January Transfer Window Scouting Guide: 5 Players for Liverpool to Consider
Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool have made a more-than-respectable start to the new season, losing just once in their opening nine matches and having most recently put a decent West Brom side to the sword with a mightily impressive 4-1 victory.
And under the former Swansea boss, improvements continue to be made and the Reds—whisper it quietly—are certainly in the hunt for a top-four place come the end of the season.
Nonetheless, for all their strengths—the strike partnership, the depth at centre-back, Philippe Coutinho, tactical flexibility—there do remain some issues that need ironing out.
Despite the loan signing of Victor Moses, they still miss an outstanding wide player to play in high areas of the field when Rodgers selects to go away from using wing-backs.
Most importantly perhaps however is the need for a new central midfielder. Certainly Steven Gerrard and Lucas have been doing a stand-up job—aided by the hard-running Jordan Henderson—and Joe Allen (when fit) offers a good option as a deep-lying playmaker given his metronomic passing, but there remain times when they are just too easy to play through.
In their only league defeat, Southampton's Victor Wanyama constantly ate up ground with direct, striding runs through central areas. In the games against Swansea, Aston Villa and for a period at Sunderland, it has also been noticeable how when the midfield retreats closer to its own goal, it has struggled to get close to opponents and break up play before springing through the middle.
As such, a powerful, tenacious, talented central midfielder—someone who matches the energy of Henderson, with the kind of physical dominance of Yaya Toure—would be quite the addition to Rodgers' outfit.
With that in mind, here's a look at five players—and let's not kid ourselves: Ilkay Gundogan, Javi Martinez and players of that ilk will not be trading in potential Champions League winners for a move to Anfield—who Liverpool would do well to consider in January.
The Perfect Choice: Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint-Germain)
While Blaise Matuidi has been an integral part of the PSG midfield this season under Laurent Blanc, the 26-year-old's future with Le Parisiens is far from secure.
As reported by The Mirror, Matuidi is currently being eyed by Premier League sides Manchester City and Chelsea over a potential summer move, given his contract in Paris expires at the end of the current campaign. And since the French international is currently involved in a dispute with a former agent, he is as yet in no position to sign a new deal.
But rather than just watching the situation resolve itself—however that happens—why shouldn't Liverpool, lest we forget five-time European champions, make a move to tie up a cut-price move in January.
Even if you have to pay big wages—remember this is the club that gave 29-year-old Joe Cole a four-year deal on £90,000 per week—then it's the kind of deal that is worth it because it both improves your first XI and signals to your other players—Luis Suarez chief among them—that you are indeed making progress.
For the former Saint-Etienne player is exactly the kind of midfield presence that the Reds are in need of. Powerful, athletic, tenacious, he makes good decisions when in possession and is entering the prime of his career.
So far Matuidi is completing 92.7 percent of his passes, while averaging 2.6 tackles and over two interceptions per game according to WhoScored. He could add that little extra athleticism and bite to the Reds midfield.
There's a reason that Matuidi is emerging as one of France's key players in the run-up to next summer's World Cup—assuming they beat Ukraine in next month's playoff—and that's because he is an outstanding destructive midfielder.
And if Liverpool have even half a chance of snaring him from the Parc des Princes, then they'd be crazy not to.
The Below-the-Radar Pick: Steven N'Zonzi (Stoke City)
According to Portuguese newspaper A Bola this month, Liverpool fancy a quite staggering £30 million swoop for Nemanja Matic, Benfica's Serbian anchorman whose consistency and tough-tackling saw him named the Primeira Liga Player of the Year for 2012-13 as well as playing a key role in Jorge Jesus' side's run to the Europa League final.
However, the simple fact of the matter is can anyone reasonably see the Reds spending such a vast figure on a midfield destroyer?
Instead a more cost-effective target could be the Stoke City midfielder Steven N'Zonzi, who is among the Premier League's more underrated players.
The 24-year-old former Blackburn man joined Stoke at the start of 2012-13, but come the end of the campaign handed in a transfer request when the club was still under the stewardship of ex-boss Tony Pulis.
However, the Frenchman remained under new manager Mark Hughes and has been a key part of the Potters midfield this term. Playing as the holding player in a 4-3-3 the powerful N'Zonzi—who stands at 6'4"—has been consistent in his play and is a big reason why their powerful side have conceded just 10 goals in their nine matches so far, despite them sitting 17th in the Premier League table.
I reckon N'Zonzi could play in most of Europe's top clubs uno, mad underrated— big grin chris. (@SayMothers) October 26, 2013
Perhaps the idea of N'Zonzi to Liverpool will be dismissed because he isn't a "name" and doesn't play for a fashionable club. But the fact is he is actually just the kind of player Liverpool could do with at the heart of their midfield.
