Wataru Endō at Liverpool 2023/24: How the 30 y/o improves Klopp’s midfield – scout report
There has been a lot of talk around Liverpool’s midfield rebuild for some time now as they look to climb back to the top of the Premier League, and they have been linked with an abundance of names in recent weeks. From the whole Moisés Caicedo & Roméo Lavia saga to surprisingly losing two key players in Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, it has been anything but a smooth transfer window for the Reds.
However, Jürgen Klopp has thrown something of a curveball in bringing in 30-year-old Japan captain Wataru Endō from Bundesliga side Stuttgart. The signing surprised Liverpool fans and neutrals alike, opinions becoming quickly divided – some are not convinced this is a good signing for Klopp’s side, likely because of his age and because they have no previous knowledge of the player, but others who have watched Endō play have praised Liverpool for a clever piece of business.
Sure, Endō is not the marquee signing that some expected from Liverpool, but the experienced midfielder adds some much-needed leadership, depth and stability to Liverpool’s midfield ranks and could play a vital role in what is sure to be a busy season for the Reds.
Liverpool have had quite the shakeup in midfield this summer, with Henderson and Fabinho leaving, as previously mentioned – but they also lost veteran James Milner, an influential figure on and off the pitch. While Klopp acted quickly to bring in Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, their midfield has been crying out for more of a defensive presence: Endō brings that, but the Reds may still need to bring in a higher quality defensive midfielder, an anchor type player.
This scout report will look at why Liverpool opted to make the unexpected signing of Endō in the form of a tactical analysis looking at his role from the 2022/23 Bundesliga season and his technical ability. The analysis will also dive into how he can greatly benefit Liverpool’s midfield system in the short term; why he suits Klopp’s tactics in and out of possession. While we will touch on Endō’s positional versatility, the scout report will be written assuming he will primarily be deployed as a defensive midfielder.
As we mentioned, Endō is coming to the twilight years of his career, aged 30 at the time of writing, which makes it a unique signing for Liverpool as their transfer policy only usually sees them investing in younger talents. Klopp has urged Liverpool fans to back Endō, insisting that this is an excellent signing, and after reading this analysis, maybe you’ll agree with him. The Japan captain still has plenty left to offer, and Liverpool is his dream move.
For most of the 22/23 season, particularly toward the latter stages, Endō played in a midfield two – often in a 3-4-3, which involves an entirely different approach to a three-man setup in a 4-3-3. In that role, it can be argued that Endō and his midfield partner at Stuttgart had to embody the attributes of both a defensive midfielder and a playmaker simultaneously, whereas playing as a deep CM in Liverpool’s midfield three will require a primary focus on defence with the added bonus of being able to contribute effectively in possession.
His heat map shows us that he was required to be active in various areas on the pitch but rarely got involved in very wide areas, with the bulk of his involvement occurring centrally. We promised a word on Endō’s versatility, so here it is – his well-rounded attributes mean he can play several different midfield roles and be a central defender. Don’t be surprised if Klopp even tries his new signing as a makeshift right-back!
The two images above summarise Endō’s positional roles at Stuttgart last season. While there were other cameo roles/positions, these two appeared most often, especially toward the end of the season. The first image relates to what we mentioned prior about him playing in a two-man pairing in the midfield, whereas the second one shows him playing in a trio – he would, however, often play as either the LCM or RCM rather than the DM.
Endō’s leadership qualities will be absolutely priceless, besides his defensive influence in an otherwise attacking Liverpool midfield. Klopp will hope to see him step into that ‘James Milner role’ in being positionally versatile and a leader anywhere on the pitch.
Technical view – what he offers on the ball
Earlier, we touched on the fact that as a defensive midfielder, a number six, Endō’s primary role will be defensive-based. However, what he can do for Klopp’s team in possession is extremely important – how he supports build-up phases and how he reacts in various transition moments will be key aspects of his contributions.
We’ll start with a statistical overview of Endō’s 22/23 campaign in Germany. It is fair to say that he built on his impressive showing in the 2022 FIFA World Cup and his strong performances in previous Bundesliga seasons.
A few metrics in the graph above will jump out at you first. Let’s start with the defensive segment of the graph – it’s good news if you’re a Liverpool fan! While he didn’t beat the 50th percentile rank in terms of defensive duels attempted per 90 last season, he did beat that landmark with his success rate, but still, he would be expected to do even better in a more defensive role for Liverpool this season.
