With Liverpool struggling with a number of injuries to their centre-back ranks this January, Jurgen Klopp may need to turn to the transfer market.
Slumping to the ground holding his hamstring midway through Liverpool’s 1-0 League Cup semi-final first leg win over Stoke City, Dejan Lovren added to the mounting list of worries for Klopp at his new club.
Since taking over on Merseyside at the beginning of October, Klopp has seen his squad suffer 12 hamstring injuries and his squad is now desperately short of options with 11 players sidelined.
Perhaps worse, Lovren joined Mamadou Sakho, Martin Skrtel and Joe Gomez on the sidelines, leaving Klopp with only one fit, senior centre-back in Kolo Toure – who suffered cramp in the final minutes of the game.
The boss has indicated that he will use the January transfer window to address this situation, but who could he turn to?
Here are five centre-backs who could be an option for the Reds this January, including one familiar face.
The Likely Target: Joel Matip
Schalke’s versatile defender Matip emerged on Liverpool’s transfer radar shortly following Klopp’s arrival, with widespread reports suggesting that the Cameroon international could move to Merseyside on the expiry of his contract at the end of 2015/16.
But with Klopp’s defensive ranks growing sparser by the game, an early move for Matip could be on the cards.
The 24-year-old would offer Klopp value for money in his defensive line, as while he is a natural centre-back, he is also capable of operating at left- and right-back and at the base of the midfield.
It could be that, when the likes of Lovren and Sakho recover, Matip’s best position for the short term would be in midfield, but as he has proved at Schalke, he could thrive at centre-back.
Tall, quick and aggressive, Matip is reasonably comfortable in possession and adept performing in a high defensive line, and at 24, is capable of further development under Klopp.
Though Schalke are unlikely to want to part with Matip before the end of the season, a fee in the region of £4 million is thought to be enough to tempt the Gelsenkirchen to sell.
The Thinking Man’s Option: Nicolas N’Koulou
Another player who is set to see out the remainder of his contract in 2016 is Marseille centre-back N’Koulou, and the fellow Cameroonian would be a sensible target for Liverpool this January.
Despite being a firm fans’ favourite at the Stade Velodrome, N’Koulou is thought to have made the decision to leave the club at the end of the campaign, but while this could have affected his performances, the 25-year-old’s form has remained steady so far this season.
N’Koulou is a strong, methodical centre-back who prefers to watch the game play out in front of him before making a decisive move, but his strong tackling ability and high perception make him an extremely effective option.
Comfortable playing the ball out from the back, N’Koulou could provide Liverpool with an ideal, right-sided option alongside one of Sakho or Lovren.
Like Matip, N’Koulou is also able to operate in midfield, and this versatility would no doubt be an attractive proposition for Klopp.
An inexpensive option this January, N’Koulou would be a bargain signing for Liverpool, and could be a long-term replacement for Skrtel in Klopp’s defence.
The German Star: Benedikt Howedes
As with Matip, the arrival of a Bundesliga veteran in Klopp has seen a number of players from the German top flight linked with moves to Liverpool.
In Schalke captain Howedes’ case, this came after the Germany international expressed his desire to move to the Premier League in the future, even labelling Liverpool as an “interesting” club when discussing the potential of joining Klopp’s Anfield revolution.
Like Matip, one of Howedes’ key strengths is his versatility, and while he has made a name for himself at Schalke with his strong displays at centre-back, his ability to operate on either defensive flank would bolster Klopp’s options significantly.
Howedes is experienced at the top level of football with both club and country, and his winning mentality would provide a welcome edge to the current Liverpool squad.
With Klopp’s defence lacking leaders at this stage, Howedes would be a wise acquisition.
At just 27, Howedes is a tactically adept, no-nonsense centre-back who is able to perform with a finesse that has eluded Skrtel throughout his Liverpool career—he is a class above.
The Loan Reunion: Neven Subotic
If Klopp has faith in his defensive options in the long term, however, it may be wise to look to the loan market in January, and a move for his former Borussia Dortmund charge, Subotic, could be a sensible one.
Subotic has fallen under the radar at Dortmund following Klopp’s departure in the summer, with his successor, Thomas Tuchel, preferring to deploy Sokratis Papastathopoulos alongside Mats Hummels.
The Serbian has made just two appearances in the Bundesliga this season, and while Tuchel may have made a wise decision opting for Sokratis given Subotic’s history of injuries, he is still able to perform to a high standard.
In many ways, Subotic is similar to Skrtel, as a limited, physical centre-back, but his knowledge of operating in a high defensive line under Klopp could be invaluable.
If Dortmund can be convinced to part ways with Subotic on a short-term deal this January, Klopp could add a faithful lieutenant to his back line, while his other centre-backs recover.
The Recall: Tiago Ilori
Klopp could look closer to home when addressing his defensive issues this January, however, and a move to recall Ilori from his season-long loan with Villa seems likely at this stage.
Reports suggest that Liverpool have already contacted the relegation favourites with a view to cancelling Ilori’s loan.
With the Portuguese taking up a valuable slot in Remi Garde’s Premier League squad despite not featuring once this season, this would arguably suit both parties.
Part of the concern with Ilori’s spell in the Midlands are his levels of fitness, with the 22-year-old having made the Villans’ matchday squad in the league just once this season, and having endured injury problems on loan with Bordeaux in 2014/15.
But if he is able to prove his fitness to Klopp, he could provide the perfect solution at right centre-back; he is tall, aggressive, pacy and composed on the ball.
Desperate to make an impact on Merseyside, having yet to make his first-team debut for the Reds, Ilori’s return could be a major positive for Klopp.