Goretzka a good option for Liverpool? Can you see LFC moving for him even if Emre Can’s situation is still up in the air next month?
“I think Goretzka would be a great option for Liverpool, especially as he’s out of contract next summer, but there will be a lot of competition for his signature. Obviously, Klopp has Keita coming in next summer but it’s possible that he could lose both Coutinho and Can at the end of the season. Liverpool’s hopes of keeping Can are fading with every passing week.”
Can you put a finger on Robertson’s lack of game time? Obviously Moreno’s form plays a huge role, but is there something Klopp feels Robertson is lacking at this point?
“Moreno’s resurgence was the biggest reason for Robertson’s lack of game time in the opening months of the season. But Klopp also felt that Robertson needed more time to adjust to what’s expected of him at Anfield.
It’s a big step up from Hull to Liverpool. I think he’s benefited from that time spent on the training ground.
If you could identify the next “ideal” Klopp signing, who would you like to see the club target?
I think Keita is the “ideal” Klopp signing. I’m excited about what he’s going to bring to this Liverpool side as the midfield currently lacks dynamism.”
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez have filled in well in Nathaniel Clyne’s absence, and will have to do so going forward. Do you think the duo can cope with the workload given their respective minutes in the past? Do you think it’s worth pursuing a short-term loan option in January?
“As long as Liverpool bring in a centre-back in January then I don’t see the point in strengthening at full-back. Trent and Gomez have both done really well there.”
Who do you view as the most likely candidates to leave in January, either permanently or on loan?
“Liverpool will be desperate to off-load Markovic and Bogdan. There will also be a number of loans. There’s bound to be interest in the likes of Ings and Flanagan, as well as youngsters like Woodburn and Wilson.”
What’s your impression of Steven Gerrard’s start to life as a manager with the Under-18s?
“Very impressive. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover all their UEFA Youth League games and you can see the impact he’s had. He commands respect and the youngsters clearly love playing for him. When he speaks, they listen. It’s a really gifted group and they are in safe hands. Gerrard certainly made the right call learning his trade away from the spotlight rather than taking a managerial job in say League One or League Two.”
What direction do you see the club heading? Where do you think they’ll be in five years?
“Impossible to say. Things change so quickly in football. Klopp may well decide he’s had enough in 2022. The dream scenario is that he bows out with Liverpool as Premier League champions and Gerrard succeeds him.
There have been mistakes along the way but you can’t question the progress made under Klopp over the past two years. Liverpool are in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2009.
“It’s not easy competing with the likes of Man City and Chelsea given their financial resources but there’s no doubt Liverpool have the right man in charge.”
What are your thoughts on the recently deployed 4-2-2-2 formation? Do you
see it as a Plan B or a long-term option?
“Klopp has been much more flexible tactically this season and I like that.
The 4-3-3 can seem a bit too rigid and predictable at times. He’s also gone with 4-4-2 and 3-5-2. With a deeper squad, he’s able to mix things up more now.”
The one incoming we’re certain about is Naby Keita. What have you made of his sophomore season in the Bundesliga and where do you see him fitting in? Is there a current role his fills or will he be a unique option altogether?
“I haven’t seen much of Leipzig this season so difficult for me to comment on his form. I always think it’s difficult for a player who has already committed to move elsewhere for the following season. He’s an easy target when results aren’t good as people will say he’s no longer fully committed.
Keita will be desperate to get started at Liverpool. In terms of a role at Liverpool, I think we’ll see him playing as the No 8. He’s so good going forward that he would be wasted as the No 6, although he can perform that role.”
In your time covering Liverpool, what has been your most memorable/surprising transfer window moment?
“There have been quite a few! Staying up all night on the pre-season tour in Melbourne in 2013 when we learned that Arsenal had bid £40m plus £1 for Luis Suarez stands out.
But the biggest surprise has to be the signing of Mario Balotelli in 2014. I was absolutely stunned. Both on and off the record, Brendan Rodgers had been adamant that summer that he wasn’t interested in the controversial Italian. Balotelli always looked like such a poor fit for Liverpool. What a waste of money that was.”