It’s great to see the team showing what it’s capable of again, and a relief as well. Liverpool’s vanquished opponents on Saturday have undoubtedly plateaued as a club over the last decade, pretty much ever since that Champions League final defeat in Paris and the opening of their new stadium bookended the summer of 2006, so the frustration of Arsenal supporters with Arséne Wenger is understandable in some respects (even if the vitriol expressed by some of them for a man who should rightly be regarded as a legend of their club is utterly repugnant). Nonetheless I don’t envy them the step into the unknown they’re about to take, which is why I’ve been shaking my head in recent weeks at the notion of some Liverpool fans wanting their own club to begin considering breaking out the managerial dice and rolling them once again after a few admittedly sub-standard weeks.
The wrong appointment after Wenger, particularly in the context of a top division which arguably hasn’t been as competitive since the early-1970’s, could easily set Arsenal back half a decade or more. Why any Liverpool supporter would want their club to consider doing similar a mere 17 months into Jürgen Klopp’s reign is a prospect so far beyond me that it might as well be in orbit around Pluto. Have we ourselves not been here as recently as 2010, watching on helplessly as men like “the Fernando Torres of finance” and Merseyside’s version of Easy Rider sacked a Champions League-winning manager who had led the club to the top of European football over a five-year period? Liverpool have subsequently played 6 Champions League fixtures in over 7 years and counting, and the man who subsequently arrived to “steady the ship” that was 7th and a European semi-final departed himself 6 months later with the club sitting 4 points above the relegation zone in 12th.
The circumstances are obviously different and I wouldn’t argue that a parting of ways after more than 20 years could ever be considered premature, especially after going out of Europe 10-2 on aggregate, but depending on a Board stocked with bean-counting businessmen to make the correct decision regarding the club’s future on the pitch is fraught with danger all the same. Arsenal are unlikely to end up with a Roy Hodgson or David Moyes figure as Liverpool and Manchester United respectively did, if only because they have the mistakes of their rivals to use as a reference point. Hell, they might even end up with everything they’ve ever dreamed of and more, although even successful managers like Massimiliano Allegri or Diego Simeone, if they could get them, would be unlikely to bring anything nearly as aesthetically-pleasing as the style of football they’ve enjoyed for 20 years under Wenger. Whatever happens, the business of replacing managers is always a roll of the dice to some extent and unforeseen chain reactions are a given e.g. who would have foreseen Kenny Dalglish taking over Liverpool after a sabbatical of 11 years from full-time management?
Wenger’s time at Arsenal does, on the face of it, appear to be coming to an end. Klopp’s at Liverpool should only be in its infancy. At anything approaching its best, as it certainly was in the first-half on Saturday evening, his side retains every bit as much potential for the irresistible as the version we saw during the 4-3 win at the Emirates back in August, the first leg of Liverpool’s first League double over Arsenal since 1999/00. With Gini Wijnaldum, fast becoming my favourite Liverpool player, and Adam Lallana running hard, intelligent yards in midfield, the front three were able to ensure that the benching of Alexis Sanchez (who suddenly didn’t seem to mind the dugout as much on Tuesday night) developed into the self-inflicted wound it became for the visitors rather than just a temporary setback rectifiable by his arrival at half-time. Performances like this are always within the scope of Klopp’s Liverpool when the key components are fit and present, even if it’s a possibility rather a consistent probability for the time being. That’s important and shouldn’t be forgotten.
The second-half on Saturday, less overtly impressive than the first, was nonetheless encouraging in its own way, not least for the tenacity shown by Liverpool in protecting the 3 points, exhibiting perhaps the kind of anger that Klopp has previously referenced in relation to visiting teams who “want our points – that makes me angry so it’s easy for me”. Emre Can’s rugged play in particular gave the home side an edge that has sorely been missing, from both the player himself and the team, during recent setbacks. He may have been fortunate to stay on the pitch after fouling Theo Walcott but the incident only served to illustrate once again that, in football, fortune tends to favour the bold most of the time, on the pitch as well as in the boardroom (more on that point later).
