When the dust settled on Liverpool’s crazy seven-goal thriller, in which they just about emerged unscathed, against Red Bull Salzburg in October, their fans were able to appreciate the fight brought to Anfield by their opposition that night, led by a diminutive Japanese in attack – Takumi Minamino. A man of the match performance in which he grabbed a goal and assist and caused Virgil van Dijk more problems than most turned out to be the perfect audition, as Minamino returns to Anfield, this time as a Liverpool player.
While it may seem as if Minamino appeared on the European Champions’ radar following his impressive outing in the Champions League, the truth is that Sporting Director Michael Edwards’s data-driven talent scouting department has been keeping tabs on his progress since he arrived on European shores with the move to Salzburg in 2013.
It’s easy to see why. While Erling Haaland’s goalscoring exploits have put him on top of the wishlists of the continent’s elite, Minamino has been just as vital a cog in Salzburg’s thrilling attacking machinery. To go with his 11 goals and 9 assists in just 22 appearances this campaign, Minamino possesses industry in spades, averaging 12 km a game.
On paper, then, he presents the archetypal Jürgen Klopp attacker. On the pitch too, Minamino has the key trait the ex-Dortmund boss looks for – versatility. Each of Liverpool’s 5 first-team attackers – Salah, Mané, Firmino, Origi and Shaqiri – have the ability to play in at least a couple of different positions. So does Minamino. While he has played most of his football this season on the right-wing, his tendency to float in-field saw him start at the tip of the diamond behind a front two in both games against Liverpool.
Klopp has been on the lookout for an alternative to Roberto Firmino, an understandably tough task given the tactical niche the Brazilian operates in. Minamino showed that he is more than capable of being an effective understudy to Firmino, as he harried Alisson and the Liverpool defence without the ball in their last encounter.
Out of possession, Minamino stays the furthest forward of the front three in a bid to stop the opposition backline passing their way out of the back. Once his side regains possession, it is like a trigger for him to drop deep and link the midfield to attack. His low centre of gravity and short turning circle serves him well in this endeavour, but unlike Firmino, his dribbling is more explosive.
As is the case with most new signings, Klopp is unlikely to hand minutes to Minamino from the go, gently integrating him into the set up before throwing him into the deep end. This tactic worked exceptionally well with Andy Robertson and Fabinho in particular, who had to wait months before being deemed first-team regulars. Looking on from the best seat in the house to watch and learn from Firmino and the others in this flying Reds team, Minamino will know there are worse ways to embark on the latest chapter of his career.
That is not to suggest that Minamino can not force his way into Klopp’s plans though. Having played most of his football this season on the right-wing, the prospect that Minamino could play there in this current set up is a very real one. Klopp has tried time and again to make the 4-2-3-1 formation work, with Firmino dropping into the hole ahead of a double pivot and just behind Salah, who operates as an orthodox number 9. Shaqiri and Oxlade-Chamberlain have auditioned for the spot with limited success, given their unwillingness to track back and lend Alexander-Arnold a helping hand in defence. Minamino will not shy away from his defensive duties and could well rack up the majority of his minutes in this spot.
The third and final possibility is also the most distant one, one where Minamino operates as a central-midfielder. This would be out of the question if not for Klopp’s successful transformation of Philippe Coutinho from a winger to an advanced number 8 in his final days prior to his departure to Barcelona. Minamino is a similar player to Coutinho in some aspects, and one could see why his talents might be used in the middle of the park as opposed to further forward. A starting spot in Liverpool’s midfield is at a premium, however, with competition already pretty fierce.
Whichever way one looks at it, the £7.25million that Liverpool are shelling out to activate Minamino’s release clause is a bargain. It is another fine example of Edwards’s acumen in reading the market, and understanding the value a player brings, not just in footballing terms but on the commercial side as well. A transcript of the recently concluded court hearings to decide Liverpool’s kit manufacturer for next season, in which Nike won over New Balance, revealed the club’s plans to break into the previously untapped far east market.
Securing Minamino’s signature brings with it a vast marketing opportunity to Liverpool and Nike once the deal commences this summer. While this is by no means the motivation behind the deal, it is another leap forward as owners Fenway Sports Group continue to take the club to new heights off the pitch to match the progress on it.
Jürgen Klopp put pen to paper on a new deal earlier this week, extending his stay at the club till 2024. The commitment hints at the beginning of the next phase of the team’s development, aided by new signings. If that proves to be true in the coming years, the acquisition of Minamino will indeed be a very promising start to this new era.
Written by Kabir Ali