With Dejan Lovren expected to leave Liverpool in the next transfer window, Fabinho and Ki-Jana Hoever could be among the candidates as Jurgen Klopp replaces him.
The Croatian is attracting interest from both England and abroad as he continues to find himself at odds with the pecking order at Anfield, as fourth-choice centre-back.
Zenit St Petersburg have been credited with concrete interest, while AS Roma have long admired the 31-year-old and at least two Premier League clubs are said to have enquired this season.
Liverpool will exercise an automatic one-year extension to Lovren’s contract with a view to maximise his value, avoiding the prospect of clubs negotiating a cut-price fee as he enters the final 12 months of his deal.
They will, therefore, hope to secure a deal worth around £15 million for the No. 6, with any proceeds potentially reinvested as Klopp seeks a replacement.
The manager has recently addressed speculation over losing his fourth centre-back, explaining the setup and insisting “we needed all four always, so it’s a very important role.”
It would seem, then, that if Lovren leaves, Klopp will want to establish his successor in time for 2020/21—so who could that be?
With Liverpool facing a quiet transfer window with little spending envisaged in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Klopp has been vocal in his desire to “create transfers internally.”
Elaborating on this, the manager named a host of young players who “can make big, big steps,” with two of those best suited to a role at centre-back.
Hoever and Sepp van den Berg partnered each other at the back in the 1-0 win over Shrewsbury in the FA Cup, and showed strong signs of being able to settle into Liverpool’s defensive system.
Neither have featured heavily this season—with seven first-team appearances between them—but they have been a near-constant presence at Melwood, and this training time will be crucial.
Hoever could appeal more to Klopp due to his ability to also play at right-back and, at a push, left-back, but it could be argued that Van den Berg has the better physical profile to take over from Lovren.
The red-haired summer signing also has experience of playing top-flight football having made 21 appearances for PEC Zwolle in the Eredivisie before his initial £1.3 million move in 2019, which could prepare him for the rare instances he is required to step in for the Reds.
Perhaps more likely, and more ‘on brand’, could be the option of double duty for Fabinho.
It is a position the Brazilian is familiar with, and one he has taken up for Liverpool on a number of occasions already, though typically as an emergency option.
He partnered Lovren in the 2-1 loss to Wolves in last season’s FA Cup, then played alongside Virgil van Dijk in the following 1-0 win at Brighton; a month later, he joined Joel Matip at the back for the 0-0 draw with Bayern Munich.
That period highlighted the fragility of the Reds’ existing centre-back options—Van Dijk aside—and around that time Klopp hailed Fabinho‘s ability to slot in, saying “he has a defensive brain and can play in a lot of positions.”
In many ways, it comes with the territory: within Liverpool’s system, Fabinho is routinely tasked with dropping between the centre-backs when the full-backs push forward, while he has also dropped in when changes are made from the bench.
But to shift Fabinho into centre-back for an extended basis would deprive the Reds of his outstanding quality as a No. 6, with the 26-year-old serving a reminder of this with an imperious run of form of late.
One way to assuage this would be to add another midfielder to the mix, with Bayern’s Thiago the obvious candidate, which would give Klopp more license to shuffle his deck.
It is still unclear if widely rumoured interest in Thiago is genuine, with the resurgence of Naby Keita in the closing months of the season suggesting Klopp may already have a readymade solution in this role.
But if Lovren goes, Fabinho stays in midfield and neither Hoever or Van den Berg are fully trusted yet, it may be that a new centre-back is required.
The issue there is convincing any incoming defender of the virtues of coming in as fourth choice, and while there should be enough games to play, on the club’s end there is also the matter of making business sense.
This could make the free-agent market more attractive this summer.
It would be difficult to predict the machinations of the market, but there are a number of options that could potentially work for Liverpool.
While it may be a big decision for the player himself, Jan Vertonghen could provide experienced cover if he is willing to leave Tottenham for a Premier League rival.
Man City have already emerged as suitors for the Belgian, who has played in the English top flight for eight years and can also fill in at left-back, with this versatility another plus-point for the Reds.
Similarly, Malang Sarr has now left Nice and could serve as a high-potential option at both centre-back and left-back.
At 21, Sarr is 12 years younger than Vertonghen, and already boasts considerable experience having made his Ligue 1 debut at 17, going on to make 119 appearances for his boyhood club.
Scouring the Bundesliga, the likes of Florian Hubner, Stefan Bell and Robin Knoche may be players Klopp is familiar with, but are unlikely to possess the quality required, much like Daniel Schwaab and Benedikt Howedes further afield.
The sentimental option would be Ragnar Klavan, who is due to leave Cagliari after a two-year spell in which he has made 44 appearances—29 of which have come so far this season.
But perhaps now Liverpool should be looking higher up the food chain than the 34-year-old Estonian.
Beyond the list of free transfers, there are also a number of possible cut-price deals that could suit the Reds’ current position.
Vertonghen’s team-mate, 21-year-old Spurs academy product Japhet Tanganga, is currently stalling on a new deal having reportedly been offered a wage of £15,000 a week.
Tanganga made his debut for Tottenham in the 1-0 loss to Liverpool in January, and has gone on to make 11 appearances this season including in the Champions League defeat to RB Leipzig.
Capable of operating in a number of roles, including centre-back, left-back and right-back, he could be a talent that could be moulded to fit Klopp’s system—though negotiating a fee with Daniel Levy, even with just one year left on his contract, could prove frustrating.
Elsewhere, Klopp’s former Dortmund midfielder Sven Bender, now converted to centre-back at 31, is in his final 12 months at Bayer Leverkusen and could be tempted by a reunion.
From those who are set to drop down into the Championship next season, Bournemouth‘s Lloyd Kelly stands out as the most viable option.
The 21-year-old was on Liverpool’s radar last summer, only for the Cherries to scupper their pursuit with a £13 million bid, with the Reds deeming this not to be value for money.
But after a season largely lost to injury, and with Bournemouth likely to slip down into the second tier, there could be the possibility to swoop in and sign a player who is capable of filling both centre-back and left-back.
This would, in theory, both cover the loss of Lovren and fill the void as Andy Robertson‘s deputy, though trialling Neco Williams as backup to both full-back roles may be the better solution there.
At this stage, there is a cloud of uncertainty over the transfer window for Liverpool, but with sides circling for Lovren the club will need a contingency plan in place.
Can they afford another season relying on Fabinho as an emergency centre-back? Or trust one of Hoever or Van den Berg to step up?
If not, a replacement will need to be brought in, and it is clear there are options on the market.