None of the above changes the fact that supposed blips have begun to join and multiply since the turn of the year, or that bad days at the office have morphed into what remains a wretched two-month stretch during which Liverpool have exited both domestic cups and taken 9 points from a possible 24 in the League, giving the prospects of continued Premier League tenures for Sunderland, Swansea, Hull and Leicester a shot in the arm in the process (a full set of points from those games, incidentally, would have seen Liverpool currently sitting in 2nd place, just 3 points behind Chelsea with 11 to play). Sean Dyche, fresh from somehow finding fault in a referee who awarded his team a penalty for their own blatant handball, is up next, and you can be sure that he would love to once again put one over on the foreign manager who “came in and played sort of a 4-4-2 and ‘let’s run really hard and press’. People thought it was incredible. Wasn’t Sean Dyche doing that three years ago when he got here?” So let’s hope we see a repeat of the last two home performances tomorrow.
Anything less is likely to see the grey cloud which has been shadowing the club since the early weeks of January once again darkening our horizons with a familiar, niggling feeling of frustration that shows no signs of disappearing even if those impressive recent results against Liverpool’s rivals from north London have eased it somewhat. It’s familiar because it’s nothing new, a restlessness borne of an opportunity passing by without you having the wherewithal to actually reach out and touch it. At a club whose League title drought will now almost certainly end up stretching to at least 28 years, it has long been a recurring affliction and one which shares a certain amount of common ground with the frustrations regularly vented by Arsenal supporters in recent years, a sense that your club is thoroughly satisfied with having a good team and ambivalent, at best, at the prospect of having a great one.
From a Liverpool perspective, previous examples include running arguably Ferguson’s greatest ever Manchester United side so close in 2009 with a squad that regularly contained David N’gog, Andriy Voronin, Andrea Dossena, Albert Riera and Nabil El Zhar, and 2014, where Victor Moses, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto typically provided the only attacking depth from the bench. As such golden opportunities have presented themselves, title challenges lost by four and two points respectively, so the supporters have naturally become restless at times, not so much at the fact that the club has failed but at the apparent reasons for those failures. Eventually, you begin to recognise the warning signs.
Both title challenges mentioned above were driven by seriously impressive first elevens (the former good enough to beat Manchester United and Real Madrid in consecutive games by an aggregate score of 8-1, the latter scoring in excess of 100 League goals over the course of a season) and perished on the deeply flawed squads that housed them. This season, perhaps, rightly or wrongly, felt like a similar kind of opportunity. And when Liverpool beat Manchester City 1-0 on New Year’s Eve to go 4 points clear in 2nd place at the halfway point of the season, it seemed to confirm their position as Chelsea’s primary competition for the League title.
A monstrous fixture list, however, began to take its toll, starting against Sunderland on 2nd January. 10 of the players who had started the game against City less than 48 hours earlier were picked again at the Stadium of Light and, looking at the names on the Liverpool bench that day (Karius, Moreno, Lucas, Origi, Stewart, Ejaria, Alexander-Arnold), the decision to do so was perhaps justifiable. From there, arguably the club’s best player this season, Sadio Mané, would miss a month of action away at the Africa Cup of Nations, only returning (jet-lagged) for the visit of Chelsea on 31st January because of Senegal’s quarter-final exit. Along with him went any semblance of real pace and much of the movement in Liverpool’s attack, for an entire month, remember.
Lucas, meanwhile, a central midfielder whose mobility has declined sharply over the years due to injuries, began starting games in the centre of defence (alongside another midfielder, James Milner, who has become the team’s reluctant first-choice left-back this season). This was due to a variety of factors, including injuries (Joël Matip, Dejan Lovren), disputes with the Cameroon Football Federation (Matip), tactical reasons (Ragnar Klavan left on the bench, Joe Gomez not considered) and the decision to send Mamadou Sakho to the under-23’s and then on loan to Crystal Palace without a player of comparable ability being brought in to replace him. On the latter point, that player is certainly not Klavan who seems a much better fit as Martin Škrtel’s replacement, and if Matip now represents a substitute for Sakho rather than a quality addition to build on what was already there, then last summer’s business, which although much-maligned of late did deliver 3 quality starters in Mané, Wijnaldum and Matip, becomes a whole lot less impressive.
