“Jamie Vardy has to go back to being a non-league center forward again,” Gary Neville observed after Leicester City’s recent 3-0 loss to Manchester United. “Be horrible, be nasty, forget about holding the ball and bringing players into the game...rattle centerbacks, get your elbows in the air, start to fall out with people again.” It may have been the first time an analyst has told a player to be a worse player, but it makes sense in context not only for the forward but for the team. From winning headers to hitting long balls, Leicester City did all the nasty but essential aspects right last season. Aesthetics were hardly a consideration.
Leicester City is a sign of how fast Premier League life comes at you. It was no stretch to predict they wouldn’t repeat their title winning feat, or even make the Champions League this season. This even before losing N’Golo Kante to Chelsea. We didn’t imagine “regressing to the mean” to play out in a relegation battle.
At least there was a clear goal in replacing Kante first and foremost this winter window.Leicester City represent a systematic series of events as much as any team in Europe. Vardy gives the team bite and pace up front in both defense and attack. The midfield compresses space with positioning and energy, which reduces the responsibility of center backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth to clear headers. Each piece must fit.
Sir Alex Ferguson is credited with the quote that you can’t find value in the winter transfer window, although the universality of the idea seems like it could have been said by any manager depending on January for upgrades. There are arguments for abolishing the window altogether. The 2017 window was scant comparison to last year’s $200 million extravaganza, which in hindsight may be peak Premier League spending.
Every midfielder Leicester signs for the next couple seasons will be tagged with the label of “The Next Kante” regardless of when it takes place. Wilfred Ndidi, signed this winter, takes the role after Nampalys Mendy’s injury in the first match of the season and Daniel Amartey struggling to adapt to the responsibility. Ndidi is a strong tackler who enjoys running a lot, which makes him a natural successor to Kante. He already has one match winning goal to his name.
There’s the theory of the five-year grace period in American sports - that fans of a club cannot complain about the team within five years of winning a title. Those stakes are perhaps irrelevant with the variable of relegation. Currently in 16th place and one point ahead of the drop, Leicester City reaffirmed their commitment to Claudio Ranieri. Besides, with Ndidi patrolling the midfield, this is the closest they’ve been to achieving last year’s style in their post-title, hangover season.
If Leicester City’s winter window was defined by attempting to replace an irreplaceable player, Liverpool was defined by its inactivity. This could be either seen anywhere on the spectrum from a sign of squad strength to a lack of commitment from ownership. But the overarching fact remains: Liverpool have won just one league match in 2017 with only two in their last ten overall matches. There were ideas of challenging Chelsea for the Premier League title as recently as a month ago. Now, just getting into the Champions League would be a success.
Jurgen Klopp focused on improving his side’s fitness in poaching Bayern Munich trainer Andreas Kornmayer last summer. And while Klopp has passed the tactical test in transitioning between Germany and England, the biggest hurdle between the two leagues may be the lack of Premier League winter break for his physically demanding style.
A well timed transfer would seemingly have made a difference. Rumors ranged from practical - a swoop for Real Betis left back Riza Durmisi - to a shock Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang deal. In the end, with no reinforcements, there was only disappointment and a lost opportunity to fill the gap between them and a Champions League quality squad. Jamie Carragher noted that the difference between Liverpool and the top four sides wasn’t Coutinho, Adam Lallana, or Firmino, but in the lack of depth replacing those players.
This wasn’t the first time we heard rumblings due to a lack of Liverpool transfers. Supporter responses to John Henry’s tweets tell their own story. Previous manager Brendan Rodgers justified a lack of signings by saying it provided an opportunity for youth players. But it could even go as deep as representing a loss of confidence or ability in scouting the likes of Sadio Mane or Georginio Wijnaldum before they become $25 million players.
In a way, FSG’s philosophy is cursed by its early success of finding Coutinho for $10 million in the winter transfer window four years ago. It is a near impossible formula to replicate, and the meaning of value and Moneyball in relation to soccer morphs with new approaches appearing every season. But regardless of value, Liverpool’s defense has prevented Klopp’s side from reaching its potential. With the winter window open, James Milner and 18 year old Trent Alexander-Arnold started at fullback in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United.
Klopp was forced into changing formations in January without Sadio Mane leading the line, which is now more important than solving problems with new players. Whether Hull City, Bournemouth, or Manchester United, opponents exploit the venerable space between center back and fullbacks. The winter transfer update for Liverpool must now focus on subtle tweaks to its pressing style for both player fitness and keeping opponents off balance. These struggles are magnified even more by a lack of goalkeeping consistency.
The winter window is surely no time to shape a club. But the added depth can power or save the final four months of a season whether the end goal be to avoid relegation or get into the Champions League. Each transfer window is its own form of communication. Leicester City identified the obvious deficiency in midfield and upgraded the position. Liverpool has its own glaring weakness and stood still both last summer and this winter. Whether Klopp has something up his sleeve, or it’s a sign of a more profound weakness, remains to be seen.