His aerial ability is astonishing, so expect him to be a key figure when Liverpool are tasked with defending set plays. As you can see, he ranked extremely high in both aerial duels attempted and the success rate last season in tier 1 leagues (Tier 1 leagues – Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1) when compared against other midfielders. His aerial ability is so dominant that he has won the most aerial duels in the Bundesliga since 2020/21, so Liverpool fans will want to see more of the same in the Premier League.
Turning our attention briefly to the attacking metrics in the graph above, we can see that he was crucial for Stuttgart’s attack. Ranking nicely for goal contributions per 90 will be a detail that he won’t be judged on during his time at Liverpool, but it sure could provide a bonus. He managed a very respectable 10 G/A last season in the Bundesliga. Sticking with an attacking focus, you can see that he has a talent for executing dangerous passes, which could be another creative quality addition to Liverpool’s ranks.
We got a glimpse of Endō in a Liverpool shirt in their recent 3-1 win against Bournemouth. While it would be difficult and unfair to judge him in terms of positioning/what his defensive role may look like in Liverpool’s midfield due to him coming on after Liverpool were reduced to 10 men, there were still aspects of his in-possession play that are encouraging.
Above, we see Endō utilising several technical and tactical skills. As Liverpool defender Joel Matip recently said in an interview, playing out from the CB to the number six is a vital part of Liverpool’s tactics in the early build-up phases. Endō has already provided evidence that he has no issue undertaking that task.
He begins by shifting across to the left side of the pitch into an area where his teammate can easily slide the ball into his path. One noteworthy detail is Endō’s scanning as he repositions/makes his run: he checks over his shoulder to ensure he isn’t being tightly marked before having a glance ahead of him, allowing him to prepare for his next move after receiving the ball.
That next move was to quickly move the ball into the front three, something Liverpool like to do soon, especially when the opposition leave the space to play through them like that.
Something that Liverpool’s midfield has the capacity for, especially with Endō in there, is fluidity and versatility in the sense that the defensive midfielder will sometimes get the opportunity to drift into higher areas than one of his midfield teammates, just like Endō did above against Bournemouth.
Liverpool may have been a man down by this point. However, they still had no issue in having a solid hold of possession, allowing Endō to sometimes operate in a similar role to his Stuttgart days – that experience taught him good off-the-ball movement and positioning himself to support possession in a positive way.
Again, upon receiving the ball from the CB, Endō quickly turned and played an early pass into the front three.
As Liverpool’s defensive midfielder, dribbling won’t be high on the list of his priorities – can you recall Fabinho often making bursting runs forward with the ball, especially over large distances? But there will be times when some outside-of-the-box thinking will be required, matched by a clever turn and burst forward to get away from the opponent – Declan Rice was no stranger to doing this in a West Ham shirt occasionally. It is precisely what Endō did in this example. He could have played the safe lateral pass to the close teammate, but the opposition expected that.
Instead, even with the two highlighted opponents closing him down, Endō took a sharp turn to break into the opposition’s half.
And before Werder Bremen knew it, Endō was running toward their backline with teammates making good runs by exploiting gaps in the defence.
This is an excellent example of an innovative midfielder in that Endō ignored the option many would’ve taken in playing the safe pass and instead turned that possession into a dangerous attack in the blink of an eye.
This may not be something we see regularly in a Liverpool shirt. Still, it is an added element to Klopp’s team, and the element of unpredictability can be challenging to defend against – just imagine if Endō can execute a similar action with Liverpool’s fast & deadly attack.
Tactical view – defensive element in Liverpool’s midfield
In some ways, you have to feel for Mac Allister. While he isn’t terrible defensively, he certainly doesn’t possess the attributes to play as a number 6 for the whole campaign for a team who, according to Trent Alexander-Arnold, are looking to challenge for the title this season.
Klopp’s hand was forced slightly – Stefan Bajčetić has been back in and around the first-team picture since his return from injury and was on the bench for the Bournemouth game. However, he was still not fit enough to be picked to start, so Klopp opted to play Mac Allister in the six, making for a highly attack-minded midfield alongside Szoboszlai and Cody Gakpo.
Here, we will look at why Mac Allister isn’t suitable for the number six role long-term, emphasising Liverpool’s need for the arrival of someone like Endō and how Endō’s presence can impact Liverpool.