In other words, it has become hard to shake the feeling that once again a quality Liverpool side, good enough to lose a staggering 1 out of 23 against the other members of the current top-7 under Klopp across all competitions (Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton), and that a 0-1 loss to Manchester United where their goal arrived against the run of play and represented their only shot on target across the 90 minutes, scoring 41 goals and only conceding 19 in the process, is being undermined by a squad that lacks sufficient depth of quality to cope with key absences. And despite the fact that this team is still clearly in the earlier stages of its evolution, it feels like the kind of opportunity which hasn’t come along very often for Liverpool since 1990 (aside from the two campaigns already mentioned, only 1996/97 really compares) is being, or has been, squandered.
The pundits, a group which typically favours the shortest possible route between A and B, are focusing on an apparent ongoing inability to break down the lesser lights as a nice, easy explanation for Liverpool’s deterioration since the turn of the year, but that doesn’t necessarily tally with what we saw in the closing months of 2016. Leaving out the other members of the current top-7, Liverpool’s record against the rest of the League in the first 19 games was P13, W9, D2, L2, F37 A16, for a tally of 29 points out of 39 and a goal average of 2.8 per game, not a bad record at all. Out of those 13 teams, only Burnley and Southampton conceded less than 2 against Klopp’s men. Bus-parkers were being routinely swatted aside and individual errors (e.g. in consecutive games from Loris Karius versus Bournemouth and West Ham, Matip also against West Ham) were more responsible for poor results than any systemic issues.
It’s possible, of course, that the crack team of David Moyes, Paul Clement, Marco Silva and Craig Shakespeare (and with three clean-sheets in a row against Liverpool this season, we can probably add Claude Puel to that list) have simply “figured out” Klopp’s team over the past couple of months. Only time, in the form of upcoming visits from Burnley, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Middlesbrough and trips to Stoke, West Brom, Watford and West Ham between now and the end of the season, will ultimately tell on that front. The spectre of burnout, meanwhile, from either training or games, does not appear to have been the issue either given the abundant energy shown in recent weeks against Arsenal and Tottenham.
There are two possibilities, it seems to me: (a) maybe this team just isn’t good enough right now to maintain a realistic title challenge for an entire season, a fair argument perhaps, or (b) maybe the team is good enough but the squad isn’t. Maybe it’s both? Maybe that’s the reason for the aforementioned restlessness, the presence of which around the club has become so prevalent over the past two months that even the manager spent part of his press-conference last Friday addressing it: “If we perform at the highest level nobody asks for new players but if you don’t everybody asks for them…we are working on it already…we will spend money in the summer…we all have the same plan: sporting director, scouting department, owners, myself…we want to make this club as big and as successful as possible”.
The manager was awfully specific in his comments too, expressly addressing two of the key recent criticisms of the club’s transfer business. The first of these is the failure to adequately mitigate for Mané’s month-long absence (“One or two players in January, when we had problems with injury and the Africa Cup would [have been] cool…could we have had more? Yes, but the transfer window in the winter didn’t give us any”). It could be added on this point that if opposition teams are indeed working out Plan A, then additional wrinkles to the system in the form of reinforcements would have been one way of getting around that. The second, perhaps of more importance in the context of next summer, is the sense that outgoings now appear to govern incomings (“Will it be a similar transfer window as last summer when we broke even? I don’t think it is possible. Now there will be a few other faces”).
