Why code-cracker Endo could be Klopp's final gift to Liverpool


When Wataru Endo first arrived in Europe to play for Belgian club Sint-Truiden in 2018, few of his new colleagues knew what to expect. He had not made it off the bench for Japan at that summer’s World Cup. Nor was it so easy to communicate.

Issame Charai was the assistant coach at Sint-Truiden. He remembers those early challenges. He was really shy and his English was not so good so it was difficult,” he tells Sky Sports. “There was a lot of showing him images, showing him what we expected.”

But Charai recalls the day when Endo won over his team-mates. It was not on the football pitch, where he would go on to so illuminate their season that it would earn him a move to the Bundesliga with Stuttgart before finally making it to Liverpool this season.

It was in an escape room.

The popular task, in which a group tries to solve puzzles to find a way out of a locked room, was designed as a team-bonding exercise. “They had to find some codes,” explains Charai. “We had some cameras so that we could check what the players were doing.”

No prizes for guessing who was the problem solver. “We saw that it was Endo who found a lot of the codes himself. He is very intelligent on the pitch. But this is a guy who is also very intelligent off the pitch. That gained him a lot of credit with the other players.”

Almost six years on and Endo is providing the solutions for Liverpool – or saving their life as Jurgen Klopp put it after a 3-0 win over Brentford. Added late in the window, the 31-year-old midfielder was not the superstar signing craved by supporters.

But they love him now.

“What can you expect? That he would be a standout player in the Premier League? That he would be a good player, we knew, but what he is making of that role,” enthused Klopp. “You never know that people can develop to world class, but that is what happened.”

Endo had been excellent for Stuttgart but the surprise at his impact is still understandable. That was a team that had just avoided relegation last season. Liverpool are a club with much loftier aspirations but one that had a glaring gap in the middle of the pitch.

The departures of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson coupled with Thiago’s injury issues added urgency to the situation. It has turned out to be astute business. Endo has already helped Liverpool to win the Carabao Cup and is now a key figure as they chase bigger prizes.

At Stuttgart, when he first joined and was having to wait for his chance, it was the great German striker Mario Gomez who vouched for him. Speaking to Gomez alongside a group of journalists in Munich earlier this season, he described the scene after matches.

“We had the four against four,” said Gomez of those warm-down routines reserved for the substitutes. “When I came into the dressing room, I was always telling the coach to put me in the same team as Wataru because then we would never lose. I love Wataru.”

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Liverpool midfielder Wataru Endo reveals why he started to wear gumshields

Gomez regards Endo as an “example of how team sport should look” because of his attitude – someone who is “always giving everything for the group” – and it is noticeable that his new team-mates and manager are already telling similar tales about the player.

Dominik Szoboszlai, a former opponent, notes that he appears to be everywhere. “It feels like you passed him and then you turn around and he is already there.” Klopp has described Endo as a machine. “He is one of the hardest-working people that I have ever met.”

But it is not all about endeavour. “His defensive brain is outstanding,” says Klopp. His presence in midfield has altered the dynamic. “He gives something different to the team, we have to say, that is clear. He is the one for the tackles,” adds the Liverpool boss.

“He gives us a lot of freedom for a lot of things.”

Alexis Mac Allister's role at Liverpool changes when Wataru Endo is in the team
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Alexis Mac Allister’s role at Liverpool changes when Wataru Endo is in the team

Alexis Mac Allister, in particular, has been relieved of his responsibilities as a holding midfielder and allowed to play a game that more naturally suits his talents. Floating into advanced areas and scoring goals, he is freed up to close down with intensity too.

The blend is better. The dramatic FA Cup defeat to Manchester United did not showcase Endo at his best – although he was denied a goal following a VAR check – but that was an aberration as a result of a demanding schedule. The statistics show his true influence.

In the Premier League this season, Endo is the player who has conceded the fewest goals per 90 minutes when he is on the pitch. It is not a coincidence, as Charai, his old coach from Belgium, points out. “His biggest quality is that he provides balance to the team.”

Wataru Endo's action zones and passing sonar for Liverpool in the Premier League this season
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Wataru Endo’s action zones and passing sonar for Liverpool in the Premier League

He adds: “This is a guy who reads the game very well. He always thinks about what he has to do when his team loses the ball. He likes to play one- and two-touch so he does not complicate the game too much, but his technique is good and he is very strong mentally.

“He is the player you need.”

Wataru Endo's defensive action areas for Liverpool
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Wataru Endo’s defensive action areas for Liverpool highlight his contribution

Charai believes there is more to come. “Maybe you have not seen yet in England that he can score with his head and he has a good shot from distance.” But with or without the goals, Endo is already proving to be the player that Liverpool needed. Klopp’s final bargain.

The Reds boss will walk away at the end of the season but expect Endo to stick around a little longer. “He might be 31 on his passport but he is not,” jokes Klopp. In the meantime, Endo might just help him crack the code to leave with at least one more trophy.

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