If it’s a straight choice between James Milner and Alberto Moreno at left-back, it’s not much of a contest for Liverpool.
The problem is, it’s not much of a choice either. If Milner is the ultimate professional who will perform admirably in any role you put him in, that still doesn’t mean you should keep him chained to the touchline as a full-back. Utility players like him often mask the limitations of a squad because they can in anywhere. That can either be a good thing, in that they plug gaps and nullify squad weaknesses, or a bad thing in that you forget to actually strengthen when you need to.
Liverpool’s problem surely isn’t the latter: having started the season against Arsenal on the opening day with Moreno in the left-back slot, they surely know that James Milner isn’t a long-term solution to an age-old problem for the club. And yet, taking a look at some of the options they seem to have been linked with over the last few weeks and you start to get the feeling that Milner could be roped into playing the role for longer than he might have intended. Names like Hull City’s Andrew Robertson have been linked, and whilst he might sound like the ideal back-up full-back for a top four side, it’s an underwhelming signing if he turns out to be first choice.
After all, next season, the Reds embark on a Champions League campaign to add to the rest of their schedule, and even though last season – which saw no European action – was defined by a series of niggling injuries to key players, you realise that Liverpool will need to strengthen wisely this summer.
Having been watching the Confederations Cup this summer, though, it’s clear that one name who was linked heavily last season has cemented his place as a top level full-back, and then hasn’t been linked since. That’s Jonas Hector.
It’s a mug’s game to link players with Premier League sides on the basis of a few games in a competition no-one cares about, and especially one which turned into something of a shambles given the debacle over video assistant referees, but it’s worth noting that even though the Germany squad who won the competition certainly didn’t amount to a full-strength side, full-backs Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich certainly are Joachim Low’s main two.
The reason for the inclusion of two first-choice full-backs in an otherwise second string side is obvious when you think about it: neither have big tournament experience, and the Confederations Cup was a convenient way of fixing that.
So why do Liverpool seem to have given up on chasing the signature of Germany’s first choice left-back? Not landing him last season when the club were out of the Champions League is one thing, but accepting defeat and moving on to Andrew Robertson certainly doesn’t seem as glamorous.
Perhaps the drawback is his lack of European experience, though that couldn’t have been an issue this time last year. His club, FC Koln have qualified for the Europa League this season for the first time since the 1992/93 season, when they lost to Celtic in the first round. And although Hector has spend most of his career at the club, and a shot at the Europa League with them is presumably tempting, surely the chance to play Champions League football with five-time champions is even more tempting.
Perhaps Liverpool’s weakness last season was their inability to shore up their defence, particularly when defending counter-attacks. Hector’s contribution to his club side this season with over two tackles and two interceptions per game, though, show that defending isn’t a side to the game that he lacks, unlike plenty of modern full-backs who often seem to be repurposed wingers.
The one downside to Hector’s game, however, seems to be crossing, making one successful cross on average every three or so games. Pretty low. His club side, however, came in the bottom half of the Bundesliga for crosses attempted last season, signalling that Hector’s ability isn’t necessarily poor, but that his club just played in a different way.
But crossing an interesting stat for Liverpool this season. Whilst you might think that Jurgen Klopp’s side – given they spent last season with Roberto Firmino in the central striker role – shouldn’t make a lot of crosses, they do play with with a lot of width and averaged one of the higher number of crosses in the Premier League last season, ranking fourth for inaccurate crosses, dropping to eight for accurate ones. Indeed, Liverpool scored 16 goals from ‘crosses’ last season, more than any other team – ahead of Christian Benteke’s Crystal Palace by three goals, and miles ahead of the rest of the field.
The interesting thing about that stat, though, is that it seems to take into account pull-backs and balls squared inside the box as well as the sorts of crosses Benteke gets on the end of, or even of the type that saw Georginio Wijnaldum sink Manchester City on New Year’s Eve.
Maybe Jurgen Klopp simply doesn’t want Hector, or maybe Hector is happy helping to take his club side into the Europa League for the first time in a generation, but it would be a mistake not to consider a player of his undoubted quality at a time when Liverpool are in need of a player for their problem position.
Unless James Milner is up for enduring another season away from the central midfield position he seems to crave so much.
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