Going into the 2018/19 season, the overriding red flag surrounding Liverpool’s prospective title challenge was widely believed to be their defence. Jürgen Klopp had remedied many aspects of that part of the play but Virgil van Dijk and the newly-arrived Alisson could only do so much.
Liverpool would remain a visceral attacking force, capable of blowing the opposition away but, in the big moments, could they be counted on to deliver a shutout in their own third? Especially having not signed a suitable centre-back partner for Van Dijk.
Except, 12 games into the Premier League campaign and that narrative hasn’t played out. At all. The Reds have conceded just five goals – the same as Manchester City – and rank second overall for open play expected goals conceded (8.16).
Van Dijk is a credible challenger to Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane for the title of “best centre-back in the world” – and right now is certainly playing better than the Frenchman – while Joe Gomez has emerged as one of the best young defenders on the planet, never mind just the Premier League.
What was a glaring weakness, is now Liverpool’s main source of strength but it’s come at the expense of some of their attacking bite. They look a considerably more solid side, but are nowhere near as expansive: they’re averaging 5.66 shots on target against 6.13 last season, and their xG per game has fallen from 1.90 to 1.54.
A greater emphasis on defence, as Klopp has alluded to several times, is responsible but also there has been a distinct lack of creativity from within midfield – an area of the field which is quickly becoming the Liverpool manager’s new problem area.
James Milner is the only central midfielder to have delivered an assist this season in the Premier League and in the rankings for open play key passes per 90, Liverpool only have three inside the top 50: Xherdan Shaqiri (15th, 1.76), Mohamed Salah (22nd, 1.56) and Roberto Firmino (26th, 1.47).
The latter two are forward players and the former can also reasonably be considered within that scope. It’s a growing facet of their play that while the front three are inventive, full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold provide bountiful support out wide, they are increasingly bereft of creativity in the middle of the park.
Naby Keïta has underwhelmed, Gini Wijnaldum’s hot start has cooled, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remains a long-term absentee, Adam Lallana doesn’t appear to have earned the full trust of Klopp, while Jordan Henderson, Milner and Fabinho are simply not that type of player.
Which is why the identity of Liverpool’s reported next transfer target should come as little surprise, at least in the context of what he’s been doing in the Bundesliga this season.
Kerem Demirbay is a name well-known to Klopp, having progressed through the academy at Borussia Dortmund before playing a season in the club’s B-team 2012/13. However, despite Klopp’s promise of a bright future, aged 20, he left the Westfalenstadion for Hamburg.
Klopp subsequently moved to Anfield, Demirbay bounced around the second-tier on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf and Kaiserslautern, before finding a new home with Hoffenheim. Now, more than five years after that false start, the two could be reunited again at Liverpool.
From an aesthetic point of view, Demirbay is a technically-gifted midfielder with a sharp turn, excellent awareness in an attacking sense, energy and is a strong dribbler with that innate sense of timing for when to break into the penalty area.
He fits the Klopp mould of being able to get up and down the field, pressing defenders and has played both as a playmaker – he wears the No 10 shirt – and a more reserved, traditional and deeper central role.
Plenty of flexibility, a wide array of skills, including his ability to create from set-pieces, and a work rate that Klopp himself would have helped foster during his teenage years with Dortmund.
But beyond that, his production this season for Hoffenheim offers several reasons as to what he could bring to the Liverpool midfield, should the Reds choose to act on their interest in January.
Among Bundesliga midfielders, Demirbay ranks first for open play key passes per 90 (2.23), No 1 for forward passes (23.45), second for big chances created (0.5), third for set play chances created (1.27) and third for xA per 90 (0.19).
He’s also a top ten midfielder for scoring attempts (second, 2.8), successful take-ons (fourth, 1.78), accurate through balls (fifth, 0.25), accurate passes (seventh, 49.71) and tackles (eighth, 3.31). There isn’t a Liverpool player, bar August James Milner, who can touch him for that breadth of production.
Finding the right transfer target can be as simple as: assessing where you are struggling or underperforming as a team and then identifying an individual doing everything you’re not.
Where that formula breaks down is when it comes to external factors beyond the pitch which then have an influence: namely, affordability and whether or not the player’s character will fit the dressing room and if he can adapt.
In the first instance, Demirbay is under contract at Hoffenheim until 2022 but the club rarely command major fees, with the £29million paid for Firmino in 2015 still their record departure. The second largest? Niklas Süle to Bayern Munich for £18million and Carlos Eduardo’s switch to Rubin Kazan back in 2010.
Liverpool, therefore, can expect to pay in the higher £20million bracket for a 25-year-old still to hit his peak and one, who from a character standpoint, has shown his determination by dropping down the leagues to return to the top.
Plus, the mere fact Klopp is interested in a player who he dealt with a teenager is validation enough of his personality. Why would the Liverpool manager choose to pursue an individual, if he knew he’d be a potential problem?
Demirbay ticks a number of boxes for Liverpool and appears one of those transfers that looks destined to happen.