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Wataru Endo: An unexpected signing who now asks same question of Liverpool

After Liverpool submitted a bid in excess of £110 million for Moises Caicedo, the last thing fans expected was for Wataru Endo to arrive – leaving him with a job to change perceptions.

It was evident last summer that the Reds needed a new No. 6, a need that only grew after Fabinho swapped Merseyside for Saudi Arabia – and the consensus was for a young but experienced option.

Safe to say the 30-year-old, as he was then, captain of Stuttgart is not who anyone had expected Jurgen Klopp to target – but the manager did not hesitate when it came down to it.

Endo felt like one tick in the box in midfield, but more was needed. The feeling remains the same nearly a year on.

Wataru Endo, 2023/24

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 3, 2023: Liverpool's Wataru Endo celebrates after scoring the third goal to equalise and level the score at 3-3 during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Fulham FC at Anfield. Liverpol won 4-3. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Started: 34 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 9
Unused sub: 5
Goals: 2
Assists: 1
Overall Season Rating: 7.21

 

Doubts to overcome

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, March 10, 2024: Manchester City's Mateo Kova?i? (L) is challenged by Liverpool's Wataru Endo during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC at Anfield. The game ended 1-1. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool were on a mission to overhaul their midfield last summer. Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and James Milner all departed, taking their experience and qualities in the No. 6 role with them.

Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai and Ryan Gravenberch arrived, and amid all that was a pursuit for Southampton‘s Romeo Lavia and later Brighton‘s Moises Caicedo.

The Reds did not bow to Southampton‘s demands and the player ultimately chose Chelsea – who he featured for once throughout the entire season – and a late attempt was made for Caicedo.

He too joined Chelsea and it delivered a damning hit to the search for a No. 6, as the season had already started before a surprise move for Endo surfaced.

But just two days after interest was first reported, the Japan captain had signed a contract at Anfield, and Klopp’s message was clear from the off.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 19, 2023: Liverpool's Wataru Endo (L) and Kostas Tsimikas during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and AFC Bournemouth at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

When they met at the AXA Training Centre, the manager told his newest addition: “We really need you and your heart, and your legs, and your football ability, and your football brain. Your desire, we need it.

“We have a really good team, really good – ready to work but very offensive,” the boss added with a rambunctious laugh.

He did not quite make an instant impact, though. Like the majority of Klopp’s signings, he needed time to come to grips with his new demands, and his debut against Bournemouth made that clear.

From then on, he initially formed part of the rotated midfield group – one designated to the early Europa League and League Cup fixtures, making for seven starts in his first 16 games.

And it really wasn’t until Alexis Mac Allister‘s injury at Sheffield United at the beginning of December did that start to change.

 

Influence starts to grow

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 3, 2023: Liverpool's Wataru Endo (R) celebrates with team-mate Darwin Núñez after scoring the third goal to equalise and level the score at 3-3 during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Fulham FC at Anfield. Liverpol won 4-3. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“It would be cool if he could win challenges and pass the ball from A to B,” Klopp said of his expectations for Endo from the start.

He lived up to them, completing the third-most short passes in the squad with a completion percentage of 92.2, in addition to winning the third-most tackles (43/61 in all competitions).

Endo’s troubles came with those dribbling at him, winning only 32.5 percent of his challenges – the sixth-lowest in the squad, which highlights a weakness in his game.

What we saw from Endo, though, was a player who became a key cog in Klopp’s machine, a robust midfielder who turned doubts into praise for both him and the club.

His cracking goal against Fulham off the bench at Anfield gave him much-needed confidence, and from then on he hardly looked back.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 25, 2024: Liverpool's Wataru Endo lifts the trophy after the Football League Cup Final match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. Liverpool won 1-0 after extra-time. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Strong in the air and seemingly always with a point to prove, Endo went from a rotated player to one used week in and week out – on either side of the Asian Cup he started 24 of 29 games.

He was immense throughout the 120 minutes at Wembley in the League Cup final, but it did take a toll – like it did for others in the squad.

Endo managed to get up to speed with the Premier League, but when his legs went late on, it was almost back to square one as he struggled to cover runners and keep on top of a game.

The 31-year-old played the 10th-most minutes of any Liverpool player (2,758) despite needing a settling-in period in addition to missing seven games due to his involvement in the Asian Cup.

In the end, he needed energy and legs around him, but they were in short supply as Liverpool limped to the finish line.

 

Still need another No. 6?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, May 18, 2024: Liverpool's Wataru End? during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 2-0. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A player over 30 is not what we had come to expect from Liverpool, but he was a solution to both the need for experience and a specialist No. 6.

The expectation at first was he would be one of two signings in the position, but instead, he would share those responsibilities largely with Mac Allister.

It placed significant pressure on the pair of them, and though Endo has proven a shrewd signing who can still play a role in the Reds’ midfield, the sentiment remains that another defensive midfielder must be signed in the summer.

At 31, the Japan skipper was a stop-gap of sorts and now the search must be on for a younger, experienced player who can share the load under the tutelage of Arne Slot.

We are in a similar position to that of last summer when the need was just as clear, and how the club approach the position will be decided by new sporting director Richard Hughes and FSG’s CEO of Football Michael Edwards.


Best moment: Cracking goal vs. Fulham

Worst moment: Debut vs. Bournemouth – was a big early lesson.

Role next season: One of two specialist defensive midfielders.