After years of blissful stability and gradually swelling success, Liverpool are beginning to see the downside of keeping their core squad in place for so long.
Winning the Champions League and the Premier League in successive seasons was an unthinkable dream before Jurgen Klopp took over, but backed by the unshakeable faith of the owners, he made it a reality.
But the club are slowly reaching a point where the strategy that got them there is causing problems. The bedrock of Klopp’s tried and tested team is made up of players at the same age, on similar contract terms, and those factors are looking less and less favourable as the years go on.
Jordan Henderson’s situation is the headline concern, but he is one of 11 Liverpool players whose deals are due to expire in two years’ time. That cabal includes the famous front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, as well as Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho – five pillars of the starting XI at full strength.
With the exception of Fabinho, each of those players will be well into their 30s by the time the summer of 2023 comes around.
If Liverpool were to meet the contract demands of each of those players, the carefully crafted wage structure than has turned transformed them back into a self-sustainable titan of the European would have to go out the window.
They would also have one of the oldest teams in the Premier League for years to come, even if they maintain their policy of signing young, hungry players at the breakthrough point of their careers.
As hard as it is for fans to accept, it’s not possible for Liverpool to keep all of those players beyond the expiry of their current contracts. If they want to have sustainable, long-term success, sacrifices are going to have to be made, and that will mean a few more emotional Gini Wijnaldum-esque departures in the years ahead.
Of the players out of contract in two years’ time, it’s likely Nat Phillips and Xherdan Shaqiri will be moved on soon. Rhys Williams is young enough that a new contract and a few loan spells away look realistic, while Naby Keita, it’s rumoured, is close to penning a new deal. That leaves Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who probably wouldn’t say no to a move away after two frustrating, injury-hit seasons.
His situation, however, highlights that Liverpool need to regenerate their midfield before the situation deteriorates any further. Curtis Jones and Fabinho, provided he pens an extension, should be around for the long-term, but with Thiago entering his 30s, the options otherwise are sparse.
A younger midfielder, in the mould of Youri Tielemans or Renato Sanches, should be the next big signing.
After the injury hell of last season, Liverpool’s back line looks in decent shape for the long-run. Alisson is going nowhere between the sticks, and Caoimhin Kelleher will be his long-term understudy. Van Dijk’s contract is a concern, but Ibrahima Konate and Joe Gomez should each develop into elite centre-backs in the years ahead.
And at full-back, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold rarely miss a game, and each have three years to run. The latter could do with some backup, but that will depend on what happens with Neco Williams.
The most pressing long-term problem is at the other end of the pitch, however. Keeping Mane, Salah and Firmino just isn’t possible – they will all be well into their 30s when 2023 rolls around, and at least one will have to move on if Liverpool are to keep building for the future.
Diogo Jota may be a ready-made replacement for one of them, while Harvey Elliott, if he keeps up his current trajectory, will have a say. But at least one more signing in that area is going to be required – ideally one a little younger than Jota, to avoid history repeating itself a few years down the line.
It’s not going to be Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe, let’s face it, but PSV’s Donyell Malen, Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and Hertha’s Matheus Cunha are a few who might just fit the bill.
Liverpool’s rebuild isn’t going to be a huge, one-summer overhaul; that carries too much risk both on the pitch and off it. Instead, it will be a gradual process of refreshing here and there until they once again have a functional squad for the long-term.
With the departure of Wijnaldum and the arrivals of Jota and Konate, it’s already underway. But there will need to be plenty more business, both in and out, before the recruitment team can retreat back into the shadows and enjoy the sort of stability that led them back to the top the European game.