This question of the club’s ambition, its ability or desire to compete with the best, is nothing new. It has raised its head throughout FSG’s reign as owners. Before them it was a repeated, very public bone of contention between manager (Rafa Benítez) and owners (Hicks and Gillett) stretching from the aftermath of Liverpool’s loss in the 2007 Champions League final (“We must spend big and spend now…we need to pay the price needed for each position”) right up to his sacking in June 2010. And the sale of the club to foreign ownership may never have happened at all had previous owner David Moores not felt compelled to “sell my shares to assist in securing the investment needed for the new stadium and for the playing squad”, investment he was unable to provide. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that it’s been a recurring theme pretty much every year since the last time that Liverpool were genuine heavyweights at the top end of the transfer market, breaking British transfer records for a player (£8.5m on Stan Collymore) a defender (£3.6m on Phil Babb) and a teenager (£2.3m on Mark Kennedy) within the space of 2 seasons in the mid-1990’s.
By the time Manchester United were breaking the world transfer record for a defender, spending in excess of £10m on Jaap Stam in 1998, the rules of engagement were clearly changing on but Liverpool were still buying key players for similar prices as a few years earlier. £2.5m and £3.5m on central defenders Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz respectively in the summer of 1999, for example, were very similar outlays to what the club had spent on Babb, the difference being that these sums certainly weren’t troubling transfer records anymore half a decade later, British or otherwise. By the time Manchester United again broke the world record for a defender in the summer of 2002 (£30m+ on Rio Ferdinand), Liverpool’s central defence was still anchored by those same two players, signed 3 years earlier for a combined £6m, now representing less than one-fifth of Ferdinand’s cost.
And so it went. Roy Evans apparently tried to sign Teddy Sheringham back in 1997 before he ever joined Manchester United, but in their wisdom the Board felt that, at 31, he was too old. By 1999 he was a European champion. The club again lost out to Manchester United a few years later in securing a young Cristiano Ronaldo’s signature, who was supposedly quoted at the time as saying that “Liverpool are one of the best clubs in England and it would be a dream for any player to represent a club of such traditions…I will have to hope they make an offer that is good for both Sporting and myself”. Instead, Manchester United nipped in to complete a deal while Liverpool were supposedly still attempting to play hardball with the player’s agent. The fee they paid was far in excess of what Sporting Lisbon had already accepted, but they obviously deemed the additional cost worth it to secure the services of a youngster who would go on to become one of the 21st century’s greatest players. Nemanja Vidic’s experience summed up the difference in approach between the two clubs: “Rafa Benitez called me and I nearly went there. I was interested in going, but my English wasn’t good and I was struggling to communicate…then Manchester United came…United were decisive. Everything was done very quickly, within two days”.
These instances, where both the Liverpool manager of the day and a great player wanted the transfer only to see it undone by apparent hesitation or reluctance in the boardroom, are just the ones which have been explicitly verified (by Evans, Phil Thompson and Vidic respectively, in this case). There were other targets over the years too (for example Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Simao) where signings which would have undoubtedly helped Liverpool and even hindered rivals were strongly rumoured to have fallen through because the club was either too slow in moving for the player or didn’t show sufficient interest, in the form of transfer fees or wages, to secure a signature. This is to say nothing of arguably Liverpool’s most important player of the last 30 years, Steven Gerrard, coming within a hair’s breadth of joining a rival because of the club’s casual approach to offering him a new deal. Eventually Benítez was prompted to publicly lament that “if we are to improve then we have to move faster”.
But ok, you could argue that Liverpool F.C. in the time of Moores was simply not affluent enough to be able to throw money around as a means to quickly close transfer deals. And it’s not like the club’s record was spotless in this regard before the Premier League era either: in 1983, with Liverpool in their pomp and about to enjoy arguably their most successful season ever, winning the League Championship, League Cup and European Cup in 1983/84, they missed out on Michael Laudrup, one of the greatest talents of his generation, for the sake of an extra year on a contract he would never sign. Flash forward to 2017, however, and Deloitte have recently named Liverpool the 9th richest club in world football, this with no Champions League football in 6 of the last 7 seasons and having not reached the knockout stages of the competition since 2008/09. With the club now apparently in such rude financial health and secure enough to have finally addressed the long-running stadium saga that Moores and his lieutenant Rick Parry had never even come close to resolving, surely, you would think, it is no longer in a position where it needs to watch the pennies at the risk of missing out on talent with the potential to really contribute on the pitch?
