Wataru Endo has joined Liverpool from Stuttgart (PA Archive)
Instead of the third most expensive footballer in history, Liverpool have unveiled the third most expensive midfielder they have signed this summer and the third they targeted in swift succession. A dizzying week that began with a British record bid for Moises Caicedo ended with Romeo Lavia joining the Ecuadorian at Stamford Bridge and the arrival of Wataru Endo at Anfield, almost £100m cheaper than one of the men who preferred Chelsea to Liverpool and seemingly out of the blue. This, Jurgen Klopp accepted, was not how many supporters hoped their search for a No 6 would go.
“It is a transfer that is not in the public eye,” he said. “It’s not ‘Oh my God!’ and probably nobody at this moment is texting a new song for him.” That said, though, Klopp did get a text from an influential figure in German football, congratulating him on the signing of the former VfB Stuttgart captain.
If Caicedo can be billed as the new N’Golo Kante, and not merely because of the Ecuadorian’s choice of club, Klopp looked into Liverpool’s recent past for a comparison for his latest buy. He settled on perhaps the most unglamorous figure of their recent glory years, James Milner. He urged fans to look beyond the bare facts about Endo – a 30-year-old relegation firefighter in the Bundesliga – and embrace an unlikely addition.
“I know how football fans are, they would prefer to bring in a player who is £110m,” he said. Normally when a manager pleads that a player should not be judged on his price tag, it is because he is costly, not cheap.
“But wait: he has something that Liverpool supporters will love, definitely,” added Klopp. “He is already used to red a little bit [from Stuttgart], so that’s good, and when he puts that shirt on he will throw everything on the pitch and the people will love that, I know that. We had this with James Milner a little bit. Obviously a slightly different profile but could you respect James Milner more for playing 15 minutes at the end and just closing a game down?”
Milner, Klopp added, was “one of the biggest Liverpool legends of my time and arrived here he was 29”. The German came to Anfield a few months later and since then he had only signed one outfield player in their thirties: defender Ragnar Klavan in 2016, also from a bottom-half Bundesliga club. But if Klopp has to convince the Anfield public Endo is not too near the end, he also had to persuade his employers.
Klopp believes Endo can have a similar impact to James Milner (Getty Images)
“The way our owners see it he was already too old when he joined Stuttgart,” he said. “The owners really want 200 games at 20 years old. That is pretty difficult. I didn’t need any kind of convincing. I know that the best time for a football player is from 27 to 33 in a normal career.” If Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai conform to the usual model for Liverpool signings in the Fenway Sports Group era, Endo is an anomaly.
His new manager’s view is that the Japan captain is a young 30. “When you see him, you think ‘is he allowed to drive a car?’” Klopp asked. Certainly, a four-year contract reflects Liverpool’s belief that, like Milner before him, Endo will retain his running power deep into his thirties. His age, he feels, is a reason his new recruit was overlooked; why he is the exception to FSG’s rule.
“He is a late bloomer and he improved every year since he was on the proper football screen,” he said. Klopp has always savoured an underdog tale; for him, there is much to enjoy in the way Endo took a long and winding road to Liverpool, via Shonan Bellmare, Urawa Red Diamonds, Sint-Truiden and then Stuttgart. “I am really happy these kind of stories are still possible in this crazy world of football,” he said. “It feels just right.”
And Liverpool definitely feels right for Endo. “A dream come true,” said a player for whom such a move would long have seemed utterly unrealistic. After Caicedo and Lavia showed rather less enthusiasm to sign, Klopp grinned as he stressed Liverpool finally reached an agreement with “the club and the player”.
There can be no pretence Endo was Liverpool’s first choice but he sought to address the perception that desperation ruled. “He was on my list from the beginning,” he said. He had watched Endo since he joined Stuttgart in 2019. He moved for him after Liverpool had just 35 per cent possession against Chelsea – “crazy,” Klopp said – when, in the absence of a specialist defensive midfielder, Mac Allister had to impersonate one. But it was such a shock that even Endo pronounced himself surprised.
He is the £15m man, not the £115m midfielder. “But in the end the pitch is the same size,” Klopp said. “The player will not grow with the money he costs, it’s rather the other way around.” But even Endo has grown into a Liverpool player late in his career, Klopp is hoping he has a Milner-esque impact for a price a fraction of Caicedo’s.