This unpredictable, COVID-hit Premier League season has brought its inevitable challenges for Liverpool and the rest of the league. Not only have teams been forced to cater for governmental guidelines but have also faced an imposing and overwhelmingly congested schedule. As a result, some have suffered immense setbacks.
In the Reds case, that blow has been struck in the heart of their defence – an injury crisis like no other.
Following injuries to all three of their senior centre backs, the Reds delved into the January transfer window for reinforcements. In came Schalke’s Ozan Kabak (on loan) and Preston North End’s Ben Davies to fix their defensive crisis. Both have featured in matchday squads since their deadline day moves, as unused substitutes against Manchester City and Brighton, respectively.
Following Liverpool’s disappointing 4-1 defeat to City on Sunday, could we see a debut for either signing in this weekend’s crunch clash with Leicester City?
Despite Klopp’s preference to gradually integrate new players into the squad, right now that may not be feasible. One more defensive injury may well force Liverpool to play one of their new signings, and looking at their current track record, that could happen at any moment. Therefore, would it not be sensible to start them on Saturday with adequate preparation time, rather than edgily wait for another randomly timed injury?
Before last weekend’s game against Manchester City, Klopp explained why he did not start either Kabak or Davies. Speaking to Sky Sports, he deemed it unfair to throw them in the deep end against Pep Guardiola’s unwavering side.
There was no chance of them starting. They had four sessions together – we had options so it was clear we would start with the more settled pairing.
After a week’s worth of training and pre-match preparation, does this reasoning still apply?
Liverpool also face RB Leipzig in Tuesday’s Champions League knockout stage. Despite his youth, Kabak has played numerous games against the German side after spells at Stuttgart and Schalke. This experience may come in handy, seeing as neither Liverpool nor Klopp have ever faced the Bundesliga side. Therefore, it may be wise to hand Kabak his debut on Saturday to ease him in ahead of the midweek fixture.
On top of this, makeshift centre backs Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have been sorely missed in midfield. Both are highly effective at retrieving and recycling cleared balls. This facilitates sustained and relentless attacks, which are famously overwhelming for opposition teams to deal with.
Therefore, slotting either Kabak or Davies into defence would allow those midfielders to operate in their more common surroundings. This would provide both balance and harmony to a team looking rather disjointed at present. Obviously, the sooner Klopp hands them their debuts, the sooner Henderson and Fabinho can make this transition.
However, is this the right game to do that?
Like the Reds, Leicester are a bit off-colour, with only one win in four league games. Should Liverpool play it safe and try to grind out a win without the new boys; or maybe take a risk and give them game time whilst the Foxes are not at their best? As aforementioned, the latter option normalizes the midfield, which may prove extremely profitable.
However, let us not forget that Leicester still sit third in the Premier League, three points ahead of Liverpool. Handing a player their debut is a gamble in any game, let alone against a team higher up the table.
Neither Kabak nor Davies have a great deal of experience in such big games; the former is only twenty years old, while the latter has played no higher than Second Division standard.
Furthermore, Leicester boast one of the most lethal and intelligent strikers of our generation, Jamie Vardy. Considering Liverpool’s recent slackness up top, it may only take one defensive lapse in concentration for the Englishman to settle the game.
Are either of the signings prepared for the pressure and standard that this match will hold?
As earlier stated, Klopp likes to progressively gel new signings into the first team, only playing them once he deems them ready. Contrastingly, Kabak and Davies have only been at Anfield for little over a week, with a handful of training sessions under their belts. Playing them as regulars off the bat would be unconventional and potentially counterproductive in the long run. A bad patch of games could have a lasting effect on their confidence, putting their futures on Merseyside into jeopardy.
Importantly, however, Klopp is rapidly running out of alternatives. Such risks may become necessary if the Reds are further plagued by injuries.
Henderson and Fabinho have both proved adequate defensive solutions to Liverpool’s injury nightmare. If they were to start on Saturday, they would likely put in a stellar display akin to other performances at the back but Fabinho misses out through injury. However, Liverpool arguably have greater problems elsewhere on the pitch.
In January, the side did not score a league goal for over 400 minutes, recording their worst drought since 2005. It begs the question: considering the risks previously mentioned, why rush the new signings’ debuts when the defence is not even the side’s central issue?
Even Sunday’s 4-1 defeat to City cannot be pinned primarily on the backline, more so on Alisson’s uncharacteristic blunders.
Regardless, I could see one of the deadline day signings making their debuts on the weekend to shore up other areas of the pitch.
Considering his top-flight experience and the upcoming Leipzig game, Kabak would be the likelier option. Klopp also included him in the matchday squad in Liverpool’s most recent match, possibly hinting at an imminent debut. Although Leicester will be a tough challenge, Kabak is a good enough player for the occasion; Klopp would not have signed him otherwise.