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Linked wingers: who makes the most sense?

Reports have surfaced of a rumored “short list” of wing targets for Liverpool’s summer squad revamp, including the likes of of Bordeaux’s Malcom, Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey, and Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. Add to that today’s reports of interest in Crystal Palace trickster Wilfried Zaha, and the Reds’ brass have plenty of options in the shop window. But who represents the best option for the club going forward?

Addressing the problem areas

An early summer transfer window means an early start for Jürgen Klopp & Co. as they look to strengthen their squad ahead of the 2018/19 campaign. With Naby Keita incoming and rumors growing by the minute about a move for Lyon midfielder Nabil Fekir, the Liverpool brass have already made decent headway in revitalizing the side’s threadbare midfield.

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Another area crying out for reinforcements, and one that surely has to be addressed this window, is in attack. We have seen a record-seeing campaign from the generational trio of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, but the Reds lack the quality in depth to challenge on multiple fronts next season. Beyond these three, the drop is considerable, and despite a hugely promising loan spell from Harry Wilson, there are not a great deal of options in the pipeline, either.

With all three heading to Russia for the World Cup this summer, it means a shortened pre-season but, more importantly, a shortened recovery period. Considering each of Mané, Firmino and Salah has already logged career highs for minutes played, it’s abundantly clear that squad rotation should be a priority for Klopp in the early stages of next season.

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So of the options being mooted, who brings what to the table and who would be the best fit for Klopp’s Liverpool?

The prolific winger: Malcom

The Brazilian sniper has been on many folks’ radar since he started putting in some stunning performances with Ligue 1 Bordeaux last season. Known largely for his evasive dribbling and truly world-class shot, he plays a very similar style to what Philippe Coutinho offered in Liverpool’s front three: collecting the ball wide, cutting in on his favored left foot, and threatening the goal whenever given the chance.

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Malcom is leading his side in goal contributions for the second season running (10g, 6a) to go along with some stellar attacking metrics:

  • In Ligue 1:
    • 2.26 shots per 90
    • 3 successful dribbles per 90
    • 2.62 key passes per 90
    • 0.30xA per 90

At 21 years old, he represents the oldest of the rumored shortlist, though the Brazilian clearly has a great deal of developmental potential ahead of him.

The biggest questions marks surrounding Malcom’s suitability to Liverpool come from his fairly limited deployment in the Bordeaux system. In his three seasons there, he has played almost exclusively on the right wing, though he played some as a second striker in his time with Brazilian side Corinthians before the move in 2015/16.

Assuming Klopp sticks to his 4-3-3, this would put Malcom in direct contention with Mohamed Salah for that right-sided birth. There’s arguably no player in the world who could unseat the Egyptian from that spot right now, and while Salah’s minutes will need to be managed next season, it’s hard to envision a player like Malcom — who IS the system at Bordeaux — joining a side where he’d be a squad player in his preferred position.

What Liverpool really need is a player who’s comfortable deputizing in a number of different attacking positions, which brings us to our next option…

The meteoric riser: Leon Bailey

Bailey was a highly touted teenage prospect coming out of Belgian side Genk two years ago. Any number of teams were rumored to be vying for his signature, but it was Leverkusen who secured a deal at the tail end of the January 2017 transfer window.

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The Jamaican-born winger’s first few months in Germany were fairly uneventful, as he logged just under 150 minutes across 10 cameo appearances for Die Werkself.

To say he’s been a revelation this season would be an understatement, though. Bailey has helped lead a youth revival at this club, partnering with fellow burgeoning young attackers Kai Haivertz, Julian Brandt, and Lucas Alario to take the club back into contention for a European spot.

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Bailey’s pace, trickery, and end product have all progressed immeasurably this year, to the tune of 12 goals and 6 assists across all competitions.

  • In the Bundesliga:
    • 3.08 shots per 90
    • 2.4 successful dribbles per 90
    • 2.45 key passes per 90
    • 1.7 unsuccessful touches, 1.8 dispossessed per 90

The bulk of his success has come as an orthodox winger on the left side of Heiko Herrlich’s setup, where he’s equally threatening driving to the byline as he is cutting inside and interchanging with his fellow attackers.

Prior to joining Leverkusen, however, Bailey had played predominantly on the right side with Genk, and has deputized there on several occasions this season. He and Brandt often interchange throughout the game anyhow, making him both tactically capable and equally proficient across the attacking line.

If there’s one knock against Bailey, it’s that he’s still not the most tactically astute. He occasionally plays himself into poor positions with the ball and could stand to improve the speed of his decision making — his technical skillset is such that he often finds his way out of these situations unscathed, so he doesn’t always get the negative reinforcement he should. That being said, he’s still incredibly young (just 20) and has plenty of room to grow. Combined with his versatility, he would make an excellent rotation option on the wings for the Reds.

