It has been an odd summer at Liverpool, where unexpected offers for some of their players have afforded manager Jurgen Klopp the opportunity to accelerate the rebuild of his team.

This has brought the roles and responsibilities of other crucial figures into view.

Dealing with the consequences of departures for midfield pair Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, both potentially headed out to play in Saudi Arabia, was not on the agenda for Jorg Schmadtke when he was essentially brought in as a transfer troubleshooter at the start of June.

Schmadtke cannot be considered Julian Ward’s replacement as sporting director because his scope is currently so narrow. There have not, for example, been face-to-face introductions to senior academy members. That is not a criticism aimed at him or anyone else, but it is the reality of his remit. Parts of some weeks have been in Liverpool — he has flown into John Lennon Airport on a Tuesday evening before returning home to Ibiza the next day, for example. Yet he operates mainly from his villa on that Balearic Island, via a mobile phone and a laptop.

No club can peer into the future and anticipate all of the moving parts, but it feels significant that Liverpool, once renowned planners, have found themselves in a position where one person, somebody who is considered a stop-gap, is overseeing a level of change unprecedented in the Klopp era. There is every chance Liverpool will begin the 2023-24 season with a whole new midfield.

Liverpool’s transfer troubleshooter, Jorg Schmadtke (Photo: Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Schmadtke, however, is not involved in the contract talks with players the club might want to keep beyond their current deals. This leaves that responsibility with someone else. Not so long ago, Mike Gordon had stepped away from the day-to-day running of Liverpool but for the time being he has taken on the point of contact role for early engagements.

In modern football, discussions about the future between players and their agents tend to intensify when contracts with their present club have two years left to run. You might remember Mohamed Salah’s interview with a Spanish newspaper was published as far as two and a half years out from the end of his deal, and was viewed then as his way of letting the market know he was available.

The conversation around Salah dragged on for 18 months before, last summer, he became the highest-paid player in Liverpool’s history. That agreement runs until the end of June 2025, when he will be 33 — arguably closer to an age where possibilities start to swing in the favour of a club over any player.



The Salah deal: Barcelona interest, no Paris talks and wage could reach closer to £400,000

Gordon has long had an influence over funding. Will he now become more concerned in the churn of negotiation, where he has far less experience? It could be that Schmadtke’s contract is extended and his authority is broadened, or it could be that the U.S.-based Fenway Sports Group (FSG), which owns the club, is considering someone else for the same position. This needs greater clarity as a crucial period is on the horizon. Salah is not the only key player who might leave after the 2024-25 season.

There is much to consider here. Given their abilities and influence, it would be understandable if Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose current deals also run out in two years’ time, felt their contracts should have parity with that of Salah, who is currently on £350,000 a week. Meanwhile, despite his advancing years, Salah might now feel as though he can ask for more, given what he could earn in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Pro League, of course, gives each of these players some leverage, putting pressure on owners including FSG and businessmen such as Gordon.

Henderson, Van Dijk

Jordan Henderson gives the captain’s armband to Virgil van Dijk during a match in 2021 (Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

While there are question marks over whether Liverpool should even keep Salah and Van Dijk, who will be a week short of his 34th birthday when his current contract ends, age is not an issue with Alexander-Arnold as he would only be approaching 26 then.

If Alexander-Arnold played for another club either now, or in two years’ time, then Liverpool, within their current financial structure, would not be able to afford his transfer fee. This helps explain why not only should his contract situation be given priority over the other two, but why he should have been in front of them in the queue, and anyone else for that matter, to succeed Henderson as captain following his expected move to Steven Gerrard’s Saudi side Al Ettifaq. **

Trenches, mountains, lakes. Summer 23

— Trent Alexander-Arnold (@TrentAA) July 9, 2023

Liverpool have had just two club captains in 20 years, which is remarkable.

When Gerrard took over from Sami Hyypia, it was because the Finnish defender was struggling with the responsibility while the local-lad midfielder’s stock was rising. Given his seniority and experience, Jamie Carragher might have seemed like a more obvious replacement, but then-manager Gerard Houllier could see what was coming. Gerrard was a Scouser but interest in him further afield was growing. Perhaps it was all a little too soon for any normal 23-year-old to take on, but the circumstances dictated that a change was necessary, and that change increased the chances of Gerrard staying, even when advances from elsewhere were tempting — as they were when Chelsea came calling in 2004 and again the following year.

In his book, Intensity, first-team coach Pep Lijnders describes Alexander-Arnold as a “future captain”. That was published nearly a year ago. Perhaps neither Lijnders nor Klopp anticipated the future would arrive so quickly.

