Sam McGuire: Endo has hit his limit - it's time to solve the midfield problem

It wasn’t that long ago that Wataru Endo was being heralded as the signing of the season after a stellar run of form in the Liverpool starting XI was capped off by a monstrous performance against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final. 

His arrival in the summer caught a number of people off guard. 

Just days after the Reds had failed to convince Moises Caicedo that a move to Anfield would’ve been more beneficial for his career than relocating to Stamford Bridge from Brighton, Liverpool decided to use just a fraction of the Caicedo fund to bring in Endo with the 31-year-old costing just £16 million. 

Eyebrows were raised when Jurgen Klopp singled out the VfB Stuttgart captain as the man to bolster his middle-third options. Endo was highly respected in Germany and he had captained his national side, but he wasn’t a ceiling-raiser and he was heading into the back-end of his career. 

Klopp even admitted he had to convince the owners to sign off on the deal. In doing so, the German tactician acknowledged his new No.3 wasn’t your stereotypical Liverpool signing

Endo had his minutes managed carefully after arriving and sightings of him were rare. Klopp does this with new  signings,  he eases them into life at Anfield, but usually, these players are long-term projects rather than short-term fixes. With Endo very much being the latter, it was bizarre not to see him given more game time. 

Papering over the cracks

An injury to Alexis Mac Allister opened the door for him in the starting  XI though and then something just clicked. Perhaps it was because he’d barely played, and so was fresh. Endo was not just dominating duels but also controlling the tempo of games. His passing was deceptively clean and crisp, he was tenacious and knew when how to dictate the play, with and without the ball.  

A cynical foul there, a clever free-kick here. His experience and nous seemed perfect for the Liverpool midfield at the time. There was a nice balance to it. With him anchoring the midfield, the returning Mac Allister was given licence to influence things in the middle third and he added goal involvements to his game

The goals papered over cracks. 

It went under the radar that Liverpool started to concede goals. Of course, there were other reasons for it.  The Reds were without Alisson Becker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ibrahima Konate, Dominik Szoboszlai, Curtis Jones and Mohamed Salah. It wasn’t a settled XI and those in the team had to play much more football than they probably expected to. 

It wasn’t viewed as a defensive midfield issue. It probably isn’t solely a defensive midfield issue either. But in Endo’s last six starts for the Reds, the opposition have scored 12 goals. Liverpool conceded six to Manchester United across two matches, one to Brighton, three to Atalanta, one to Crystal Palace in the surprise loss and Fulham found the back of the net on Sunday.  

What has been noticeable in these matches is how fatigued Endo now appears to be. United ran off him multiple times in the FA Cup win. He was trying to win the ball back against Atalanta and was, on a number of occasions, a little slow and this just left the middle of the pitch exposed. In the loss to Palace, Endo wasn't quick enough to block the cut-back into the box that found Eberechi Eze. 

Against Fulham, it very much felt like a game of two sides. On the ball, he was quietly effective, completing 91 percent of his passes while 100 percent of his dribbles were successful. But without the ball, he struggled. He didn't win a tackle, he committed three fouls and won just three of his nine ground duels. 

Edwards and Hughes must be aware of midfield issues

The pace and physicality of the game seemed a little too much for him, despite him only playing 45 minutes against Crystal Palace before dropping out of the starting XI entirely for the trip to Atalanta. He shouldn't necessarily be super fresh given the amount of football he's played since the turn of the year, but to see him looking this tired is a worry. 

It is likely something that Michael Edwards and Richard Hughes will be aware of. It could well alter their summer plans.

The focus is going to be on the defence but the midfield overhaul, seemingly completed last summer, might now need a second look with fresh eyes. 

Mac Allister's form over recent weeks has shown that he is too valuable to be used exclusively as a No.6 and we've now seen Endo has physical limitations. He's still been an unbelievable value for money signing, but a ceiling-raiser is required.

With this in mind, perhaps that Caicedo fund will now be used in full to sign a long-term defensive midfielder option. Edwards was in charge of recruitment when the Reds signed Fabinho, the anchor of a team that went on to win everything, so he understands the importance of such a player. It cannot be overlooked for another summer. 

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