The major decision that could derail Liverpool & Man City's £85m big summer transfer plans

Liverpool and Manchester City look set to miss out on one of the splashiest summer transfer targets - but how big of an issue will that be?
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Xabi Alonso’s decision to stay at Bayer Leverkusen next season has ramifications beyond the need for Liverpool to find another manager to take the reins from Jürgen Klopp – it’s also drastically increased the likelihood of some of Leverkusen’s best players remaining at the club for one more season. That includes one player that Liverpool are very keen to get their hands on, in the form of Florian Wirtz.

Liverpool aren’t the only team who want to sign the skilful playmaker whose 24 goal contributions have propelled Leverkusen’s seemingly never-ending unbeaten run. Manchester City and Bayern Munich – another side who wanted Alonso as manager – are also highly interested in getting hold of one of the most exciting young players in world football. But their plans might well be going up in smoke.

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HITC are the most recent outlet to claim that their sources suggest that the 20-year-old attacking midfielder will remain at Leverkusen for at least one more year. Indeed, club CEO Fernando Carro recently told the media that Wirtz “will definitely stay here, 100%.” It sounds as if Liverpool and Manchester City will have to look elsewhere.

That’s probably less of an issue for Liverpool than it is for their title rivals. Partly, that’s because they already have players who can take up the role Wirtz might occupy at Anfield. At Leverkusen, he plays as a sort of hybrid between a number ten and an inverted winger, finding spaces between the central striker and the onrushing wing-back, which means that in Klopp’s system he would likely either play as a ten – a position impressively filled this season by Dominik Szoboszlai – or in a Cody Gakpo-style role as a false nine or as a wide forward.

Of course, the system may well change dramatically under the next manager, and there’s every argument for Liverpool to acquire more depth in their fluid front line, but it would be a stretch to say that they desperately need Wirtz to fill a positional need. They would be signing him simply because he’s damned good.

Manchester City, on the other hand, are in need of reinforcements in their midfield. Wirtz could comfortably fill either the central role currently occupied by Bernardo Silva, who is likely to depart, or could be a long-term replacement for the 32-year-old Kevin de Bruyne. He could also play wide left, something of a problem position at the moment given Jack Grealish’s struggle for form and Jérémy Doku’s struggle to turn proficiency into productivity.

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But it looks increasingly likely that the two sides will have to look elsewhere. For Liverpool – hardly noted as a free-spending team in the last few seasons – that probably means prioritising the centre of the defence, a holding midfielder and potentially a replacement for Mohamed Salah if the Egyptian maestro ends up moving to Saudi Arabia. For Manchester City, it may well mean finding a new player entirely.

Lucas Paquetá has been mentioned repeatedly after negotiations with West Ham United fell through last summer following allegations that the Brazilian had broken FA gambling rules. If Paquetá avoids a suspension once the resultant investigation is completed, then he provides a more-or-less like-for-like positional alternative to Wirtz – but there is a big difference in production between the two. Where Wirtz has 24 combined goals and assists, Paquetá has 13. It’s the difference between a very good player and one who teeters on the edge of world class despite his youth.

There is one factor which might make Wirtz a little less appealing to Guardiola than reports suggest, and that’s that he isn’t hugely effective in a pressing unit. Not that the German isn’t willing to put the work in, but he isn’t especially strong and nor does he generate many turnovers. That’s true of plenty of players that Guardiola has worked with at City, however, and he has always focused more on the efficacy of the pressing unit as a whole rather and its ability to force bad passes rather than the number of turnovers it generates. Still, Paquetá wins the ball high up the field far more often that Wirtz, which could be a big mark in his favour.

But if the West Ham doesn’t move to the Etihad, either because a deal can’t be struck or because he does end up suffering a suspension, then Wirtz’s apparent decision to stay put at Leverkusen does present a problem. There simply aren’t many players who offer the same volume of creativity, threat in the final third, ball-carrying skill and positional versatility available. Wirtz is pretty close to the perfect target for Guardiola, ticking just about every box. If he does indeed stay put, then that’s going to make this summer just a little bit trickier.

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For Liverpool, there is a little more flexibility. There are plenty of players out there who could supplement the front three, either as wide forwards or as a central striker. Missing out on Wirtz is a blow in terms of the inability to sign an exceptional talent, but not a critical issue. And he may have been beyond their price range anyway - reports from the winter suggested that Leverkusen would demand a minimum of €100m (£85.5m) for his services.

Of course, he could just as easily decide to sign for Bayern if and when he does leave Leverkusen. He might prefer to remain in his home country, which would be understandable enough, even if it would be something of a shame from the perspective of a Premier League supporter. Both teams will have back-up plans in place anyway, as they will have known that they would face a struggle to sign him under any circumstances. It’s just a shame for all three teams that they will have to dig those Plan Bs out of the back of the scouting files in the first place – because Wirtz is one hell of a player, and one day he’ll make the fans of a superclub very happy indeed.