Given the refurbishment of this team — given too that Van Dijk might become a part of that process — there is an opportunity here to create a new hierarchy and ensure some consistency in leadership beyond just a few seasons.

Amid all of the change at Anfield across each of the last two decades, one of the constants has been the captain: Gerrard, then Henderson. Given Alexander-Arnold could spend another decade at the top, he offers continuity in ability as well as identity.

Until the last few weeks, Henderson has been an outstanding captain for Liverpool, and a broadly more successful one than Gerrard. It is tempting to see them as opposites because Gerrard’s natural talent was greater than Henderson’s. What defined both of them, however, was their similarities: their Everest-level expectations, their authority and Lijnders’ favourite word, intensity. Henderson had bits of these components when he arrived from Sunderland as a 21-year-old in 2011 but they were not joined up — he learned about them faster by watching and listening to his predecessor across the next four seasons.

Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk

Alexander-Arnold and Van Dijk in 2019 (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

Upon Gerrard’s departure, it was thought that the link between Liverpool’s present and its past was lost.

Gerrard had been trained as a youth-team footballer by Steve Heighway. Heighway was signed for Liverpool by Bill Shankly, the manager who continues to define the mindset of the club’s local fanbase. This meant key sporting values were absorbed through the generations.

It took time for Henderson to prove they were still present but, ultimately, he did.

Listen to those who know Alexander-Arnold best, and they will tell you the team-mates he has learned the most from have been Henderson and James Milner, his now-departed long-time deputy. The pair started grooming Alexander-Arnold as soon as he joined the first-team squad because they saw little bits of themselves in him.

Perhaps the conversation about Henderson’s qualities have been too focused on what he has done away from the pitch, in the corridors of the training ground and in the changing rooms.

In my humble opinion, the overall view of him purely as a footballer has been dominated by too many people who do not really understand the game they are watching.

Particularly at Liverpool, at Anfield, the live audience still matters, and it can still be highly influential. The famous atmosphere — though it is not always the same as it once supposedly was — is still there if the circumstances are right and you know how to ignite it. Like Gerrard, Henderson has understood how to light the fuse.

Sometimes it has been through the simple act of barging an opponent out of the way and winning possession back but, more often than not, it has been because he mastered the subtle art of appreciating when to change the angle slightly for a team-mate by his movement or by moving the ball a bit faster, sharpening the senses of those around him whether they are positioned on the grass or in the stands.

Fiddling around on the ball, looking backwards rather than forwards, is a no-no if you are Liverpool captain. There is a requirement to do things on the front foot and quickly. From his position right at the back of the pitch, it is a little more difficult for Van Dijk to do that. At his best, he is a calming influence rather than an agitator. The same goes for goalkeeper Alisson, another leader in Liverpool’s squad.

Alexander-Arnold can be as crafty as Gerrard ever was, and his quick corner against Barcelona in that 2019 Champions League semi-final provides proof of that. More recently, he has shown he can be an agitator, like Henderson. Last season, Liverpool were really struggling against Arsenal before he lured Granit Xhaka into a trap.

Xhaka, Alexander-Arnold

Alexander-Arnold and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka last season (Photo: Shaun Botterill via Getty Images)

Van Dijk has found the responsibility of captaining the Netherlands hard. Since returning to the Liverpool team following a serious knee injury that kept him out for nine months, he has sometimes looked as though he could do with focusing on himself rather than worrying about anyone else.

Would his game really improve that much if he took on the same role for Liverpool and, equally, would his influence even drop if the armband didn’t come his way? If he is the player, and the man, lots of people assume him to be, then little would change. If he’s unable to handle any perceived rejection, well, there’s always Saudi.

Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold could use it to help take his game to another level, because there is space for that to happen.

Liverpool might worry his appointment would lead to new expectations when Gordon or anyone else meets his brother and agent, Tyler, at the contract table. A conclusion could be reached that instead, for now, Alexander-Arnold joins the chain of command, using the promotion once Van Dijk leaves as a bargaining chip: stay, and you will be his successor.

Following Milner’s exit to Brighton this summer, Van Dijk is the next in line to be captain.

There is no doubt any change in direction would involve a difficult conversation instigated by Klopp. Yet that is just one of many such chats which might need to happen at Liverpool over the next few months.

Maybe Klopp will decide it is all too much at once, especially if Alexander-Arnold is learning at the same time how to play at the highest level as a midfielder after moving infield from wing-back.

Alternatively, he might realise that the combative challenges of a new role would give Alexander-Arnold the chance to do more of the stuff that made Henderson and Gerrard brilliant leaders in their own ways.

(Top photo: Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)