James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum have been two key cogs in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool machine for the last few years.
Their contributions have helped the Reds become champions of England, Europe and the world.
In a side built to get the best out of the attacking stars at the club, Milner and Wijnaldum have been vital in ensuring that Liverpool are not too open from a defensive aspect.
Their defensive nous, incredible know-how and outstanding leadership abilities have been key to establishing Liverpool as one of the world’s best sides.
Both are fantastic with the ball too. Wijnaldum rarely loses it and has also come up with some massive goals for the side. Meanwhile, Milner has become underrated ever since he burst into life in the Premier League in 2002.
While the Dutchman is a more regular starter, Milner is often brought on when Klopp’s team is defending a lead, acting as another on-field coach.
However, it looks like the time for the duo to finally leave the club is approaching.
30-year-old Wijnaldum’s contract is up in summer 2021, meaning that he can agree a pre-contract move away in January. The Athletic report that it would take a major change of heart to prevent him leaving next summer.
Milner’s deal runs until 2022 so is less likely to leave, but he is now 34-years-old. He recently picked up a rare injury, proving that even he is not immune to ageing limbs.
There has long been talk of him re-joining boyhood club Leeds United for one more run before retiring. This summer may be his last chance to do this.
Current midfield depth
If both men were to leave, Jordan Henderson and Thiago would be the only No 8s left at the club that Jurgen Klopp seems to trust defensively.
Thiago has only played twice for the club but has been thrown straight in when fit. He will most likely be trusted completely by next summer. However, his fitness is an issue, so it cannot be guaranteed.
The other No 8s in the squad currently are Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones.
All three of these are more likely to burst forward than the likes of Wijnaldum or Milner. This can leave gaps for the opposition to exploit.
None of them are yet on-field coaches akin to their current teammates. For example, Naby Keita is not going to come into the side and start bossing teammates around ensuring they are correctly positioned and giving their all.
As a local lad, Jones looks set to be one of the team’s key leaders for years to come. But at 19-years-old, he still has plenty to learn in order for Klopp to fully trust him in the biggest games.
Can Naby Keita or Oxlade-Chamberlain develop into more reliable presences? It’s possible, but neither’s fitness can be relied on.
In fact, Keita is arguably very close as it stands, but he keeps getting injured.
He does have fantastic defensive numbers, but his positioning is still questioned. It is fine for the most part, but at times he gets too far forward and simply does not have the energy to get back. This is undoubtedly down to injury preventing him from being at peak physical condition.
So, say the first choice midfield is Fabinho at 6 and Henderson and Thiago either side of him. If one drops out, Naby Keita is the first choice to fill in. Yet if two are unavailable, Liverpool would be very open defensively.
There is also a need for another defensive option on the bench to come on and replace tired legs.
In short, Liverpool absolutely need to sign a midfielder next summer.
How to replace the irreplaceable Wijnaldum and Milner
Any new signings would need to tick a fair few boxes.
When looking for the replacement, the new man must have great in-game intelligence, first and foremost. They need to understand complex tactics and have the ability to comprehend exactly where they need to be on the field.
Klopp must trust in them defensively. The manager will want to play a 6 plus at least one trustworthy 8. A potential new signing would have to be able to cover for his attack-minded partner.
They do not provide elite defensive numbers. Klopp’s midfielders do not rack up six tackles and interceptions per game. They just need to be positionally aware and know when to commit or simply standoff and allow someone else to make the tackle.
Next, the player would have to have a good injury record. Wijnaldum is probably the perfect case study when looking at the argument of availability being a key trait in a footballer. There is no point in signing the perfect player if he is only going to play 10-15 games a season.
Another quality needed is leadership. Milner is Liverpool’s vice-captain and Wijnaldum is fourth-captain. He also captains his country.
Now, ideally, the new signing would be young, so it would be tough to get someone who has both youth and character. Signing someone who can grow into a leadership role would do, similar to what Wijnaldum himself did.
The final box that needs ticking is versatility. If Milner goes, Liverpool will not only lose a midfielder, but also the second-choice right-back and third-choice left-back. This opens a whole new debate about whether Neco Williams is ready to be Trent’s deputy or will they need to invest in another right-back.
Meanwhile, Wijnaldum has proved to be more than useful when playing as a No 6 in the absence of Fabinho and Henderson. He has also proved for his country that he could possibly be an elite No 10.
So the new man would have to do more than just play as an 8.
The trouble with linking players to Liverpool is that the club almost never makes the obvious signing.
There was nobody writing that Mo Salah. Sadio Mane or Diogo Jota were perfect for the side. Yet look at them now.
The transfer committee of Klopp, Michael Edwards and Mike Gordan, with the help of scouts and data analysts, will most likely have the ideal target up their sleeves.
Wijnaldum and Milner are both loved by Klopp, but neither put up quality numbers.
So finding a potential target is a lot tougher than simply looking at which young players are putting up fantastic statistical numbers.
However, we do have some options eyed up.
Eduardo Camavinga is absolutely a star of the future. He is already performing at an elite level for Rennes having just turned 18. He put up an insane 5.6 tackles and interceptions in Ligue 1 last season.
Yet his game is based on flying out of the line into challenges, unlike Wijnaldum. He is still very young to be able to understand Klopp’s system perfectly. All the same, he does look like a certified star of the future, so could be worth the risk.
Another young French prospect is Lyon’s Maxence Caqueret, who is probably more tactically-astute of Camavinga. He has an interesting profile, putting together four defensive contributions a game.