Bafflingly, not so. In fact the list of real, verifiable targets that Liverpool have missed out on during FSG’s 6 and half years in charge would make even Moores and Parry blush. In alphabetical order: Dele Alli, Ben Chilwell, Diego Costa, Clint Dempsey, Memphis Depay, Mario Götze, Yevhen Konoplyanka, Henrikh Mikhtaryan, Christian Pulisic, Loïc Rémy, Mohamed Salah, Alexis Sanchez, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Alex Teixeira, Willian. Some of these players may not have improved the team at all in retrospect, but the gift of hindsight doesn’t change the fact that the incumbent manager wanted them at the time. And while some, like Sanchez and the draw of London over Liverpool for example, no doubt had other motives for turning the move down, there is no evidence to suggest that the club ever proposed any additional incentives in order to offset those other factors.
At its worst, Liverpool’s recent approach to transfers has actively left the team short in key areas. For the sake of haggling with Fulham over £1m (Dempsey), Brendan Rodgers was forced to enter his first autumn/winter in charge with Suárez as his only fit senior striker. It’s easy to forget now that this nonsense so galvanised opinion that John W. Henry, whose ownership style often tends towards the reactive, felt compelled to write an open letter defending it. That Dempsey’s career tailed off from there changes nothing: this fact would only matter if the transfer was scuppered by someone who had sufficient knowledge of the game to see his decline coming rather than businessmen who seemed to be trying simply to minimise risk. And Chilwell, a youngster who admittedly may or may not make it at the very highest level, would almost certainly have been given the opportunity to become the club’s first-choice left-back this season had an agreement been reached with Leicester. It’s possible, of course, that they were trying to pull Liverpool’s trousers down with the amount they were asking, but I’m sure that fact would have been leaked to the newspapers were it indeed the case. Instead, Liverpool began and will finish the season with a midfielder manning the left side of the defence.
Dele Alli, meanwhile, supposedly could have been a Liverpool player, according to Rodgers, had he been deemed worth £4,000 per week by the club’s hierarchy. He’s certainly earning more than that now. Sigurdsson, too, apparently asked for what was considered too much money. Chelsea nabbed Salah from directly under the club’s noses, then did the same with Willian (via Tottenham). Mikhtaryan preferred Dortmund, Costa to stay in Madrid. Was it impossible to turn the heads of these players, or did the club simply not try? Did they instead throw up their hands and say “fine, suit yourself then” at the first sign of negotiation? What of Konoplyanka and Teixeira, both of whom at one point seemed to be Liverpool’s for the taking? Or Rémy – was it truly the heart condition, which was already known about, that stopped the deal from going through or perhaps the fact that QPR were unwilling to accept less than the value of his release clause? Mario Balotelli was Plan B on that occasion – we know how that worked out.
All of this is speculation, of course, but a pattern of prevarication has now long since been established when it comes to Liverpool’s transfer business. The difference now is that instead of David Moores, whose pockets and acumen were never quite deep enough, or the first lot of American owners, who were certainly mean and greedy enough to make money but were seriously lacking in any obvious signs of competence, the club is now run by shrewd, dead-eyed, money-making businessmen who could probably make a few hundred thousand dollars for themselves in an empty room with nothing but a paperclip and an elastic band, the MacGyver’s of finance. Any piece of merchandise or corporate partner is fair game for a Liverpool badge, and the truth is that nobody gives a fuck, not really, not as long as there is success on the pitch to show for it. The game has changed and we all know it. As Nikki put it recently:
[pullquote]FSG have done what i expected from moores and parry, when united opened their mega store in the late 1980s moores and parry, the thick twats, thought a portacabin selling scarfs and badges was sufficient, when we won the champions league the dozy bastards had the club shop closed, while street vendors were flogging 1quid t-shirts for 20quid.
