May 18, 2024

Liverpool have got off to a good start in their hunt for a top four spot – a midfielder on Bayern Munich’s radar could be the difference-maker they still need.

haven’t had a bad start to the season, by any means – they’re in the top four and have a solid lead over teams like Manchester United and Newcastle who could, at least on paper, threaten their chances of getting back into the Champions League. But they’ve been far from perfect, as the three-point gap to the top suggests. If they want to ensure they take their seat at Europe’s top table back, they may need to make changes.

João Palhinha

There are several obvious areas for improvement, but perhaps the most glaring is in central midfield. The departures of Fabinho, James Milner and Naby Keïta, justifiable though they all were, have left them with only one genuine defensive midfield option, summer signing Wataru Endo. But in spite of the absence of competition, the 30-year-old Japan international hasn’t managed to nail his spot down, starting just one game since his arrival. Jürgen Klopp has only seen fit to play him for 22 minutes since August.

As a result, Klopp has opted for a more fluid midfield with Alexis Mac Allister typically the deepest of the three, but the way he’s playing is far from a holding role – he pops up all over the pitch trying to snuff out fires and get involved in play. It’s worked well enough so far, but Liverpool have shown how vulnerable their tactics can make them, especially in the 2-1 win over Newcastle when they were repeatedly caught on their heels after losing possession in midfield. They came through that test, but other teams will not take their foot off the gas to the extend that Newcastle did that day. They need someone with the defensive mettle and nous that Mac Allister doesn’t provide.

The gossip columns, as unreliable as they can be, have resurrected the idea of deal that was briefly discussed in the summer but came to nothing – a bid for Fulham’s industrious Portuguese midfielder João Palhinha. He may have signed a new contract at Craven Cottage after his deadline day move to Bayern Munich fell through at the last minute, but the expectation remains that he will leave, likely at the end of the season and perhaps even sooner. £100m is the reported asking price, and it is clear enough that Palhinha feel ready to take a step up in his career.

Like Mac Allister, Palhinha is a hard-working midfielder who doesn’t confine himself to a purely defensive role, and likes to get forward or even into wide areas to get involved in attacking moves – but unlike the Argentinian he also has the defensive savvy to win turnovers and protect his back four more effectively.

palhinha makes half as many tackles per game, produces four more defensive clearances, and triumphs in two and a half more one-on-one contests per 90 minutes. Although he doesn’t dribble or pass the ball as well as Palhinha does (his numbers in those categories are by no means awful), he has a lot more ability to win possession back in risky situations and maintain play away from the defense. He is desperately needed in Liverpool.

And the fact that Palhinha can affect the attacking third as well, albeit typically as part of the broader build-up rather than as someone who can play a killer ball or score with regularity, means that having him in the side wouldn’t take much away from Liverpool’s attacking output, and thanks to his energy and intelligent pressing, he wouldn’t water down the constant high pressure that Klopp asks his teams to operate with. He wouldn’t come cheap, but he would make a lot of sense.

Having him able to plug holes in midfield would also free up Mac Allister, as well as players like Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and Dominik Szoboszlai, to get forward more without having to worry about what’s going on behind them so much. Liverpool’s midfielders spend a lot of time drifting wide, which often leaves the Reds short-handed in the middle and vulnerable to counter-attacks when possession is lost – Palhinha wouldn’t eradicate that weakness completely, but he’d go a long way towards shoring things up.

As for whether Liverpool could win the race for Palhinha? Well, there will likely be several top teams interested, probably including Bayern once more. Their own need for a midfielder who can play in their double pivot is no less pressing now than it was at the start of the summer, and it remains an area of the team that Thomas Tuchel has been unable to address.

Liverpool will have to make a case, which will probably include an awful lot of money but which would be made substantially stronger by their remaining in the pole position for a top four place. Should they slip up down the stretch, attracting players ahead of a team like Bayern becomes difficult.

But for now, Liverpool look pretty good – albeit perhaps more vulnerable than the three teams currently ahead of them in the Premier League. They may be able to get by without a true defensive mind in the midfield for the time being. But whether they go in for Palhinha or someone else (and god knows they tried to get someone else over the summer) they surely need a defensively-minded player in their squad if they want to go toe to toe with the best in Europe once more.

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