Liverpool Influencers Pick Their Top Summer Transfer Target

Rob LancasterFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2017

Could Virgil van Dijk be playing with, rather than against, Roberto Firmino next season?
Could Virgil van Dijk be playing with, rather than against, Roberto Firmino next season?Clive Rose/Getty Images

What comes after the football season? Silly season, of course.

The Premier League is on hiatus, but while the games offered opportunities for players to shine, the (all too brief) break is the time for agents and chief executives to step into the limelight.

Liverpool, it appears, will be taking centre stage this summer, potentially putting together an expensive production they hope will produce a footballing blockbuster, not their own version of Waterworld.

A top-four finish has raised the levels of expectation at Anfield. It's also raised the prices over potential targets; the Reds were unbeaten against their top-six rivals on the field but must now show they can also match them off it, too.

Timing is crucial. They cannot afford to wait too long to strike in what is a rapidly changing market, particularly with a huge UEFA Champions League play-off to plan for early in August.

Dawdle and you're in danger of arriving later to the scene than Jamie Carragher did when challenging Sky Sports colleague Gary Neville during Michael Carrick's testimonial at Old Trafford on Sunday.

But who should be top of Klopp's shopping list? Bleacher Report asked journalists who cover Liverpool to give their opinions on potential targets.

            

The Case For the Defence

Southampton reportedly want over £50 million for Virgil van Dijk
Southampton reportedly want over £50 million for Virgil van DijkStephen Pond/Getty Images

Like any satisfied shopper, Liverpool have shown a tendency to head back to the same store. Southampton has often become the first port of call when they've looked to strengthen in previous years.

Nathaniel Clyne, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Sadio Mane were all signed from the south-coast club. It became a running joke that whenever a Saint stood out in a Premier League game, it was just a matter of time until Liverpool made enquiries about his availability.

Southampton, though, struggle to see the funny side of this. Their summers are spent staving off the vultures—and there are several large ones now circling above Virgil van Dijk.

The defender is in high demand. However, according to Ian Doyle of the Liverpool Echo, Van Dijk is ready to reject Chelsea and Manchester City and instead follow the well-trodden path from Southampton to Anfield.

The article adds that a fee has yet to be agreed by the two clubs. Saints won't back down either, with Doyle suggesting the sellers want "in excess of £50 million" to part with one of their prized assets.

There was a further twist to the transfer story on Tuesday, as ESPN FC reported on Twitter:

Still, should Liverpool cough up such a hefty sum for a centre-back? Alex Barilaro—a writer for Anfield Index—believes so.

"Better in the air than any other centre-half in the Premier League, able to take the ball out of defence at his feet and dribble past players, and most importantly—composed in the face of a counter-attack—Van Dijk is simply the one that could make everything better," he told Bleacher Report.

"Hyperbole aside, he's an exceptional talent, a physical specimen at 6'4" and possesses a gifted football intelligence with which he's able to read the game.

"He'd do wonders alongside a similarly composed centre-half, which Liverpool have in Joel Matip. Lapses in concentration and an aversion to Sergio Aguero aside, he's everything Klopp wants and needs in order to shore up his defence."

That defence was an area of anguish in an otherwise uplifting 2016/17 campaign. Despite finishing with four successive clean sheets to secure a top-four finish, Liverpool gave up 42 goals in 38 league games.

Per WhoScored.com, they conceded 12 of those from set pieces. Considering his size and aerial prowess, Van Dijk looks like a largein every sense of the wordpurchase to plug an annoying leak at the back.

Dejan Lovren has yet to fully convince since joining from Southampton.
Dejan Lovren has yet to fully convince since joining from Southampton.ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

Bleacher Report's Karl Matchett feels this summer is the perfect time to solve a problem that has dogged Liverpool long before their current manager arrived on Merseyside.

"Liverpool absolutely have to sign a left-back, centre-back and attacking options this summer and it's tough to pick just one for importance. However, most successful teams build from the back," Matchett, who is also a contributor to This Is Anfield, said.

"Either of two Dutchmen—(Lazio's) Stefan de Vrij or Virgil van Dijk—would do the job perfectly in the centre. Since it looks as though the latter is on the shortlist, the club must make sure he's snared.

"It'll cost a huge sum, true, but the cost of not qualifying for the UEFA Champions League for another three or four seasons—which it could be, given the intense competition in the Premier League once again—would be far higher.

"Van Dijk would bring organisational play, much better reading of the game, aerial ability and technique to the back line, all of which has been sorely missing for much of the last decade.

"Now, they (Liverpool) need to establish a regular pairing, for only then will the defence be truly fixed and help the team move towards titles."

Can one man solve such a longstanding issue, though? Consider he could cost somewhere in the region of £50 million-£60 million, potentially making him the most expensive defender ever, you'd have to hope so.

           

Left Foot Forward

James Milner did a solid job for Liverpool at left-back last season.
James Milner did a solid job for Liverpool at left-back last season.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It's not just at centre-back where Liverpool's defence needs reinforcements.