fsg are milking the cow, i don’t mind all the non match day tat, events, that suck the tourist day tripper money, good luck to them, hope people have a nice day out, a nice tour, enjoy a meal, and the club get a nice chunk of money from it.[/pullquote]
And yet despite Liverpool apparently being in excellent shape financially, it strikes me as a club which, from top to bottom, is currently structured for and geared towards annual assaults on 4th place and maybe a cup run if the gods are good, thoroughly at odds with the world-class manager in the dugout and exactly what the team has delivered so far this season: a semi-final exit in the League Cup and 4th place still attainable with 11 games left. It calls to mind one of those famous quotes attributed to Bill Shankly: “Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor.” If 4th is what you’re working towards on a practical level, if that’s what all of your spending and planning is aimed at, then the very real prospect of finishing 5th or 6th in such a competitive League should hardly come as a surprise to any of us.
The failure, for example, to even attempt to provide quality cover for Mané in January may have contributed to the club falling out of contention for the League title, but given that the top-4 is still a very realistic possibility, the owners probably wonder what the problem is. The club’s average finishing position has been 4.7 across the 26 full seasons since Liverpool last won the League title, 20 of which were under the guidance of FSG’s predecessors. 4th every season would represent an improvement on such previous performances, would it not? They would also no doubt argue that the club is the 5th richest in England, with the 5th biggest stadium. It also had the 5th largest wage bill until recently, and while the club accounts to 31 May 2016 appear to show that Liverpool’s spending on player remuneration had surpassed Arsenal and Manchester City at the beginning of last summer, it remains to be seen whether this is a permanent state of affairs. So with Liverpool currently sitting in 5th place should Arsenal win their game in hand, they might even be moved to repeat the words of a former manager who once went so far as to explicitly state that “5th place, having reached two cup semi-finals…is probably on par with where we are at”.
If we accept this proposition, then, provided the team retains the kind of form we saw against Arsenal over the next couple of months, there’s really nothing to see here. But “where we are at” is something about which the supporters can do nothing. Having in and around the 5th largest wage bill isn’t up to us (then again, maybe it’s for the best that it isn’t). Likewise, you can be sure that if we had our way Anfield would already be a genuine behemoth of a stadium, the type Klopp no doubt envisions when he says things like “I believe in atmosphere…I believe it’s a big, big part of the game, a big part of the joy…the decisions are made in the small moments, in the detail, and atmosphere is more than a detail but it makes everything easier”. But it’s not up to us; instead, it’s up to people who say things like this:
[pullquote]A stand behind a goal doesn’t have the benefit of hospitality that would go a long way to meet the redevelopment costs. If you consider the redevelopment of Anfield Road from a purely General Admission perspective, building, say, 6,000 extra seats to take the capacity up to 60,000 would cost somewhere between £60m and £70m. At £12,000 to £13,000 per seat, it would take approximately 15 years to pay back, which is not a smart investment for the business. Therefore the club needs to find a rounded solution that’s in the best interests of the football club.[/pullquote]
If these are the kind of people who have run Liverpool for the past quarter of a century, and it certainly seems that way, then no wonder the club fell behind. The Premier League was in its infancy when Manchester United began redeveloping Old Trafford. Between 1995 and 2006, the ground’s capacity would increase from roughly 44,000 to 76,000. That work began 22 years ago, in the early days of the Premier League, the Sky television deal, the Champions League and the riches they would bring for clubs like Manchester United. Another rival, Arsenal, would later build a new 60,000-seater stadium which opened in 2006. Now Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham are announcing stadium projects which will bring their own capacities over the 60,000 mark, and yet over two decades after Old Trafford’s capacity began its transformation to 76,000 seats we have Liverpool’s chief executive stating that “somewhere between £60m and £70m” to bring Anfield’s capacity up to 60,000 is “not a smart investment for the business”.
