Using Transition Metrics To Scout For Liverpool’s Midfield

James Nalton uses some new TransferLab metrics to assess the viability of some potential Liverpool midfield signings

The day-to-day, transfer window to transfer window running of Liverpool FC continues amid a period of uncertainty around the club’s ownership and, as a result, its overall direction. The club is rumoured to be up for sale, and its owners, Fenway Sports Group, have gone as far as admitting they would welcome outside investment.

It seems likely that this extra investment will initially facilitate transfer spending and player recruitment. Liverpool have recently spent £37 million on Dutch forward Cody Gakpo, but any future additions are likely to arrive in a midfield that is considered light on quality depth and reliability.

New metrics in TransferLab can help us identify players who might be suitable to play in midfield for Jürgen Klopp’s side, and the searches detailed below throw up some familiar names along with some more unfamiliar faces.

The context

When looking at the type of player the club might sign to solve its midfield problems, a bit of context around the current hierarchy behind the scenes can help determine what a realistic transfer might look like for Liverpool at this moment in time.

The openness to external investment is likely geared towards raising transfer funds in the immediate future, but on top of this ownership issue, Liverpool appears to be in limbo when it comes to its lauded recruitment team. Sporting director Michael Edwards left the club in October and his replacement, Julian Ward, has since announced he will also leave at the end of the season, though was heavily involved in the Gakpo transfer.

A recent report in the Boston Globe – a newspaper owned by Liverpool principal owner John W. Henry – contained one key line which ties together the area of ownership and recruitment, even in this period of apparent transition.

“One possible outcome of a partial investment would be a minority partner eventually turning into a majority partner, but there is no indication that this is FSG’s preference,” read the article by the paper’s sports business writer, Michael Silverman. “New partners would need to be philosophically aligned with FSG’s fiscal tenets and team-building philosophies.”

This means team-building in a literal sense, rather than a team bonding sense, and is related to how Liverpool recruits players and other staff. The club has been known for using a combination of analytics and thorough scouting, influenced by FSG’s adherence to a sports analytics-based approach, via its background in baseball.

Recruiting a midfielder

One of the most recent quests for FSG’s recruitment team at Liverpool has been a central midfielder. Young star players were added in defence, in the shape of Ibrahima Konate, and in attack with the signings of Luis Diaz and Darwin Nuñez. The midfielder Liverpool wanted – Aurélien Tchouaméni – evaded them, with the pull of Real Madrid proving too strong.

It is to this position in the middle of the park that FSG and Ward, in his remaining time at the club, will next turn.

Names such as Jude Bellingham, Moisés Caicedo, and Enzo Fernández have been heavily linked. We can use Transferlab to assess these players, but also to filter the data to find some of the other names that might be showing up on the screens of Liverpool’s soccermetricians.

Using a combination of TransferLab’s metrics, we can start to look at players with qualities related to Liverpool’s style of play, specifically counter-pressing and probing possession. This can combine the quality and quantity of off-ball pressing work, with the effectiveness of actions once the ball is won, specifically transition pass security and transition pass quality. Using those two metrics along with counter-pressing recoveries and high regains (quality and quantity per 90) should give us some very Liverpool, or at least Jurgen Klopp-type players.

Reassuringly, Tchouaméni ranks highly once these filters are applied. It becomes increasingly evident why the Frenchman was the dream signing, but his profile can also be used as the scouts turn their attention elsewhere.

The results using the Transferlab data when applying the above filters, and looking for players under 25, are below.

Different players will stand out for different scouts and fans depending on the league they cover or watch most regularly, but two players that may stand out for Liverpool, beyond Touchameni, are the Portugal-based pair of Manuel Ugarte (Sporting) and Florentino Luis (Benfica).

It is unlikely the club would go for the latter as they may have already outstayed their welcome at Benfica for now after signing Núñez and pursuing Enzo Fernández, the playmaker to Luis’s defensive midfielder. 

That does, however, indicate Luis as suitable for the deepest role in the midfield three as a Fabinho alternative. It will be interesting to see how he develops as a Portugal call-up is likely just around the corner post-World-Cup. One to keep an eye on.

Ugarte may be the more realistic option. His appearance with this filter applied shows he has the engine and ability to aggressively press high up the pitch from the defensive midfield position. When watching Liverpool games, it appears this is something the deepest player in their three-man midfield is often asked to do.

Liverpool likes shopping in Portugal in recent times – see Luis Díaz, Núñez, and potentially Fernández – so Ugarte will certainly be a player of whom they are aware.

As for midfield players who might be slightly less defensive and can do something immediately after the ball is won, the scatter plot below looks at players in some of the top leagues in Europe during the past year for transition pass security and transition pass quality.