Caqueret is more similar to Wijnaldum in the sense that he is shorter in stature. He displays good leadership despite his young age, often captaining France’s youth sides. The 20-year-old would certainly come cheaper than Camavinga and seems to tick a number of boxes.
Fellow teenage youngsters like Jude Bellingham and Ryan Gravenberch are other options. However, a move to Liverpool to become a regular is a bit too much for them right now.
If young Liverpool are looking to avoid signing players that young, there are some interesting and slightly older options.
Andy Robertson’s close friend John McGinn is always impressive at Aston Villa. He could certainly offer energy and leadership to the side but is probably too attack-minded for this position.
The likes of Sander Berge, Florian Neuhaus, Mikel Merino, Tyler Adams and Amadou Haidara are the final names on our longlist.
All are a good age and have good numbers with lots of room to improve.
The top options
James Ward-Prowse is currently thriving at Southampton. He has gone from a decent Premier League footballer to a fantastic one in the last two years, gaining some England caps in the process.
He seemingly ticks all the boxes. As captain of his team, Ward-Prowse is obviously a great leader.
Ralph Hasenhuttl plays a similar pressing style to Jurgen Klopp, albeit with a 4-4-2 rather than a 4-3-3. In fact, this is a great sign as if Ward-Prowse can be trusted in a midfield pair, he is definitely intelligent enough to play in a three with an extra body to help him.
While not a vital stat in Klopp’s mind, Ward-Prowse has put up much better tackle and interception numbers than Wijnaldum in the last two seasons. In 2019/20, JWP put up 3.1 per game to Wijnaldum’s 1.8. So far this season, it is four to 1.5 in the Southampton man’s favour.
The Portsmouth-born player has an astonishing injury record, missing only 11 games since 2015. Last season, he played every minute of every game in the league.
Finally, Ward-Prowse is a natural No 8, but could feasibly play as a No 6 with few problems. His energy outstanding crossing ability could also see him used as a right-back if needed.
These factors, combined with the fact that he only recently turned 26 and is homegrown seem to make James Ward-Prowse an almost perfect target.
The player himself would surely jump at the chance to play for one of the best teams in the world. While it may be hard for him to leave the club he has been at since 2003, opportunities like this are once in a lifetime.
The only issue may be a transfer fee. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that the Saints would sell to Liverpool for the right price. Yet the local hero and captain in the prime of his career would come at a big cost.
While Ward-Prowse does fit the mould of a fantastic squad player for the Reds, some may argue that Liverpool would be better off putting the money towards someone that is going to be a guaranteed starter for the next few years.
Yet Liverpool are at a stage where they have a good plan for the future in place, so they can hold off on signing the next megastar midfielder for another while.
For example, signing Jude Bellingham in perhaps 2022 or 2023 to replace Henderson would be a fantastic shout, but someone like Ward-Prowse would be great to hold the fort alongside the captain until then.
Next on the list is RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer. The 23-year-old had an outstanding campaign last season, helping his side to a very good season.
His game is based on defensive work in the middle third. He is probably more likely to spring out of the line to try and win the ball, with 11.7 successful pressures per 90 last season.
He was successful with 3/5’s of his tackles. So, if he was to sign for Liverpool, he would probably have to take a slightly more conservative approach to ball-winning. But he has the general desire to win the ball and the intelligence to adapt.
The reason we know he has this intelligence is the fact that he plays a very complex role in the team. His manager Julian Nagelsmann rotates between a back three and a back four, sometimes even in the same game.
Laimer can often be seen playing as a right-sided No 8 when Leipzig are without the ball, before pushing wide to a right-wingback when his team has possession. It takes a fantastic knowledge of the game to be able to carry out these instructions to such good effect.
As proven above, Laimer is also versatile. He has no problem playing as a No 6, as a No 8 in a three or as part of a double-pivot. The Austrian can also play at right-back.
Laimer is currently out with an ankle fracture but has proved very resilient until now. This type of contact injury is nothing to worry about, as he is not the type to pick up consistent muscle injuries.
Like Ward-Prowse, Laimer ticks a lot of the boxes for Liverpool. Yet due to his club’s astonishing depth, he should come a lot cheaper. Leipzig are a selling club and with Adams, Haidara, Marcel Sabitzer and Kevin Kampl still at the club, they should have no problem selling for the right price.
Finally, we have one of Italy’s exciting crop of talented young midfielders.
Nicolo Barella, Stefano Sensi, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo and Sandro Tonali are all fighting it out to displace the likes of Marco Veratti and Jorginho in the Azzurri midfield. Yet possibly the most well-rounded of this batch is Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli.
The 22-year-old came through the ranks at both Atalanta and AC Milan, making his senior debut for the Rossoneri in 2016. He failed to nail down a regular starting berth at the San Siro and moved on to his current team in 2018.
Since then, he has come on leaps and bounds. He really took off last season and has continued this form so far this campaign.
Locatelli is similar to Wijnaldum in the sense that he is very press resistant. He is brilliant at getting himself out of trouble, even when it looks like he is about to be dispossessed.
He also takes 1.8 shots, makes 1.4 key passes and completes one dribble per game.
In fact, his running and dribbling style is quite similar to that of Curtis Jones. However, Locatelli does a lot more defensive work. This season, he is making 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game.
While not an identical statistical profile to Wijnaldum, Locatelli looks set to become an elite box-to-box midfielder, with loads of time on his side.
One thing for sure is that Wijnaldum and Milner will be incredibly difficult to replace. But Liverpool have quite a few options that they could look at.