It will be extremely difficult for Liverpool to maintain the standards they have set over the last five years, across the next half-decade.
Firstly, Jurgen Klopp’s current contract at Anfield expires in 2024 and, at some point, the Merseysiders will need to find a manager who has the same tactical nous, the same motivational qualities and the same ability to galvanize the red side of the socialist city.
Secondly, Manchester City have arguably greater means to handle any potential departure of their own revered boss, especially in terms of investment, challenges will come from elsewhere across the so-called big six and it will not be long before Newcastle represent a serious threat.
Liverpool are by no means plucky underdogs but, while some of their competitors can afford to splash significant outlays on high-profile players without significant return, they have to get those kind of signings right.
While FSG are at the helm, Liverpool must embrace a conveyor belt system which would enable them to produce the world’s top talent, underneath a core of star, peak-age performers.
They already have this, up to a point.
Caomin Kelleher is the understudy to goalkeeper Alisson Becker. Kostas Tsmikas is the long-awaited back-up left-back to Andrew Robertson. Harvey Elliott when fit brings a creative dimension to the midfield and, in the last two seasons, Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz have given the Reds much-needed depth in attack.
In the case of Kelleher, Tsmikas, Jota and Díaz, however, they are all 23 years old and above: likewise, defender Joe Gomez and forward Takumi Minamino.
Without underestimating Klopp’s exceptional coaching capacities, it seems as though each of the fringe and rotation squad members serve an extremely valuable purpose in terms of the immediate efforts, but in many cases, might not quite go on to become world-class.
This is of course a very high benchmark to hold a footballer to, but in some respects that’s a yardstick that comes with representing the six-time European champions, who may yet add a seventh star by the end of next month.
That does not mean Liverpool should try to assemble a full squad of world-class players, which is unrealistic, but that they should strive for a core of genuinely elite footballers and the rest having obvious potential to reach that level.
This might necessitate taking a few risks, it may reduce the number of peak-age performers and it could mean certain qualities like leadership, organisation, nous and proven quality are harder to find when Klopp rotates.
If done sensibly, however, there could be huge rewards for sometimes foregoing the current ability of 25-year-old squad player in favour of the potential ability of a 19-year-old, which brings us onto Fabio Carvalho.
Looking Beyond the Data
One of the most intriguing elements of Carvalho’s world-class potential, is that it would not be immediately obvious if one were to look at the data alone.
Carvalho is far from a guaranteed goalscorer: he averages a modest 2.4 shots per 90 minutes and half of those on target, with his tally of seven goals being bettered by 38 players in the Championship.
2.2 chances from open play per 90 is the highest of the Championship’s regular starters, but not by a huge margin: Callum O’Hare and John Swift would not be near Liverpool’s list, yet they by comparison average 2.0 and 1.9 in that metric for Coventry and Reading respectively. However, the only players to have surpassed this average that has played 1000+ minutes of a Championship campaign since 2019-20 are Pablo Hernández (2.6 per 90) and Matheus Pereira (2.3 per 90) in 2019-20, as well as Emiliano Buendía last season (2.5 per 90) – all three fared well enough following promotion to the top-flight.
Carvalho averages just 0.19 expected assists per 90 minutes in the second tier, which is less than teammate Tom Cairney (0.21), who occupies a far deeper role and while 2.1 fouls won per game is ok, it’s not exactly Jack Grealish territory in the ‘drawing fouls’ leaderboards.
With that in mind, it begs the question… why are we, at The Analyst – being a website that promotes the importance of data in football by our very name – saying that a Premier League title contender should sign a player who doesn’t have exceptional, standout numbers in the division below?
There are three simple answers to this.
Firstly, data is an incredibly valuable tool in recruitment, of course, but it should always be used in conjunction with the old-fashioned eye test, as opposed to instead of it.
The stats can tell us how often something has happened, but only when watching those moments is it possible to gauge the quality of the action and the extent to which a dribble, a pass or anything has benefited the team from prior game state.
Secondly, Carvalho is not a player who insists on the whole game revolving around him, or always having the ball to feet.
When he is directly involved, the quality of his actions tends to be extremely high, but when he is not, he can be making bold runs off the ball, sometimes away from the general direction of play, which creates space for teammates in a manner that is difficult to quantify.
Thirdly, if a player’s skillset is deceptively wide, they may not have particularly eye-catching data in one particular field, because they are contributing value in so many others. This is the crux of what Carvalho is about.
A Little Bit of Everything
Fabio Carvalho has a mix of the qualities that one would ordinarily expective from a creative number eight, a goalscoring number 10, a tricky winger or a pressing forward tasked with stretching the line.
The 19-year-old can be any and all of those players within the same package, which is what makes him a joy to watch.
For his goal in the 6-2 home rout of Bristol City in January, for example, he was willing to drop in and collect the ball off the defence on the half-turn, then go past an opponent and immediately threaten goal, getting the other team’s rear-guard retreating in the process.
In this case, he then played an exquisite one-two with Aleksandar Mitrovic before rifling home an emphatic finish from the edge of the box.
Although there can be an element of directness in Carvalho’s game due to his pace, it’s not raw speed that makes him unique.
Rather, it’s the Fulham star’s quick feet and agility that stands out, and the ability to wriggle past opponents in crowded areas.
This means that while Carvalho would fit seamlessly into transitional attacks at Liverpool, he would also be an asset when it comes to breaking teams down over long spells of possession: anyone that signs needs to be able to do both and he ticks that box emphatically.