These players, especially those lower and to the right, are likely midfielders stationed in front of a defensive midfielder who make more risky passes in an attempt to create chances. It is reassuring for Liverpool that their own English wonderkid, Harvey Elliott, features.

Caicedo and Maxence Caqueret also appear, two players who would be ideal for the middle role in a midfield three, somewhere between that of the deepest (Fabinho) and most attacking (Elliott) players.

Russian attacking midfielder Arsen Zakharyan of Dynamo Moscow is also worth keeping an eye on as someone who could play the Elliott role as the most advanced of the three. There are already strong rumours the Russian will move to Chelsea once they are able to send money the way of Dynamo.

When scouting for Liverpool players it can be easy to fall into a trap of just looking for players who press a lot and work hard off the ball, but there need to be elements of security in possession and creativity to go along with this. This is what the transition pass security and transition pass quality metrics can give us.

Another consideration is that there might be players who would suit Liverpool’s style but the style of play at their current team means they are not as active in terms of pressing and transition-heavy football, even if they might have the ability to perform well in such as system.

Sometimes in the search for players performing well at the more extreme ends of particular sets of data can mean other suitable players are missed.

To tweak the search slightly, a few metrics have been added to the profile related to build-up play—one-touch passes, line-breaking passes, and switches of play—which are recognisable parts of a good Liverpool attacking move. We can set the importance of these to five stars, and knock the importance of the metrics used in the previous search down to three stars.

Filters of under 25 and more than 800 minutes in the last 12 months have been applied. There are some familiar names on the list. Tchoameni tops the chart. Caqueret and Nail Umyarov also rank highly, while the appearance of Brazilian-American midfielder Johnny Cardoso, currently with Internacional in Brazil, hints he could offer the United States something they were lacking at the World Cup.

Morten Hjulmand also appears again, making his way to the top row when these passing metrics are added, while they also see the additions of Alexis Mac Allister and Djibril Sow high on the list as new entries. 

To address the elephant in the data analysis bunker, the names of Bellingham and Fernández are yet to appear, but we can look at their scores individually using the above profile.

Bellingham appears around the third page of our list and generally scores well for most of the desired metrics. There is a good combination of transition work and creativity, and he’s encouragingly high in the one-touch pass column indicating good technique and awareness.

This reinforces the idea that traditional scouting can be supported by data, just as data can back up or challenge ideas formed after watching players.

Fernández appears much lower down the list with a score of 80 using these particular metrics, but the Argentine ranks highly for the more creative elements. 

If Liverpool is looking for a defensive midfielder, Fernández is not it, but that’s not what they’ll be looking for from the World Cup winner. Should they sign him, he’ll be used for his playmaking abilities, whether from deep or as a No.8, but they might need one of the other players who have been lauded above for their defensive contributions, to complement him.

Ideal midfield trios from our search results might be Ugarte, Fernández, and Bellingham, or Luis, Caqueret and Caicedo, for example.

Given Tchouameni was the dream signing, it would make sense to use Transferlab’s similar players tool to identify those who match the young Frenchman’s data profile.

The same filters have been used as before—under 23 and more than 800 minutes played in the last 12 months—but instead of using the LFC midfielder profile we manually created, the built-in Transferlab profile for defensive midfielders (all round) has been used.

Real Sociedad’s Martín Zubimendi, who is rumoured to be a target for Barcelona as a replacement for Sergi Busquets, ranks highly, as do a number of Premier-League-based players including Declan Rice, Boubacar Kamara, Vitaly Janelt, and Tyler Adams. The most familiar name from the previous searches is Lyon’s Caqueret.

The number on the left is a similarity score and the number on the right is each player’s score for the defensive midfield profile.

For good measure, we can also use the tool to look for similar players to Fabinho, as a lot of the focus on the midfield rebuild will be on finding a successor to the Brazilian.

Some familiar names again, including Tchouameni…

Liverpool filled a gap and added quality depth in attack with the signing of Gakpo, but a pressing need for new players in midfield remains.

The reasons for targeting Tchouameni are there for all to see in his performances and in his data, and though there might not be any players who match all of Liverpool’s requirements in one package as well as the young Frenchman, there are certainly plenty of options out there who will fit the various roles in Klopp’s midfield. 

There are also high hopes at the club for young players at the club such as Elliott and 18-year-old Stefan Bajcetic, but there is no doubt that staff and fans alike realise the need for new signings in this area. Caqueret, Bellingham, Caicedo, Ugarte, and Fernández would all fit the bill for a role in Liverpool’s midfield, but as was the case with Gakpo, another name could emerge from nowhere.

Header image copyright IMAGO/Buzzi

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