As the old saying goes, better late than never, and that was the case for Liverpool during this month’s transfer window. Following Joël Matip’s injury in the Reds’ 3-1 win over Tottenham, Jürgen Klopp was left without his first three centre-back choices for the remainder of the season.
Despite the hierarchy at Anfield suggesting they would not dive into the transfer market for another defender, Matip’s injury sent the Reds in to a frantic search to find a replacement that would ensure their title challenge and Champions League quest would not be derailed.
By the 11pm deadline, both Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak had signed on the dotted line, allowing the pressure on Liverpool’s defensive problems to ease and potentially free the likes of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho to their more familiar roles.
Whilst the defensive transfers had been anticipated, one transfer that nobody saw coming was the departure of Takumi Minamino to Southampton.
Subject to a late enquiry from the Saints, the Japanese international joined on loan for the rest of the season having found game time minimal since his arrival from RB Salzburg a year ago. The 26-year-old very much remains in Klopp’s plans, but gaining regular game time at a side pushing for the Europa League places could prove to be a shrewd piece of business by the champions.Embed from Getty Images
Minamino caught the eye during the 2019/20 Champions League group stage, playing a pivotal part in RB Salzburg’s remarkable comeback at Anfield after being 3-0 down. Another name that captured the attention of European clubs was Erling Håland. The Norwegian had become a prolific goalscorer during that Champions League campaign and ultimately, both Minamino and Håland secured moves away from Austria in last January’s transfer window.
The 20-year-old striker joined Borussia Dortmund whilst Minamino jetted off to Liverpool, however only one of those players has seen their career really take flight.Embed from Getty Images
Since swapping Austria for Anfield, the Japan international has found first-team opportunities hard to come by, resulting in the majority of his appearances coming from the bench. Alongside this, the signing of Diogo Jota and the re-emergence of Xherdan Shaqiri slowly pushed Minamino further down the pecking order.
Klopp explained that Minamino was a ‘long-term investment’, despite continuing to bench the Japanese international going in to the 2020/21 season. However, during the congested Christmas schedule, Minamino started his second game of the season against Crystal Palace and scored his first Premier League goal a year after it was announced he would be joining Liverpool.
Many Liverpool fans hoped this would give Minamino the confidence to kick on and make his mark in a Liverpool shirt, however he has only played six minutes of Premier League football since.
Whilst Liverpool fans became frustrated with the lack of impact made by the 26-year-old, there are many factors as to why Minamino hasn’t hit the ground running just yet.
The elephant in the room that has affected everyone in the United Kingdom, the coronavirus pandemic. Moving country and league in the middle of the season is never easy – particularly when you aren’t fluent in the language of the nation you now call home – but the acclimatisation was made even harder when the opening months at your new club are spent locked at home away from your team-mates and the training ground.Embed from Getty Images
In times before Covid-19, Minamino would have spent the majority of his time perfecting his craft under the guidance of Klopp’s tactical nous. The midfielder would have been exposed to his new team-mates, allowing to settle the nerves and get to know the players he would now be playing with. Instead, he was confined to the comfort of his home with Zoom calls the new-found way of keeping in contact with his fellow team-mates. Hardly the ideal introduction to English football.
Similar to this, the fixture congestion caused by the pandemic has meant the break between seasons and by extension, pre-season, was significantly shortened, therefore there was less time for the new players to become aware of Liverpool’s tactical principles.
When the Japan international has featured this season, it has either been in cup competitions or in roles he is learning. The midfielder has barely featured in a team that you would describe as Liverpool’s best in recent years, with his appearances mostly coming in makeshift selections where the team’s rhythm and familiarity are obviously hampered. It would be entirely difficult for a player to come in and immediately sync with players that he is on a different wavelength to and it has shown.
Away to Midtjylland in the Champions League, the 26-year-old played in central midfield, a role which is familiar to him, having played there during his time in Austria. He also played the same role in his other Premier League start away to Brighton. Minamino had a late goal chalked off and would have had an assist, but the in-form Jota missed a golden opportunity to finish the game off.Embed from Getty Images
Had both of those moments amounted to goal involvements, then the narrative changes and suddenly Minamino is seen in a different light. Football is fickle and the margins between success and failure are few and far in-between. Luck plays a huge role in deciding whether you make the starting XI or are sent away on loan.
To suggest that a player, who is competing with some of the finest footballers in world football, who cannot firmly plant his feet in a highly successful team in a short amount of time, has failed is very much untrue. Not being able to muscle your way past Roberto Firmino into the Liverpool team doesn’t make you a bad player, it just highlights the level of quality the English champions possess.
Now he’s made his temporary move to Southampton, Minamino has a chance to play more often under a manager in Ralph Hasenhüttl who has similar philosophies to Klopp, and in a team which still prefers to play with more of the ball when they can.
Allowing the Japanese to move temporarily to the south coast may turn out to be a stroke of genius – but he has to take his opportunities while he is away.
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