Impressive physically, possessing an assured touch and a personality that sees him always wanting the ball (even in a team as direct as Stoke), N'Zonzi has averaged over 63 passes per game this season and combines that with a success rate just shy of 89 percent, according to WhoScored. Additionally, he sticks his foot in, makes blocks and interceptions, and is a pretty imposing opponent.
Eighteen months ago, N'Zonzi cost Stoke a cut-price £3 million. Liverpool would have to pay double, perhaps triple that now, but given his skill set and their needs in that area, it could prove to be something of a bargain.
The Multitalented Man: Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla)
A central midfielder who can score goals, create, doesn't mind sticking a foot in and given his current club's situation may not cost the Earth—why wouldn't you be interested?
However, while the 25-year-old creator continues to improve personally—over the last 12 months his growth as a player, to the point that he is now the central hub of his team, has been astonishing to watch and testament to his quality—his club are shrouded in mediocrity, having won just three of their opening 10 Primera Liga matches, while they also remain without an away win in over a year.
Therefore, perhaps now is the time for the talented schemer to leave the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan to take the next step in his career, particularly given that he has just 18 months left on his contract.
The Croatian international is an intelligent player, capable of filling a variety of role through the spine of a side, be it as a deep-lying midfielder, box-to-box type or in an advanced role off the front (that would make him an alternative to Coutinho, who despite his brilliance is also somewhat fragile).
As such, Rakitic would be tactically perfect for Rodgers as he varies formation and the makeup of his midfield.
Additionally, his technical qualities aren't in any doubt. His passing can be both agricultural and creative, he has a decent body swerve to skip past opponents, and he also possesses a lovely balance that allows him to transition from back to front quickly.
A few shout outs for top performances in #LaLiga this weekend. Brilliant display by Rakitic for Sevilla - great goal, superb distribution— Onside Analysis (@OnsideAnalysis) October 28, 2013
But on top of that, he doesn't shirk his defensive duties either. In nine league matches this season he's picked up four bookings and is averaging 2.4 tackles and 3.0 interceptions per game, according to WhoScored.
All in, despite having been a rather flaky No. 10 during his younger days with German side Schalke, he's grown into a terrific all-rounder—a rather wonderful throwback to the days when midfield players weren't compartmentalised so much and had a little bit of everything about their play.
The Wide Option: Yehven Konoplyanka (Dnipro)
During the last 18 months or so, the Dnipro winger has grown into a key component of the national side, with Mykhaylo Fomenko's side building much of their attacking play around the fleet-footedness of either him or Andriy Yarmolenko.
His ability to beat defenders in a variety of ways, along with his devilish crossing ability, pace and intelligent movement in and around the front line, makes Konoplyanka just the kind of winger that would add something to Rodgers squad.
However, despite his wonderful technical gifts, the 24-year-old does come with something of a caveat.
With his club Dnipro, Konoplyanka has been somewhat inconsistent since the beginning of the present campaign, while last season saw him score only twice in the Ukrainian league—both in the same game. This season he has four goals in 13 matches, but has managed the full 90 minutes on only three occasions.
The hope would be that Konoplyanka is merely in need of a change of scenery—the Ukrainian Premier League is hardly one of Europe's major powerhouses—and that a move to a club like Liverpool would help him kick on and only improve as a player.
Konoplyanka:" I will leave Dnipro and will join a foreign club. But when it happens & which club is not sure at the moment. "— Andrij (@MrAndrij) October 25, 2013
Certainly he would cost a premium as he is Dnipro's most recognisable star name, and his performances with Ukraine—going back to Euro 2012—have been impressive. But he is just the kind of wide man that could add an extra dimension to Brendan Rodgers' side.
Adding Attacking Intelligence: Remy Cabella (Montpellier)
Since the departure of key midfielder Younes Belhanda, Remy Cabella has really stepped up as the main creative force at 2011-12 French champions Montpellier and could add something of an intelligent link between defence and attack for Liverpool.
The 23-year-old is a player similar to the Bayern Munich forward Thomas Muller or even Liverpool's own Coutinho, who is simply wise beyond his years.
Like those two players, Cabella interprets space extremely well and finds intelligent positions in which to receive the ball, from where he can then produce something which will hurt the opposition.
His versatility means that he plays in a number of positions for his club, but his technical quality and understanding of the game means that he does a good job pretty much wherever he is asked to play, be it wide right, left, as a No. 10 or in a deeper midfield role.
So far in Ligue 1 this season, Cabella has helped himself to five goals and four assists in nine matches. Watching him it is easy to see why he has proven such a difference-maker: full of clever angled passes, composed touched and clever delivery—much like Coutinho.
Certainly he is a player who is still developing and has more to do if he's to make a major step forward in his career—his diminutive frame means there are always going to be question marks over his strength—but he has shown that he has the cleverness to circumvent such worries.
In short he's a player of terrific quality who can occupy a number of different roles—both centrally and wide—and could add something to the Reds as they move forward this season.
Penny for your thoughts: Let me know on Twitter @AA_Richards