If you asked Liverpool fans which position needs strengthening this summer, they’d assumedly say ‘upfront’. Why?
One the one hand, there’s a clear gulf in class between the starting front three and the likes of Origi, Shaqiri and co. On the other hand, there’s the small matter of an African Cup of Nations tournament slap-bang in the middle of next season. And as a consequence, the Reds are set to lose – for at least a month or so – the Guinean Keita, the Senegalese Mane and the Egyptian Salah.
“It’s a catastrophe”, to use words of boss Jurgen Klopp.
So it comes as no surprise that German hotshot Timo Werner and Liverpool are closely linked. Werner, who was in scintillating form before the pandemic, is dreaming big and keen to join the Reds. A question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ perhaps?
Liverpool are surely interested, especially given that voids – that of Mane and Salah – will need filling next season. And no one can doubt the prospect of Werner in red is mouthwatering. The German international can play anywhere across the offensive line. He’s front footed, a sharpshooter and a key cog in Julian Nagelsmann’s high-pressing RB Leipzig side.
But even so, we can’t discount Takumi Minamino (Klopp certainly doesn’t). The Japanese international joined from RB Salzburg for a fee in the region of £8million last January. Minamino, who’s made just three league appearances thus far, needs game time. And next year, game time is all but guaranteed. So Minamino deserves a chance, agreed?
Suited to Klopp’s system:
Minamino’s playing style is flexible, adaptable and dynamic. Since 2015, Minamino’s played under the likes of Oscar Garcia, who embraces youth, Marco Rose, who adopts a high pressing game, and Jesse Marsch, who prefers his team to sit back and counter. And Minamino’s adapted seamlessly to all three:
For Oscar Garcia, he played as a winger in a 4-3-3 and as a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2
Under Marco Rose, he played as an attacking midfielder in 4-3-1-2
And for Jesse Marsch, he was used as a number 10 in a 4-3-1-2 and 5-3-2, and as a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2
So far under Klopp, Minamino’s played as part of the front-line in a ‘false nine’ role (4-3-3), where Firmino is routinely positioned. And the Firmino-esque ‘false nine’ role is somewhat consistent with the roles Minamino adopted under Rose and Marsch.
Firstly, let’s talk about Rose. Rose predominantly opted for the 4-3-1-2 formation, and his team’s biggest strength was its quick transition between defence and attack. Rose liked his forwards to drop deep, receive the ball and build-up play.
The emphasis was also on playing balls as quickly as possible into the frontmen, with the attacking midfielder – Minamino – playing between the lines, drawing defenders and thus creating space for the overlapping fullbacks. The frontmen routinely laid off balls to the marauding full-backs, and the majority of goals came via a cutback cross where players (such as Minamino) were lurking.
In defence, Rose valued the high press and tried to ensure his team controlled the middle of the park. When an opposition player was on the ball, the responsibility was on the fullbacks and forward players to break-up and suffocate play.
If the opponents broke the press, the attacking midfielder – Minamino most of the time – dropped and the team moulded into a 4-4-2. In other words, the attacking tenets of Rose’s team were also the first line of defence.
Now Marsch. The biggest difference between Marsch and Rose is the ‘methodology for pressure’. Unlike Rose, Marsch’s tactics were a lot more systematic. He utilised a man-marking system in which players were all assigned an area of the pitch.
In the defensive transition, he pinned two strikers on the opponent’s centre-halves and played a deep midfield. In the attacking phase, Marsch liked to ensure his number 10 – Minamino – was the creator and instigator.
Therefore under Marsch, Salzburg played through Minamino, someone who gives strikers the license to penetrate gaps in behind the defence. Minamino’s skills and adeptness became clear in the Champions League match between Liverpool and Salzburg at Anfield last October. Klopp fell in love with him that night – his twitter-famous facial expressions tell the story.
Having worked under Rose and Marsch, Minamino has developed into a player accustomed to teams which are proficient at changing shape and counter-pressing (albeit using different methods to achieve a similar end).
A astute decision-maker and grafter:
Although his performance at Anfield was immensely impressive, that was by no means the only reason why Klopp decided to make his move. Predictably, Klopp, Sporting Director Michael Edwards, and the recruitment department investigated further. And they liked what they saw.
In fact, according to various media reports, Liverpool had scouted Minamino since his days at Japanese club, Cerezo Osaka, where he made his professional debut. They knew then he was a rough diamond (as assumedly many did) .
His self-directed personality and work rate is also a big reason why Minamino gained so much traction. Ralf Rangnick, RB Salzburg’s sporting director who brought Minamino to Austria, recently recalled the recruitment process and said:
“Of course he had to learn those things tactically, but his willingness and his mentality was already there. He’s not the kind of player to say, ‘OK the other team has got the ball so, please let me know once we have the ball so I then can take part in the game again.”
Some supporters may think Minamino is a shy boy – the common conclusion if one watches the Liverpool squad’s lockdown zoom calls (as posted on social media).
But the reality is very different on the pitch. He’s assertive, indefatigable and, as he’ll show, worth every penny.
Give him time:
It’s entirely natural for any player to need a significant amount of time to adapt when faced with a new country, culture, food, language, weather and way of playing football. Thankfully, Klopp is a manager who encourages new additions to be patient and wait for their opportunity (as seen with Fabinho).
There’s also the small matter of the Scouse accent, of course. In one of his first interviews, Minamino said he initially thought Trent Alexander-Arnold was speaking a foreign language!
Furthermore, under Klopp, every little detail – from playing-style to off-the-field diet – is key. There’s also a brilliant Brazilian footballer in front of him, the fulcrum of Liverpool’s world-renowned fast-paced attack. But Minamino’s shown he can embrace change. His malleability at RB Salzburg is a key reason behind Klopp’s decision to splurge millions on him.
Another reason for optimism is the success of his Asian compatriot Son Heung-min in the Premier League. Initially, even the South Korean international – now a shrewd (arguably world-class operator) – found it difficult to adapt after his move from Bayern Leverkusen. It was even suggested, not long after his first season in the Premier League, that Son was on his way back to Germany. But he endured and, well, his goal return (as well as his undoubted importance to Spurs), speaks for itself.
The inference is this: give Minamino the time he undoubtedly deserves.