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Taki Minamino: What a confusing footballer…

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“His performances and his goals are the reason we have had to redecorate the Champions Wall so often. His achievements here will stand the test of time,” said Jurgen Klopp, yesterday. 

“He made us better each and every day he was with us – not just in the games he played in but every single session in training. Perfect attitude, winner’s mentality.”

And no, he wasn’t talking about Sadio Mane or Divock Origi, two other departing forwards this summer, but Taki Minamino.

The Japanese’s Anfield tenure is an entirely confusing one. Was he actually any good? Or did he just suffer from being below genuinely world-class attackers in the pecking order?

His numbers last season were genuinely jaw-dropping. Minamino couldn’t have done more with the minutes he received in terms of output.

Taki averaged a goal every 59 minutes in the Premier League (3 in 179), and was our top scorer in both domestic cup competitions (four in the League Cup, three in the FA Cup). That’s a double figure goal return in less than 1,000 minutes of football all season. That’s a much, much better goal:minute ratio than Mo Salah, Sadio Mane or Diogo Jota.

He wasn’t just coming off the bench to score tap-ins when games were already won, either. Taki scored a brilliant, injury-time goal to send our League Cup quarterfinal with Leicester City into Extra Time, which you can see in the clip below.

He also finished with aplomb at the season’s death against Southampton when we were 1-0 down at St. Mary’s.

To put it simply, whenever he played, he scored.

In Liverpool’s history, only Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Steven Gerrard and Robbie Fowler have finished top scorer in both the League Cup and FA Cup for us – and none of those players won both in said seasons.

There’s an increasing argument for some cult-status, here.

But the reality is, despite his lovely words upon departure, Klopp didn’t rate him.

In the 2020/21 season, which was behind closed doors, Taki barely got a sniff before Christmas. Then, Klopp started him away to Crystal Palace. We won 7-0 with Minamino opening the scoring. He didn’t play another minute before he was loaned to Southampton.

In 2021/22, every time Taki contributed in one of the cups or off the bench in the Premier League, it had no sway upon his chances of minutes in the next game, which must have been demoralising for a player who never truly settled after arriving just before the first Covid-lockdown in 2020.

The Japanese was locked away without friends or family and got to know his team-mates via awkward Zoom yoga sessions. The senior members of Liverpool’s squad clearly recognised this was an introverted character and made efforts to laud him and get him involved when possible, but there was still a feeling Minamino was on the social fringes, someone who didn’t find it as easy to integrate as Kostas Tsimikas or Luis Diaz.

In the clip below you’ll see Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk encouraging the crowd to go extra crazy as Taki lifts the League Cup, but there’s a part of me which still finds it a little patronising, even if the intentions were very pure.

Lots of fans said Minamino’s lack of minutes were because he was just unlucky to be behind Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino. But if you’re good enough, the boss plays you. Look at Jota and Diaz. They both arrived as backups for the front-three and immediately thrust themselves into the side. And it was because of their character and performances, rather than their goals.

Statistically, Minamino earned his chance, but for whatever reason, Klopp didn’t see a player he trusted in vital moments.

The 27-year-old is clearly a terrific finisher. He can shoot with power and little back-lift. It’s a real skill. In fact, he scored with ten of his 12 shots last season, which is frankly ridiculous.

But there are limits to his game. He isn’t strong. He’s probably one of the weakest players in terms of a 50/50 you’ll ever see, which doesn’t suit Liverpool’s tenacious pressing and need to make life hard for the opponent.

He also went missing in games, even the ones he scored in. Often, he’d be standing behind an opponent, therefore stopping himself from becoming a passing option, although equally, his team-mates repeatedly ignored him when he was open, too. Taki isn’t especially fast, so cannot stretch a side in behind, and didn’t have the physicality or ball-retention skills for regular midfield minutes.

I would have loved to see him given opportunities as a running no.8, someone who got into the box a lot from deeper, central areas, but Klopp never took the risk, which given the fact we were already winning nearly all of our games last season, is understandable.

In the end, Liverpool doubled their money on a player who featured in less than two whole Premier League games last season. It’s good business. But Taki will always be an enigma and we’ll only see if we did misuse him based on the rest of his career. AS Monaco have a talented player, that’s for sure.

But there’s a sadness to his exit, too.

“There are many games I play that nobody cares about. Even if I score, nobody is happy. I try to inspire myself to prove my worth. I play. Self-training is different from group training,” he said before his exit. 

“I thought I was leaving something behind after entering the game mentally. I feel regret and anger every day. I’ve never had much game time as a player. It was hard to keep my feet on the ground and connect with my emotions, so I had to go.”

It’s a huge credit to him that despite these feelings, he behaved professionally always and it’s for that reason we wish him all the luck in the world in his new endeavours.

 



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