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However, there are bound to be questions marks over his price tag, let alone the question of whether Leverkusen have any desire to sell him. If he does hit the market, there will be plenty of competition for his signature, including likely interest from Manchester City, where Bailey’s good buddy Raheem Sterling would likely give a raving endorsement.

The prodigal “yank”: Christian Pulisic

Put simply, there are few better fits than the 19-year-old American. Tactically, he offers the greatest range of rotation options, including proficiency in several midfield positions. Technically, he’s direct, dynamic, intelligent, and hard-working off the ball. Psychologically, he’s already done it against the best in the world on the Champions League stage. Off the pitch, he’s FSG’s proverbial “American Dream” and an unparalleled marketing asset.

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But with Dortmund in the midst of a mini rebuild, Pulisic could prove to be a very tough player to attain.

Klopp’s former club are already aware of his interest in the player, and despite the amicable relationship between the two parties, there’s every reason to expect Hans-Joakim Watzke to drive a hard bargain.

Let’s not forget that he’s also a childhood Manchester United fan…

If Klopp can prize away the player who came to his side in 2014, he will be securing a building block for the squad’s future and a player who, despite the perceived gulf in class between himself and the likes of Mané and Salah, will complement Klopp’s system seamlessly.

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Of the three wingers mentioned, Pulisic has arguably enjoyed the least success this season, with 4 goals and 7 assists to his name. But his stock remains astronomically high for a reason, and his fit within Liverpool is evidenced by how well-suited he is for the European stage.

  • In the Bundesliga:
    • 1.5 shots per 90
    • 7.1 total dribbles (3 successful) per 90
    • 1.2 key passes per 90
  • In the Champions League:
    • 1.9 shots per 90
    • 9.4 total dribbles (5.1 successful) per 90
    • 2.2 key passes per 90

Pulisic plays a similar pacy, direct style to both Malcom and Bailey, but what differentiates him is the intelligence of his movement and his ability to interchange in attack. Much of this can be attributed to the time he’s spent playing various positions across the pitch, including plenty of time playing centrally for both club and country. Given the fluid nature of Liverpool’s attack, Pulisic feels like the one option that could fit into any number of roles and keep that fluidity intact.

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In terms of physicality, the role Pulisic has played with the United States national team has played huge dividends. As his stature has grown, Pulisic has constantly been targeted by his CONCACAF rivals in both friendlies and World Cup qualifying matches. Despite his slight frame and nimble build, he’s managed to hold up to the abuse, and as a result has fared equally well against larger, more combative opposition in the Bundesliga.

It might well be a case of Pulisic being too perfect a fit for Klopp and Liverpool, but the club would be remiss if it didn’t put every effort into ensuring the American is sporting red next season.

The wildcard: Wilfried Zaha

It’s not that I don’t rate Zaha, nor that I wouldn’t want him at Liverpool. I do, and I would.

But as the narrative goes, I can’t see the Ivorian trickster leaving London any time soon.

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First, let’s face facts: Zaha is far too good for Crystal Palace, no matter how great his love for the club. At some point, a footballer with his talent needs to heighten his ambitions.

With each passing season since Manchester United let him go in 2015, Zaha has shown improvement. Some things have been more gradual than others — namely his end product — but there’s arguably no stronger direct threat in English football right now.

On his day, Zaha can burn defenders for fun and create opportunities from nothing. The past two seasons, in particular, he has managed to translate that into tangible attacking progress, with 15 goals and 16 assists to his name.

  • In the Premier League
    • 2.2 shots per 90
    • 4.2 successful dribbles per 90
    • 1.9 key passes per 90

The question with Zaha’s suitability once again comes down to what he’s capable of doing without the ball. Does he have the intelligence and acumen to play Klopp’s fluid brand of attacking football? Does he have the discipline and, frankly, the interest to assume the defensive responsibilities of his system?

Lord knows the physical talent is there, and if Klopp could improve him in even the slightest, Zaha might well be knocking on the door of Europe’s most feared wingers.

Similarly, as with Malcom, there’s the question of whether a player who’s a guaranteed starter at one club would jump ship for a rotation role at another.

Verdict?

It’s hard to imagine Liverpool could go wrong with any one of these wing options. At the end of the day, the most critical piece of the puzzle is finding someone who can spell any one of the Reds’ vaunted front three without a substantial dip in quality.

While it’s difficult to find a player who can play any of the front three roles as well as Mané, Firmino, and Salah, respectively, Klopp has potentially identified several options who can complement the system well.

Alex Mansfield
Co-owner, editor-in-chief of LFC Transfer Room. @el_mansfield on Twitter. Love a good, civilized debate!

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