The Premier League leaders have leveraged their relationship with Red Bull Salzburg again by securing the signature of Japan international Takumi Minamino. After winning the Champions League, the Merseyside champions refrained from entering the transfer market and had a quiet spell before the start of the Premier League campaign.
With Minamino available for a steal £7.25m, Klopp wasted no time and got the 24-year-old to put pen to paper to secure his services to the club, but with such a plethora of talent available to the club will the Japanese midfielder be a success at Liverpool?
Where are all the world-class Asian players?
Whisper it quietly but in some ways, Asia remains the last continent still failing to produce world class players on a regular basis. Whether it’s that they’re still a decade or so behind in terms of coaching and facilities or whether it’s that Asian players just haven’t been given the chance, their presence at Europe’s top clubs are few and far between.
Yes, Shinji Kagawa has had an excellent career at Dortmund despite that disappointing spell at old Trafford and Heung-Min Son has been brilliant at Tottenham for a while now, but that’s not many examples of top-class players from a continent that loves the game.
There may however be a new member of that club very shortly and at Liverpool, under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp and surrounded by world-class players who can help him become even better, Takumi Minamino has every chance of being talked about as one of the sport’s most exciting talents.
How did Minamino get here?
The 24-year old has spent the last four years as a winger or attacking midfielder for Red Bull Salzburg. 199 appearances for the Austrian club yielded 64 goals and 44 assists, an extremely credible return, even though some may be quick to point out that standards in Austrian football aren’t particularly high.
But you can only do well against the teams you’re up against and it should be remembered that he netted twice in six games in the Champions League this season, one of those at Anfield as part of a remarkable comeback from 3-0 down to get it back to 3-3. Mo Salah eventually saved Liverpool’s blushes in what was one of the more entertaining matches of the Champions League so far this season.
Obsessed with football since an early age, he often speaks of the 2002 World Cup (jointly hosted by Japan, of course) as a major influence in his career. That was the World Cup of the original Ronaldo, the Brazilian at the peak of his career and elected Player of the Tournament.
Minamino was to idolize the Brazilian, imitating his moves as best he could and watching hours of videos to understand how he became the player he did. There will never be a player quite like Ronaldo ever again – Minamino is currently a long way away from him in a physical sense as much as anything else – and they play in different positions, but watch some clips carefully and you can see the influence of the former Barcelona man on Liverpool’s new signing.
Like most young players, his youth years were spent at his local club, in his case Cerezo Osaka, where players in the senior team included the aforementioned Kagawa. He reveals that training sessions were gruelling and it wasn’t unusual for players to leave the pitch vomiting but he’s a better player for them and his pace and stamina can be partly put down to those torturous afternoons at Osaka, however much they hurt at the time.
85 appearances over two seasons saw him score an impressive tally of 17 goals for one so young and having shown the world of football what he could do, it was time to move on.
The highlights of his career at Red Bull Salzburg were a semi-final appearance in the Europa League where Marseille eventually got the better of them in the 2017/18 season and a hat-trick over Rosenborg in the Champions League in 2018/19. It was arguably these performances with the eyes of the world watching, rather than those in the Austrian League, that really got the scouts excited.
The Liverpool Move
In an era where clubs think nothing of dishing out 80 million on a centre-back just because he plays for England (Harry Maguire, of course) and where a teenage forward with one season of professional football under his belt goes for 114 million (Joao Felix), imagine how excited everyone got when they found out that Minamino was available at just 7.25 million, thanks to a release clause.
Forwards are more expensive than other players at the best of times and at 24 he has the double benefit of experience under his belt and plenty of years ahead of him. No wonder Liverpool couldn’t believe their luck when he opted for them over other suitors.
He arrives in January and crucially, he won’t be cup-tied in the Champions League thanks to UEFA’s new rules.
Where does he fit in at Anfield?
To start with, the answer is probably: on the bench. The holy trinity of Salah/Mane/Firmino were the ones who won Liverpool the Champions League title last spring and who have got them in a position where the Premier League is theirs to lose. They’ll remain Jurgen Klopp’s preferred front three and probably the ones who, barring injury, play the big games.
But that’s not to say that Minamino isn’t likely to get his fair share of game time. It was a minor miracle that those three plus Dirock Origi were just about the only forwards that Klopp used when winning the Champions League last season and he’s unlikely to be quite that lucky on the injury front once again. There are some exciting football odds on offer for this year’s edition and you’d be pretty foolish to rule out Liverpool defending their title.
Minamino’s big trump card might be his versatility. He’s unlikely to play in the central role that Firmino excels in but he can certainly play on either wing. That means that the absence of Salah and Mane could see him feature out wide, while if it’s Firmino who doesn’t play, Salah could easily occupy the central position as has been the case in the past, allowing Minamino to slot in at Salah’s regular position on the right.
Or is he just limited to a place as one of the front three? Klopp himself suggested that with good passing skills, pace and mature positioning, he may yet also thrive as a ‘number eight’, the more advanced of a middle three. That seems a little less likely in the near future because of the extra responsibilities from a defensive standpoint but it may certainly be an option in a couple of years’ time.
But before getting too excited about it all, it’s worth suggesting it probably won’t be plain sailing from the word go. Minamino will have to improve his English, adapt to a league where every week there’s a team gunning for your blood and go through the experience of not having many minutes on the pitch at times, something he hasn’t been used to over the past few years.
But if his pacy runs, accurate finishing and dribbling are anything to go by, he may be just the sort of player to be Salah’s natural successor. These are exciting times not just for Liverpool but for Japanese football, too.