There were portions of the game against Chelsea where Liverpool weren’t at their collective best, so the analysis of Mac Allister’s DM role should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it does allow us to see why Liverpool need Endō to hit the ground running. The image above shows a moment where Chelsea get an early chance on goal because Mac Allister simply didn’t have the awareness to realise that Chelsea’s Enzo Fernández is making a bursting run past him into the Liverpool box.
It may sound simple, but that is a significant part of a DM’s role: to be aware of the danger around you and stop it – Mac Allister failed on that front on this occasion. Endō, on the other hand, has demonstrated time and time again the ability to not only read situations but to be aware enough to react to critical situations in a defensive capacity.
This following example may be a case of Mac Allister’s lack of familiarity with playing as a six in Liverpool’s system. However, it is still something Klopp will want Endō to rectify in his performance.
Chelsea have a throw in their own half, with Liverpool looking to apply a high press – look at the positioning of the likes of Mo Salah and Luis Díaz high up the pitch; even Szoboszlai isn’t sitting deep, with Alexander-Arnold tucked inside in a narrow position to squeeze Chelsea even more. It’s a good setup from Liverpool, apart from Fernández being left completely unmarked in front of the thrower.
Sure, Mac Allister isn’t the only one who could have marked the Chelsea man, but the former Brighton man could definitely see him and realise the space he has, so why not simply go and mark him? Instead, Mac Allister looked to rush in and close Fernández down as he received the ball, but two things happened – Mac Allister reacted too slowly, and Fernández reacted quickly, allowing him to move the ball forward. Again, imagine if Endō was in Mac Allister’s position.
He would have moved forward to mark the Chelsea midfielder tight or at least communicate to his teammates that somebody needed to drop and pick Fernández up. These fine margins in midfield can make or break a season.
This is a similar example – Endō, in that defensive midfielder role, would have been aware enough to mark the open Chelsea player or at least tell Szoboszlai to shuffle across and do the job.
Instead, in this case, Chelsea could find that pass with no marking, allowing them to play out of defence into midfield easily, and the Blues proceeded to move the ball toward the final third.
Let’s look at some examples of Endō’s defensive work in other areas. His ability to read situations and react will become quickly apparent to Liverpool fans. He pairs this with his excellent defensive ability – he loves a slide tackle and uses them to good effect.
The example above shows him occupying a defensive midfield position but is clearly aware of the central opponent who receives the ball and begins to close to him down the second the ball leaves the passer’s foot. This again relates to that quick reaction speed needed for a DM in the modern game – Endō blocked the opponent from continuing the attack, and his actions allowed for a Stuttgart counterattack, something that we may often see during his time at Liverpool as it fits nicely into Klopp’s tactics.
Another reason he suits Klopp’s tactics is his ability to put his defensive attributes to good use in higher areas of the pitch as well. Liverpool are the masters of winning the ball back in high and dangerous areas, and Endō’s presence only makes them more difficult in that respect. The image above shows that as the opponent shows the confidence to dry and dribble his way out of danger, only to be met by a convincing Endō tackle, giving his side another crack at an attack.
The stats in the image above suggest that Endō is ready to apply himself to Liverpool’s high-pressing tactics. Suppose he can manage numbers in the same ballpark as Fabinho last season, playing for a team that battled against relegation in that campaign. In that case, it is fair to suggest that he sees even more involvement in high regains playing for a team that likes to play a high-press and often forces the opposition deep. Last season in Germany, he averaged 10.02 recoveries per 90 minutes, with 39.5% being in the opposition half.
As we said early on in this scout report, Endō is not the marquee signing Liverpool fans wanted, but he might just be what the Reds need, even if it is on a stopgap basis. It remains to be seen if Liverpool will go back into the market to sign another defensive midfielder, but do they really need to right now? There are two sides to that coin.
One side is the suggestion that they could do with a big-name, world-class talent already playing at a Champions League level to come in and do the job. In contrast, the other side of the coin considers Endō’s unmistakable quality and experience and Liverpool’s non-Champions League status. Plus, they have Bajčetić waiting in the wings, and if they really needed to, Trent has proven his ability as a central midfielder, so he could be a makeshift option.
Endō is an intelligent signing and an important one but is not a world-class talent – whether Liverpool buy one this window or not remains to be seen.