Eyebrows were raised when Liverpool signed Wataru Endo in the summer, but the Japan captain is starting to justify that faith and will be a big miss now that he is heading to the Asian Cup.

Wataru Endo’s first start for Liverpool was a difficult task to say the least.

The Japan international had featured for 28 minutes off the bench in the 3-1 win over Bournemouth a week earlier and lined up at St James’ Park for Liverpool’s trip to Newcastle United.

Within half an hour, Endo was part of a team that was 1-0 down and playing with 10 men after captain Virgil van Dijk had been sent off. He didn’t disgrace himself but looked a bit overawed by the speed of the game around him. He was replaced by Harvey Elliott before the hour and watched from the bench as super sub Darwin Núñez rifled in a late brace to turn things around for the visitors.

Just over four months later, Endo started again in the reverse fixture at Anfield. With 11 men on the pitch for the duration, Liverpool dominated Newcastle with Endo looking at ease, calm and composed as he helped to pull the strings. Jürgen Klopp’s men racked up 7.11 expected goals in their 4-2 win, the highest xG on record (since 2010-11) from one team in a Premier League game.

When Liverpool signed Endo in August, there were more than a few eyebrows raised. Many had never heard of him, and even though others who were aware of Endo’s talents spoke highly of him, there was still plenty of surprise that Liverpool deemed him worthy of the famous red shirt.

Having spent the summer transfer window signing bright young midfielders as part of a long-term rebuild, and also having had a nine-figure bid for Brighton’s Moisés Caicedo prove unsuccessful after the Ecuadorian chose Chelsea, the last thing people expected Liverpool to do was to go for a 30-year-old from the Bundesliga for a reported £16 million.

Unsurprisingly, Endo was eased slowly into things at Anfield.

He started games here and there in the UEFA Europa League and EFL Cup, but following that first game in Newcastle, Endo didn’t start again in the Premier League until mid-November’s home win against Brentford.

He was back on the bench for the 1-1 draw at Manchester City as well as the dramatic home game with Fulham, where he came on with Liverpool 3-2 down and scored a spectacular equaliser, just prior to Trent Alexander-Arnold firing in the winner in a 4-3 success.

That impact saw him play the full 90 minutes of the 2-0 win at Sheffield United, where Alexis Mac Allister suffered an injury that would keep him out until the new year. That meant Endo was going to be needed during the busy festive period, and Klopp made full use of the 30-year-old.

Endo went on to start five games in 13 days, becoming the first outfield player to do so for the club since January 2006. It wasn’t just out of necessity, though. He was keeping his place on merit, becoming a key part of more controlled Liverpool performances.

His showing in the 2-0 win at Burnley on Boxing Day drew particular praise from his manager, who said afterward: “I loved his game, I have to say. It’s a bit of a shame he finds his feet and now he goes to the Asian Cup.”

Endo possession won PL

And that’s the unfortunate thing for both Endo and Liverpool. It feels as though the player has started to figure out English football, but now will miss up to five weeks of the season while away at the AFC Asian Cup with Japan.

In his final outing before heading off for the tournament in Qatar, Endo shone against Newcastle. He attempted (69) and completed (63 – 91.3%) more passes than any other Liverpool player despite playing just 75 minutes. He attempted 37 passes in the Newcastle half, completing 91.9% of them, and made three interceptions. Only Alexander-Arnold (four) made more.

Endo pass map v Newcastle

The difference between games with and without Endo does seem striking. Just looking at the Premier League this season, Liverpool have won six of the eight games (75%) Endo has started, but only seven of the 12 games he hasn’t (58.3%). They’ve also conceded just five goals in those eight games (0.6 per game) versus 13 in the 12 when he hasn’t started (1.1 per game).

That, of course, doesn’t take into account games where he came off the bench where – as mentioned already – he has also made a difference, such as in the 4-3 victory over Fulham. In Premier League games where Endo has featured at any time, Liverpool have won 11 of 15 (73.3%), scoring 34 goals (2.3 per game) and averaging 2.4 points per game. In the five games where Endo didn’t play a single minute, Liverpool won just two (40%) and scored only nine goals (1.8 per game), averaging 1.8 points per game.

Liverpool with-without Endo

When we looked at Endo in the summer following his move to Liverpool, we noted that he was particularly strong in the air. No Bundesliga midfielder won more than his 219 aerial duels during his time at Stuttgart, winning 2.2 out of 3.7 per 90 minutes. That has continued in the Premier League this season, with no Liverpool midfielder able to match his 1.9 aerial duels won per 90 (from an average of 3.6 contested). Only eight midfielders in the Premier League to have played at least 500 minutes have won more aerial duels per 90.

Endo also had the most attacking sequence involvements for Stuttgart in the Bundesliga last season (129). That hasn’t been the case at Liverpool. Of Klopp’s midfielders who have played at least 180 minutes in the Premier League this season, Harvey Elliott (7.9), Dominik Szoboszlai (6.7), Curtis Jones (5.9) and Ryan Gravenberch (5.0) have all averaged more attacking sequence involvements per 90, though Endo’s 4.8 is marginally more than Mac Allister (4.7).

Liverpool ASI PL midfielders 2023-24

When Liverpool signed Endo, Klopp made a point of showing gratitude that he had a midfielder whose primary mindset was to defend. The club had missed out on Caicedo, while also losing another reported target in Roméo Lavia to Chelsea.

At a test event for Liverpool’s renovated Anfield Road stand in December, Klopp told the crowd: “The summer we had, we had a few strange things happen in the transfer market but here, between us, I can say, ‘My god, were we lucky, eh?’. We didn’t know that in that moment and it didn’t feel like it in that moment, but yeah, I’m really happy that it worked out…” before joking:

“We obviously realised that other central defensive midfielders don’t want to join Liverpool, you see what happens, and then we found [Wataru] Endo. He’s an exceptional player.”

One of the main jobs for Endo when he arrived was to be an improvement on the outgoing Fabinho, who struggled for form last season and was ultimately sold to Al-Ittihad of the Saudi Pro League.

In all competitions, Endo is ahead of the Brazilian’s numbers from last season for tackles per 90 (2.22-2.19), interceptions (1.50-1.25), possession won (6.8-5.9), possession won in the final third (0.92-0.71) and passes (64.4-60.3).

He also compares similarly to Mac Allister, who is the only other player to regularly take up the deepest-lying midfield role this season. The former Brighton man and FIFA World Cup winner does have higher numbers for passes forward under pressure than Endo (5.6-2.2), suggesting he is more adventurous on the ball, but the former Stuttgart player’s tidiness and more risk-averse nature has arguably been a key part of Liverpool’s calmer performances of late.

Endo v Mac Allister all comps

Regarding Endo, Klopp recently said: “We don’t give people time anymore… Some of the biggest players this club in my era ever saw needed time to adapt. Some others didn’t. But some big players did.

“Andy Robertson didn’t play half a year, pretty much was not in the squad! And Fabinho we had to change the system for because he couldn’t play [as the] six alone [at first]. Later on he could play that easily, made it his position, so it’s all fine.

“You need a bit of time, that’s all. We see [Endo] every day in training and he is one of the hardest-working people I ever met. It was always clear that it will be good, but I’m happy obviously for him the public could see it now as well, because that’s pretty helpful in our job.”

Liverpool fans have gone from wondering if Endo is good enough to play for them to hoping Japan go out of the Asian Cup as early as possible.

As the great Bill Shankly once said: “A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.”

Endo will never be a figure as iconic as Alisson, Van Dijk or Mohamed Salah, but keep carrying that piano and he will justify Liverpool’s decision to take a leap of faith.

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