Klopp pulled a hardworking rabbit out of his baseball cap when he converted James Milner from midfield runner to first-choice left-back. Deemed the safer option in comparison to the unpredictable Alberto Moreno, the former England international filled the position for 36 of Liverpool's 38 Premier League games.

Milner's performances proved you can teach an old dog (in footballing terms at least—he's only 31) new tricks. While lacking any conviction to use his left foot in advanced positions, his pace, strength and abilities on the ball allowed him to make a successful transition to the role.

However, the positional switch was also aided by a lack of European football to clog up the schedule.

Now, Liverpool are back in the Champions League. With Moreno seemingly out of favour, Klopp needs to find, at the very least, serious competition for Milner's spot in the first XI, if not a permanent upgrade.

"Liverpool need to strengthen in a number of areas this summer, specifically left-back, centre-back, wide-forward and, should Daniel Sturridge leave, centre-forward," the Guardian's Sachin Nakrani—who hosts The Runner podcast for Anfield Index—told Bleacher Report.

"In that regard, the strong links with Mohamed Salah (wide-forward) and Van Dijk (centre-back) are encouraging.

"For me, though, left-back is just is as pressing. Liverpool's options there currently are Milner, who did well in that position last season but is in no way a long-term option, and Moreno, who simply isn't good enough."

Liverpool's issues at left-back are long-running. In fact, it's been a problem position for so long that you'd settle for the second coming of Stig Inge Bjornebye these days.

Identifying the need is easy. Finding the correct player to fill the void is where it becomes much trickier, as Klopp's predecessors Rafael Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers found out.

"I would see if Benjamin Mendy is available from Monaco, and if so, at what price," Nakrani added.

"If he is out of reach, then other left-back options should definitely be investigated, particularly someone who can slot straight into the first team. Champions League experience is important.

"A left-back I would like to see come in as back-up to the main purchase in that position is Leicester's Ben Chilwell. Liverpool were linked with him a year ago, but the deal never got off the ground. I like the look of the 20-year-old, with his aggression particularly standing out."

Whether Liverpool make a move for either Chilwell or Mendy remains to be seen, but Milner needs serious competition for his spot.

             

Attack is Best Form of Defence

Mohamed Salah appears to be a target for Liverpool at the start of a busy summer.
Mohamed Salah appears to be a target for Liverpool at the start of a busy summer.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Both Nakrani and Matchett made reference to the Reds requiring extra attacking options.

Mohamed Salah appears to be a target. The Egypt international failed to make much of an impact during a previous spell in England with Chelsea but has been a revelation in Serie A, first for Fiorentina and then at AS Roma.

Per Sky in Italy (h/t Sky Sports News HQ) Liverpool agreed personal terms with Salah on Monday, although a deal is still not certain as Roma have yet to agree on a transfer fee for the flying forward.

The idea is clear though; pop Salah on the opposite flank to the lightning Mane and frighten the life out of opposing teams with pace. Liverpool became overreliant on the latter at times, struggling badly when he departed in January to play at the Africa Cup of Nations and then missing him again during the run-in.

So, could Salah and Mane be slotted in either side of a new striker?

Daniel Sturridge finished strongly as fourth place was secured in the closing weeks, but injuries and illness saw him miss 10 Premier League games last season. It is tough to build an attack around a central piece who cannot stay healthy.

Alexandre Lacazette at Anfield? The Lyon striker won't be short of suitors.
Alexandre Lacazette at Anfield? The Lyon striker won't be short of suitors.PHILIPPE DESMAZES/Getty Images

According to Neil Fissler of the Sunday Express, Alexandre Lacazette's availability could see Liverpool make a move. The Frenchman's arrival would not only question Sturridge's long-term future at Anfield but also threaten Roberto Firmino's position in the team.

Still, it will take a damned good player—and Lacazette's record suggests he is of such quality—to usurp Firmino. The Brazilian's willingness to work hard and lead the counter-press makes him something of a teacher's pet.

A ball-playing midfielder might also have been targeted, except Klopp's decision to push Philippe Coutinho into a deeper, more central role for the final few league games might have seen playmaker scrubbed off the wanted list.

"He plays at the moment kind of wing '10' but can also play as a No. 8. That is possible and maybe he will have more influence and we can involve another player on the wing," Klopp said in May, per James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo.

"That would make us stronger for sure, having his creativity in the middle of the park. He would have to adapt to that. He is young, full of talent and I'm pretty sure he thinks he is in the right place."

Wherever he lines up, Coutinho is a key building block for Klopp, who, despite the odd sticky moment, delivered excellent results in his first full season in charge.

Now, to make further strides forward both at home and abroad, the squad needs to be improved. Klopp has kept his end of the bargain by returning Liverpool to the Champions League—now the board must back him by spending big.

          

Rob Lancaster is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.