Liverpool's Jordon Ibe presents Jurgen Klopp with transfer dilemma at winger
With central defender Joel Matip and midfielder Marko Grujic already signed up for next season, it's going to be interesting to see what other areas of his team Jurgen Klopp looks to strengthen this summer. Some early transfer rumours suggest that Bayern Munich attacker Mario Gotze is his number one target, but Klopp himself has previously admitted that one area his squad is a little short-handed is out wide.
Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is one name that seems to keep cropping up in transfer gossip columns, while former Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa has also been mooted as a possible target after rediscovering his form back in France with Nice. Oxlade-Chamberlain seems a more likely target as he's more of a "Klopp player" than the maverick Ben Arfa. The young England man is rumoured to be unsettled at the Emirates having never really established himself as a regular first choice player, and Klopp is reportedly looking to bring him to Anfield.
Still only 22 years old, the former Southampton youngster has great experience but also plenty of room to improve. His injury history would surely be cause for concern, as is the lack of goals. He wouldn't come cheap either, and would he really be such an upgrade on Jordon Ibe, who despite his recent dip still has an awful lot of upside and has been a lot less injury prone?
Ibe is the only natural out-and-out winger in the squad, but the youngster has not kicked on this year in the way supporters had hoped. There was an opportunity for Ibe to really establish himself this season following the departure of Raheem Sterling last summer, but despite showing some flashes of potential here and there, he has struggled to consistently show his best form and has recently found himself out of the matchday squad altogether.
While that is partly a result of Klopp finally having all of his attacking stars free from injury and available for selection, had Ibe been on form there would surely have still been a place for him on the bench at the very least. Players with pace, strength and the ability to beat their man are a useful asset for any manager and - - in theory at least - - Ibe should be the perfect "impact sub" who Klopp could bring off the bench to wreak havoc against tiring defences.
It's not worked out like that though, and Klopp now has something of a dilemma this summer. The obvious solution is to go out and buy a top class wide player who can provide Liverpool with the goals and attacking threat that Sterling did prior to his defection to Manchester City. That's probably what will happen, but that would not only see James Milner's starts come down, it would in turn reduce Ibe's opportunities even further and perhaps stall his development at a crucial stage. That's not ideal given the obvious potential of the player, but if he's not producing the goods then Liverpool can't wait for him. It's a tricky one for Klopp though as hopes had been very high for the former Wycombe Wanderers youngster.
Ibe's recent slump not only affects his own first team prospects, it indirectly impacts on the opportunities of those behind him in the pecking order too. Unless Klopp decides to give up on Ibe altogether (highly unlikely), the recruitment of a specialist winger would knock all the other aspiring young wide players at the club one more rung down the ladder too. While the first team is short of natural wide players, at under-21 level the Reds are spoilt for choice, with Sheyi Ojo, Ryan Kent and Harry Wilson all vying for a place on the wing, and Spanish youngster Sergi Canos enjoying a fine season on loan at Brentford.
It's difficult enough for youngsters to get an opportunity as it is, but with Klopp set to strengthen most areas of the team this summer it might be harder than ever next year. That's why it's so frustrating to see Ibe struggling to make his mark now. When he first arrived on the scene he played without fear and with the arrogance of youth, but that's been missing in recent months and the pressure of first team football appears to have taken a toll on him.
Had Ibe lived up to expectations this year then Liverpool would have no need to enter the market for a natural winger this summer, but his loss of form and confidence makes it almost certain that Klopp will be looking for an attacker who can provide width and pace to an attack that currently lacks both. There's a lot to admire in the play of Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, but all three prefer to operate in central areas, which is partly why Milner is almost always in the starting line up when available. If he's asked to play wide, he'll play wide and won't keep drifting into central areas even if that's where he'd prefer to play.
Milner began the season in centre midfield under former boss Brendan Rodgers, but he's been used almost exclusively out wide in a 4-2-3-1 system by Klopp as he's just got his head down and got on with it. You always know what you're going to get from Milner and managers love him for that, but there are certain games when Liverpool need more than he can provide from that position. That's where Ibe should have come in, but he has so far failed to grasp the nettle and is now approaching something of a crossroads in his fledgling career. He's young and has time on his side, but if Klopp does indeed buy a top quality winger this summer then Ibe may find himself on the outside looking in.
Despite his obvious talent, he's in danger of missing the boat as not only is he behind Milner, Coutinho, Lallana & Co., but Ojo looks to have moved ahead of him now too following some dazzling displays for the under-21s. The 18-year-old caught the eye with two lively cameos off the bench in the FA Cup games against Exeter City and scored a cracker in front of the Kop with his very first touch on his home debut.
With the Reds out of the FA Cup and the club's injury crisis over, Ojo has since been overlooked in favour of more established players, but a recent hat trick for the U21s saw him named ahead of Ibe as one of the substitutes for last week's Europa League win over Manchester United. So not only does Ibe have to try and force his way ahead of more senior players in his position, he's now got the young and hungry Ojo pushing him for a place too.
It's a pity, as Ibe had the opportunity to do what Sterling did before him and make himself a permanent fixture in the side. Young players often go through dips of form and Sterling himself had a rough 12 months after making such a promising start to life in the first team. What Ibe is going through is nothing unusual and he can certainly come through it, but it does feel like he's wasted a chance to really cement himself in the first team this year and that chance might not come around again next year if Klopp spends big on a winger.
That's why it's vital that Ibe seizes whatever chance comes his way between now and the end of the season. He's shown he has the talent to do it, but he needs to rediscover the confidence and fearlessness he had when he first arrived on the scene.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.