Liverpool have made a surprise move for Stuttgart midfielder Wataru Endo to address their lack of defensive midfielders. But why has Jürgen Klopp turned to the Japan international?
A week is a long time in football. Just a few days ago, Liverpool had lodged a British-record bid for Brighton’s Moisés Caicedo, who ended up going to Chelsea. Then they went back to their original target of Roméo Lavia, who ended up going to Chelsea.
On Wednesday evening, news broke that they had pivoted to Stuttgart and Japan captain Wataru Endo. Liverpool will surely have requested that Endo’s agent block Chelsea’s number before they concluded talks.
Jürgen Klopp finally has a defensive midfielder to call on, having lost both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to the Saudi Pro League earlier in the summer, but while we all speculated on who could potentially replace them, very few would have come up with Endo’s name, who is nine years older than Caicedo and 11 older than Lavia.
That’s not to say he is necessarily a bizarre choice, though.
The 30-year-old has arrived at Anfield in a deal led by new sporting director Jörg Schmadtke for a reported fee of around £16 million, £95m less than they apparently bid for Caicedo. You would assume Klopp has good knowledge of the player from the Bundesliga, where the former Mainz and Borussia Dortmund boss made his name, while the fact Endo has spent four years playing for Stuttgart also probably helps given Klopp supported them as a boy having been born in the region.
So, who is Wataru Endo?
The former Shonan Bellmare and Urawa Red Diamonds player was in his mid-20s when he made the move to Europe to Belgian side Sint-Truiden. After just one season, he was loaned to Stuttgart when they were still in the German second tier, before signing with the club permanently after their promotion back to the Bundesliga in 2019. Endo established himself as a fan favourite at MHPArena, eventually taking over the captaincy, which he also holds for his country.
Endo was a crucial part of the Japan side that impressed at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, leading the Samurai Blue to sensationally win Group E ahead of Spain and Germany, beating both along the way, before ultimately going out to eventual third-place winners Croatia on penalties in the last 16.
He should bring some extra leadership to a Liverpool squad shorn of much of it during the summer, with captain Henderson and vice-captain James Milner both departing. Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold have taken over armband responsibilities, but an added experienced voice in the dressing room and on the training field should be welcomed for a team that looked uncharacteristically lacking in, erm, character so often last season.
Endo is a battler. Across his three seasons in the Bundesliga, he competed in more duels (1,274 – winning 54.6% of them) and played the most minutes of midfielders in the competition (8,783), while winning possession the second-most times (706) and attempting the second-most tackles (207 – winning 58.5%).
Somewhat agonisingly, he has played 99 Bundesliga matches in total, so will miss out on his century assuming his move to Liverpool goes through, but we’re sure he won’t mind when he’s lining up at Anfield in the Premier League. As the above graphic shows, he played most of his games either in central midfield or as a defensive midfielder, though he has also got some experience at centre-back, which could come in handy for Klopp.
Liverpool fans will also be keen to know that despite his stature – standing at around 5ft 10in – he is fairly dominant in the air. No midfielder won more than his 219 aerial duels during his time in the German top flight, winning 2.2 from 3.7 per 90. That’s also well ahead of Fabinho (1.5 won from 2.7 per 90), Henderson (0.6 won from 1.0 per 90) and Milner (1.6 won from 3.0 per 90).
He is not just a destroyer, though, even if that is the quality that Liverpool fans will probably be most attracted to given their recent lack of an experienced defensive presence in midfield. Endo led Stuttgart for attacking sequence involvements last season with 129, made up of 35 shots, 39 chances created and 55 involvements in the build-up to a shot, with only Chris Führich (102) also managing over 100 for Stuttgart in 2022-23.
In fact, across his three seasons in the Bundesliga, only Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich (118) started more open-play sequences that ended in a shot than Endo (90), showcasing not only his ball-winning ability but his propensity to be in the right place at the right time to pick up the loose ball via a recovery.
His passing accuracy may not exactly inspire confidence (79.7% in the Bundesliga last season), but that could be partly explained by the fact that 32.1% of his passes went forward, while 9.7% were classed as long passes. These were similar percentages to Jude Bellingham, who himself only had a passing accuracy of 83.0% for Dortmund.
Like Bellingham, Endo also provides a goal threat. He recorded nine goal involvements in his 33 Bundesliga appearances (5G 4A), including the below rocket of an effort in Stuttgart’s 2-2 draw at Werder Bremen on Matchday 2, which had an expected goals (xG) value of just 0.03.
He is also a chance creator. The only players to create more chances from open play than his 46 in the Bundesliga last season were Jamal Musiala, Moussa Diaby, Raphaël Guerreiro and fellow new Liverpool midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai.
The below image is his assist for Tiago Tomás on the last day of last season against Hoffenheim, a good example of his range of vision and execution. He receives the ball deep in his own half, quickly spots the run of his teammate and launches a pass over the top of the opposition defence.
Tomás runs onto it, before winning a battle with the last defender and firing in at the near post.
That was a sign of Endo’s desire to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, which is of course key to Liverpool’s pace in transition. They like to win possession back quickly, but Klopp’s men also like to catch their opponents cold by getting the ball from one end to the other in double quick time, taking advantage of their rapid frontline.
The below images are also a good example of Endo’s strength in that area, where he overcomes a Union Berlin press in the midfield by breaking through two challenges and running into space.
He carries the ball quickly to the halfway line before launching a long pass over the top to find the run of Tomás and put him through on goal.
Tomás ultimately sees his effort saved, but from receiving the ball less than 10 yards outside his own penalty area to Tomás having a one-on-one opportunity took just seven seconds.
This is not to say that he’s some hidden gem. The fact is Endo is 30 and has never played for a club challenging near the top of a major European league. His signing has therefore raised a few eyebrows, and it’s understandable why when looking at the profile of the player compared to those Liverpool had been going after as recently as a few days ago. However, as a squad option to replace a lot of the qualities the club has lost in recent months, it seems to make a fair amount of sense.
Endo will clearly be a short-term solution. There are rumours Klopp still wants to add another defensive midfielder before the transfer window shuts, but even if he doesn’t, at least Endo would also not, in theory, get in the way of the development of promising teenager Stefan Bajcetic, who impressed when given opportunities last season.
Some Liverpool fans may be a bit underwhelmed, but as our previous article on potential Fabinho replacements hinted, this summer’s market for defensive midfielders has not exactly been a who’s who of superstars. Perhaps in a year or two it is an area the club can revisit for the long-term, should they decide against going for someone like Crystal Palace’s Cheick Doucoure now.
Those who know Endo in Germany seem to almost exclusively speak highly of his qualities as a player and a person. Former Stuttgart teammate Mario Gomez recently told a group of journalists: “I love Wataru… Wataru sat next to me in the dressing room and had a really hard time because the coach did not use him at the beginning.
“I was always telling the coach to put me in the same team as Wataru [in training] because then we will never lose. This is how it started. I was just pushing him a lot.
“At a certain point, the coach used him. And then it is not me, it is about the player, because he played fantastic. That is why he was playing, not because I told the coach that he is great. It is because he is a really great player. Now, he is the captain.”
On paper, Endo sounds like an ideal Klopp player, even if no-one was talking about him before his move was already close to completion.
For now, he has the one quality Liverpool are looking for more than any other. He is a defensive midfielder who appears to have no desire to play for Chelsea.
If you want to see who Wataru Endo compares to from last season across Europe’s top five leagues, check out our player comparison tool below.