Liverpool 2.0 are here and, for the most part, they look really good.
Jörg Schmadtke, the club’s temporary sporting director, was tasked with giving the midfield not just a facelift, but full-on reconstructive surgery. Alexis Mac Allister was followed by three Bundesliga imports in Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch.
The success rate so far of the signings has been high. Szoboszlai has been a revelation, Mac Allister is doing a job he likely didn’t expect to do but a huge upgrade on last season and Gravenberch is growing into his new surroundings with every performance. The only real question mark is Endo – who has only really been trusted in the cup competitions. It’s in his position, defensive midfield, that many believe Jürgen Klopp can upgrade in.
That job is currently being done, as mentioned, by Mac Allister. Yet that is not his natural place on the pitch, and while he’s been efficient in possession at the base of Liverpool’s midfield, he can look overwhelmed with the defensive duties the role asks of him. For Liverpool 2.0 to reach their full potential, they may need a more natural number six.
That brings us to the topic of this piece, and one of the latest players to be linked to the club – 21-year-old Argentinian Ezequiel Fernández.
Fernández is from Buenos Aires and has been at one of the city’s big two – Boca Juniors – since he was 10 years old.
Most of his senior experience and breakout campaign came last season, where he spent on loan at Tigre – another club based in the Argentinian capital. This season, though, he’s gone from strength to strength, and is weeks away from facing off against another potential Liverpool target in André as Boca Juniors play Fluminense in the Copa Libertadores final (South America’s equivalent to the Champions League) on the 4th of November.
Boca Juniors have used a number of different formations in Fernández’s time at the club, where he’s played as a lone six, or more commonly as the left-hand side of a double pivot. Below is his heat map from the 2023 Liga Profesional de Fùtbol season (via SofaScore):
The predominant formation of Boca Juniors has been a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2, and this is suited to Fernández. It allows him to be a bit more aggressive in his approach and is usually partnered by the more experienced Guillermo Fernandez.
As is evidenced above in Fernández’s heat map, his style is more that of a defensive playmaker than a box-to-box midfielder. He rarely, if at all, ventures into the final third, and instead likes to receive the ball in his own half before turning and progressing the ball forward. He tends to favour the left-hand side of the pitch because that’s his dominant foot. While he’s not exactly completely one footed in his approach, he is evidently more comfortable when receiving into that foot.
Fernández demands possession, averaging 82.45 touches per 90 – which ranks him in the 97th percentile for FBRef’s ‘Next 8 Leagues’. So far this season, Fernández touches the ball more than any of his teammates (88.4 per 90) who have played ten or more full games. At 21 he is already forcing himself into being the centre of Boca’s solar system. That’s quite a feat for someone so young.
There’s something extremely satisfying about a player who can evade an opponent who’s pressuring them with the ease of a simple touch or body feint. It’s increasingly evident that summer recruit Ryan Gravenberch has it. Ezequiel Fernández has it too. As either the deepest or one of two deep lying midfielders, Fernández is an obvious link between defence and attack. The Argentinian will often receive the ball from one of his centre backs and invite pressure. Then, in an instant, he will take a deft touch or use a drop of the shoulder to roll his opponent and open up the pitch in front of him.
This is evidenced in him ranking in the 90th percentile for successful take-ons, beating his man 1.51 times per 90. What this does for Boca is huge. In one moment, they can beat an entire line of an opponent’s defensive unit. From there, Fernández isn’t the most creative or imaginative passer – but he doesn’t need to be. What he does is make short precise passes into the feet of teammates who can do that on a consistent basis, ranking in the 95th percentile for passes attempted (68.72) at a 86% success rate.
He is also, quite simply, a defensive monster.
He attempts 3.08 tackles per 90 minutes played and wins 2.01 of those (ranking him in the top five percentile). Fernández isn’t the tallest at 5ft 10in – not exactly the smallest, either – but he has the look of a much lankier person, and his long limbs allow him to wrap his leg around an opponent in order to win the ball back. Defending is something that comes naturally to the Buenos Aires native, and something that he relishes doing.
He's extremely disciplined in his approach (and not in terms of yellow cards, like any good defensive midfielder he gets his fair share of those).
What I mean by this is that he is calm and measured, and more importantly alert when defending. As the person who is usually the deepest of Azul y Oro’s midfield, he needs to know when to be proactive and when to not be. He’s very skilled in defending against players running at him with the ball, winning 52.8% of duels against dribblers. His defensive commitment and awareness are also displayed in the number of blocks (1.82 per 90) and interceptions (1.32 per 90) he puts up. Fernández is a constant nuisance to opposition attackers – he’s exactly what you want in a deep lying midfielder.
Fernández’s talent is undeniable. He’s already a key member of a team on the brink of winning South America’s biggest competition at 21 years of age. Yet the biggest question mark, as it always is with players across the Atlantic – how his game would scale up.
He is a much rawer prospect than the man he’ll be facing up to in the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. André, who is two years older than Fernández, has played just under 4,000 more minutes in senior football, in a league that is of a higher standard. Fluminense are ranked 84 places above their Libertadores opponents, and André is still seen as a huge risk by many.
In many senses, the concerns with André are the same with Fernández. Both aren’t suited to being lone pivot’s and asked to do nearly all the defensive work in midfield. Both are suited to playing alongside a partner who shares responsibility. While they may have that in the form of Trent Alexander-Arnold at Anfield, he is pushed up into midfield for what he can do with the ball, not what he can do without it.
Yet Fernández is young, and we have seen with Szoboszlai – almost exclusively a number ten or wide player at Leipzig – is now one of the best two-way midfielders in the league. If Liverpool have indeed identified Fernández as a defensive midfielder, I’d trust their judgement that he is coachable and can adjust.
Sure, buying straight out of South America is a risk, but it’s one Liverpool need to take more. There will be an adaptation period, but clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester City and Brighton have done it to great effect in recent times. Fernández could solve an issue for Jürgen Klopp for years to come if given the time to develop.