Not the Next Coutinho
Carvalho has been compared in some quarters to former Liverpool star Phillipe Coutinho, which is understandable.
The Lisbon-born forward shares the Brazilian’s preference for drifting into the left channel, as well as the ability to light up an otherwise stagnant contest with an individual moment of magic.
Carvalho, though, is arguably an even better-rounded package with an even higher long-term ceiling.
Firstly, the 19-year-old is more direct and, if he finds himself in the half-spaces just in front of the left of the ‘D’, he would consider attacking the penalty area before cutting the ball back, where Coutinho might be more inclined to attempt a curler towards the far post.
That is not to say that Carvalho does not also have a curler into his locker, but that he would attempt it because the game state dictates it the best option, as opposed to that being an individual tendency.
Secondly, the 5’7” forward is incredibly aggressive for his diminutive stature and is not shy to a physical duel.
Pressing is a key part of the modern game and while Carvalho is press resistant, at times displaying shades of assured playmakers like Mesut Ozil, he is also a key asset in the press himself, which is a pre-requisite in a Klopp side.
Carvalho averages 1.31 tackles per 90 minutes and 0.74 won, 0.53 interceptions and 0.96 possessions won final third, in a team that is favourites to win every league game.
Of course, there is some context to be added based on the fact Carvalho is playing in a lower division.
Chelsea are third in the Premier League whereas Luton are fourth in the Championship, and there is arguably a bigger gulf in class between Fulham and everyone in their league third downwards than there is between Liverpool and those third downwards in the top flight.
This could be interpreted as a reason to think Carvalho will have more opportunities to expose opponents, due to them being lesser skilled, especially when playing out from the back.
He’d be an ideal player in Liverpool high-pressing game, with the Reds having the most high turnovers in total (354) in the Premier League this season, as well as the most shots (57) and goals (6) from these situations. It wouldn’t be a tough transition for Carvalho, as Fulham play in a similar way in the Championship in 2021-22, attempting the second-most shots (57) from high turnovers and the scoring the second-most goals (9) from them.
What’s noticeable is that while Mohamed Salah is arguably the best player in the world and brings unique quality to Liverpool in the final third, his and Sadio Mane’s pressing contributions are not everything, necessarily.
When both start, there is a significant dependence on Firmino to lead the press, then feed his wing-men on turnovers.
If Liverpool bring in Carvalho, although he is not on Salah’s level in terms of final third execution, he would be a more prominent figure in the press and would take some of the weight off Firmino.
The 4-2-3-1 Option
4-3-3 has been Liverpool’s starting formation in all 29 league games this season, and it would be hard to argue against Klopp keeping that as his go-to system in 2022-23, given how well it has worked.
Conversely, that does not mean 4-3-3 will thrive forever and it’s important to look for new ways to improve, without compromising the synergy of what has worked so well.
Midfielders have scored just 12 league goals between them this term and while this team has far more creativity from deep than it did in the earlier stages of Klopp’s reign, especially with the likes of Thiago Alcantara in the mix, that does not mean that they could not add more strings to their bow.
Although Carvalho would take little time to adjust to operating as part of a flat front-three, preferably on the left, his role for Fulham this term has been as the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, which became a 4-1-4-1 in possession.
The general pattern of play under Marco Silva has been to look for triangle sequences in wide areas involving the relevant full-back and wide forward plus either the right-sided midfielder or, on the left, Carvalho.
Klopp could introduce this dimension to his side by starting with a double-pivot of Tiago and Jordan Henderson, then as play progresses, allowing the former to become a single-pivot dictating the tempo, with the latter then joining Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold in the right channel.
Liverpool can then find symmetry on the left with combination play between Andrew Robertson, Mane and Carvalho, as a means to exploit wide areas when opponents are denying space centrally.
There have been games this season in which the Merseysiders would have gained more than they would have lost if they had the ability to add an extra forward into the mix.
In August’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea, for example, would the Reds have scored against 10 men in the second half if Klopp had been able to make an alteration that was not like-for-like?
Had Carvalho had been on the bench against Brighton in October, rather than Minamino, would Klopp have been open to switching things up earlier, after they had got the score back to 2-2?
In December’s 1-0 loss at Leicester, would they have equalized and even won if Klopp had been able to bring on Carvalho for Fabinho with 26 minutes to play, rather than James Milner?
This might seem like unnecessarily picking holes in a side that has won 14 in 16 and, in the other two games, won an EFL Cup Final and progressed to the Champions League quarter-finals.
However, Liverpool will need to continue to find new angles for improvement in order to keep the chasing pack at arm’s length and Carvalho would help them shake things up in-game.
Liverpool were expected to clinch a deal for Carvalho on deadline day this year, but it fell through late on.
The teenage prodigy, who has already reached Portugal’s Under-21s age group, is out of contract at Craven Cottage in the summer.
Despite this, Liverpool and Fulham are still likely to agree a fee, with both keen to avoid a tribunal process by resolving the situation on their own terms.
A key part of a solution that may please both parties may be Neco Williams being loaned to the West London club for a full Premier League campaign, with the right-back having starred in the Championship.
A potential downside of this would be that Liverpool may need to recruit a right-back understudy to Trent Alexander-Arnold this summer as a temporary measure, or hope Sepp van den Berg is ready, after his excellent loan spell at Preston North End.
It would, however, mean the club would need to fork out a lower fee to secure Carvalho’s services: doing so would be a masterstroke for the Reds.
Liverpool need players with world-class potential who would not cost the earth: Carvalho is unquestionably one of them.
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