Ask any Liverpool fan if they think their team should be active in the January transfer window and the answer would be a resounding yes. Jürgen Klopp‘s men are having a decent season; they’re into the last 16 of the Champions League and are on track for a place in the top four in the Premier League.
However, they fell out of the Carabao Cup early on and are lagging well behind leaders Manchester City. As things stand there are four other teams along with Liverpool vying for three places; Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Of the five teams it’s Klopp’s who have the leakiest defence and if they do miss out on a top four finish it’ll probably be because the backline conceded too many goals. Not because of systemic failures but because of individual errors.
Many believe a centre-back, maybe even two, is required to ensure the Reds are in the Champions League next season. And recent reports have linked Liverpool with a defender. But it’s not Virgil van Dijk. To the surprise of many it’s Šime Vrsaljko.
Full-back isn’t a problem position for Liverpool, not this season at least. Alberto Moreno has impressed after regaining his place at left-back while Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold have both caught the eye filling in at right-back for the injured Nathaniel Clyne.
A goalkeeper, a centre-back, a defensive midfielder and a striker all come before a full-back on the list of Liverpool needs right now.
Yet Corriere dello Sport, a publication in Italy, claim the Merseysiders are battling it out with Napoli to secure the signature of the versatile defender. Atletico Madrid, Vrsaljko’s current employers, are open to selling the Croatian but then want £22million.
It’s a steep figure given he’s hardly a regular starter at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
The 25-year-old signed for the La Liga club during the summer of 2016 from Italian side Sassuolo in a deal worth £14million, but has failed to have an impact making just 16 league appearances to date.
And although Atletico’s first-choice right-back Juanfran has suffered recent hamstring problems, Vrsaljko has still struggled to force himself into Diego Simeone’s first-team plans this season. It’s why a move away from the 2016 Champions League finalists looks likely.
Sassuolo are also interested in bringing him back to the club but they can’t match the ambitions of Napoli or the money Liverpool could put on the table. However, they could offer him his best chance of first-team football.
What are Vrsaljko’s strengths?
He’s a modern day, attacking full-back capable playing on either flank but primarily on the right. The fact he’s comfortable on either side makes him difficult to defend against and boosts his team’s attacking options. He’s just as likely to take you on the outside as he is on the inside. He’s naturally aggressive and is always looking to isolate opposition players.
For Atletico, however, he’s tasked with offering width and making those overlapping runs. It appears to be a role he relishes and he’s forever putting dangerous balls into the penalty area.
The image above is his touch map from a recent game against Real Betis. What’s interesting is how many touches he has in the final 18-yards of the pitch. If he’s getting into that area then by default he’s stretching the opposition and creating space in central areas.
He’s running beyond the forward players and forcing the opposition into areas they don’t want to be if they’re looking to be compact and narrow, which most defensive teams are these days.
While on the surface this might not exactly be helpful to Liverpool due to the fact the Reds aren’t the sort of team to bombard the opposition with crosses, it doesn’t mean what he does in the final third can’t be tweaked to suit their needs.
In a recent article looking at who is the best option to replace the injured Moreno, we detailed why Klopp may trump for James Milner over Andrew Robertson despite the latter being a natural full-back.
The former Hull City man took up some encouraging positions against Everton but failed to play the correct pass, instead opting to cross the ball into the area. Now, it’s clearly one of his strengths but it doesn’t suit Liverpool.
The Reds look to stretch the opposition before pulling the ball back to players just outside the penalty area. Then, in the space the full-back has created, they carve out a chance.
It’s one of the reasons whenever Philippe Coutinho starts on the left of the attacking three he seems to have a lot of time and space to cut onto his favoured right foo.
If Vrsaljko did arrive at Anfield then there’s a chance, because of how good he is on the ball, that it would be an easy transition from crosses to pulling the ball back.
It’s hard to read into any of his stats because the sample size is too small and Atletico play a completely different system to Liverpool.
Do Liverpool need Vrsaljko?
It really depends when you’re asking. If Klopp’s men are in good form then the answer would be no, but if they’ve had a bad match and Gomez or Alexander-Arnold have had a 90 minutes to forget then many fans would cite the lack of experience in that area as an issue and want the club to sign a new right-back.
His versatility would make him an asset to the squad. Right now the Reds have Milner and Clyne who can operate in both full-back positions but the former isn’t getting any younger while the latter is having injury issues.
You also have to consider the impact his arrival would have on the playing time both Gomez and Alexander-Arnold get. They duo are only developing at a quicker rate because of their exposure to the first-team.
Finally, the £22million fee. It would make Vrsaljko the club’s most expensive ever defensive signing and he wouldn’t even be a guaranteed starter.
Liverpool fans want the club to spend more but, more importantly, they want them to be spend cleverly. That money could be invested elsewhere in an obvious problem position.