It is no secret that Liverpool want to sign Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham to solve their midfield problems next summer. Sources have told ESPN that the 19-year-old England international is a prime target for manager Jurgen Klopp and sporting director Julian Ward in 2023, but the shifting sands of form and results have suddenly made the race to land him for around £100 million much more difficult.
Liverpool have developed a well-earned reputation for being ahead of the curve when it comes to player recruitment. Detailed research into the transfer market and extensive scouting have enabled the club to seal bargain deals for the likes of Mohamed Salah (£36.9m), Sadio Mane (£34m) and Andy Robertson (£8m), as well as fending off wealthier rivals to complete more expensive transfers for Virgil van Dijk (£75m) and Alisson Becker (£66.8m). All of those players have since been crucial to Liverpool's success in England and Europe. But Liverpool's long-term planning when it comes to constantly refreshing and improving Klopp's squad has gone off the rails this summer.
Ward, who replaced Michael Edwards as sporting director at the end of last season, was credited with moving quickly to beat Manchester United to the £85m signing of Darwin Nunez from Benfica in June as a replacement for Mane following his £27m switch to Bayern Munich. Ward was also praised for playing a key role in accelerating a £37m move for Porto winger Luis Diaz in January when Tottenham and United showed interest in the Colombia international ahead of Liverpool's plan to sign him in the summer.
But while the moves for Diaz and Nunez were, at the time, seen as Liverpool continuing to lead the way in the transfer market by acting decisively to secure long-term targets, Klopp's concerns over his midfield options went unheeded until the final hours of this summer's transfer window when, with injuries mounting in that department, a loan deal for Brazil international Arthur Melo was agreed with Juventus.
Arthur has since made just one first-team appearance -- a 13-minute substitute outing in the 4-1 Champions League defeat against Napoli on Sept. 7 -- and played in the Papa John's Trophy for Liverpool U21s last week. The 26-year-old already looks like the kind of panic signing that Liverpool have watched their less successful rivals make in recent years.
With Dortmund losing Erling Haaland this summer -- due to Manchester City triggering the prolific striker's £51m release clause -- there was never any realistic possibility of the Bundesliga club also offloading Bellingham within the same transfer window, so Liverpool's strategy was simply to do the groundwork ahead of a move in 2023.
The problem is that Liverpool's midfield was already beginning to show signs of needing reinforcements last season, despite their incredible pursuit of a quadruple, which faltered only when they missed out on the Premier League and Champions League in the final week of the campaign. Klopp's key midfielders, as successful as they have been in recent years, are either too old to be around for the future, too injury-prone or both. Aside from the 28-year-old Fabinho, Liverpool can't rely on any of their midfield options.
Captain Jordan Henderson is 32 and has been troubled by injuries this year, as have Thiago Alcantara (31) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (29). James Milner has a remarkable fitness record, but the former England international is now 36. Meanwhile, Naby Keita (27) and Curtis Jones (21) have not been consistently available because of fitness problems. Harvey Elliott (19) and Fabio Carvalho (20) have both shown great promise, but their inexperience means that Klopp can't rely on either as mainstays just yet.
Bellingham is also young, but the 19-year-old has experience beyond his years, having made over 100 senior appearances for Dortmund and 17 more with England. In the eyes of many, he is destined to be one of the game's outstanding midfielders and a future England captain, so it is hardly surprising, sources have told ESPN, that Man City, Man United and Chelsea are also determined to sign him next summer.
It is debatable who needs Bellingham the most. Liverpool's midfield issues make him an obvious target, but the same applies at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. City already have Rodri and Kalvin Phillips, but Bellingham would make Pep Guardiola's team better, so they will be in the race to sign him.
Just a few months ago, Liverpool would have seemed a compelling move for Bellingham. They are the only team to have challenged City's recent Premier League dominance and have reached three Champions League finals in five seasons. They are a world-renowned club with a history of success.
But this season has started badly for Klopp's team. They have won just two Premier League games and sit 11 points behind leaders Arsenal, and a sign of their inconsistency is the statistic that shows they have fallen behind in seven of their nine games across all competitions so far. Only once, in the 9-0 win against Bournemouth, have they opened the scoring in a game. And key players all over the pitch are struggling for form -- Trent Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk and Salah have been well below their best -- while club-record signing Nunez has scored just once in the Premier League.
Liverpool face a crucial two weeks, with back-to-back Champions League games against Rangers and Premier League encounters with Arsenal and Man City. If they rediscover their best form, the early-season problems will quickly be forgotten, but the alternative is difficult for Klopp to contemplate.
Ongoing struggle and a fight for Champions League qualification, with a midfield that needs major surgery, would make Anfield a less appealing destination for Bellingham, who won't be short of offers. That's why Liverpool need to arrest their slump now. If it continues and they miss out on their top target as a direct consequence, the rebuilding work will be even tougher.