It seems to me that we’re still in a place where the people who run the club see football as just another type of business where the same rules of risk apply as they do in any other. Ayre’s replacement, Peter Moore, whose CV highlights include positions with Microsoft, Sega and EA Sports, is unlikely to view it any differently. Well I’m no business expert, but you don’t have to be “the Fernando Torres of finance” (in fact, it’s probably better if you’re not) to know that, in football, the risk is in not spending money if you want to be successful. That doesn’t mean you have to chuck it around like confetti, just be prepared to meet the opportunity cost when it comes along.
Nobody is expecting Pogba-levels of spending, but the club is competing in an environment where last summer Manchester United, who had already finished ahead of Liverpool for the past two seasons, brought in some people’s pick for the best manager in the game and broke the world transfer record with an outlay of £90m on a single player, all to win the League Cup and scrape into the top-4 picture (so far: other trophies may yet be added, of course). Add to that the signings of Mkhitaryan and Bailly, and this was a spending-spree necessary just to get to where Liverpool appear to be aiming, a club which in contrast was happy once again for the bulk of its major transfer spending to come from departures, in particular those of Christian Benteke, Jordon Ibe and Joe Allen.
I make no claims to be capable of running a football club but it’s a genuine wonder to me that “value” is as much of a concern to the hierarchy of Liverpool as it apparently is, with the club supposedly one of the top ten richest in the world. Surely they can’t think that Pogba’s signing was intended to represent “value”, outside of the usual inflated shirt sales claims? Maybe that’s a bad example given that Manchester United are frequently winning games at the moment in spite of Pogba rather than because of him, but the transfers of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to Real Madrid and, closer to home, Luis Suárez to Barcelona were very similar in that they were solely designed to bring on-pitch success to the purchasing clubs. Value? Suárez cost north of £60m and Ronaldo/Bale in excess of £80m in transfer fees alone, before you even start to skirt the matter of agent’s cuts, bonus payments, signing-on fees and weekly wages. The best don’t come cheap, the biggest don’t care.
I can only imagine what Liverpool’s current hierarchy would make of Manchester United’s decision to buy the 23 year-old Ferdinand from Leeds United. That fee (£30m+) was mind-blowing for the time and made him the world’s most expensive defender. When Paul Tomkins’ Transfer Price Index was applied to take account of transfer market inflation in the meantime back in 2015, it became £82m. In no way, shape or form did Ferdinand represent “value” in the traditional sense of the word, and when he eventually left 12 years later the club didn’t even receive a fee for him, instead having to make do with the 6 Premier League titles, 3 League Cups and Champions League he helped them win. The same will also soon be true of Wayne Rooney, signed for £25m as a teenager in 2004 (also £82m in 2015 money according to Tomkins) who will likely command a vastly reduced fee when he leaves Old Trafford. I doubt they’ll care.
Perhaps all of this is just a refusal on my part to live in the present. The truth is that FSG represent the inevitable conclusion of a journey that both football in general and Liverpool in particular have been on over the past 25 years or so. Arsenal and Wenger, who himself has never seemed particularly enamoured with modern football, have been on it too. Liverpool’s current owners likely wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to buy the club, much less at a knockdown price, had their predecessors not taken so long to adjust to the new reality represented by the Premier League. Everything else flows from that. Almost three decades of subtle, creeping mismanagement, never quite all-out collapse (well, once, almost) but nonetheless consistently operating at a level inferior (often vastly so) to what rivals have been doing in the same period followed and has long since culminated in death by a thousand cuts to another of those famous Bill Shankly mantras, one of the few not already laid to waste by the coming of the Premier League era, namely the one about building Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility and conquering the bloody world.
The resulting mistakes, inadequacies and near-misses have seen to it that ideas of the club dominating anything have long since gone the same way as notions that well-paid footballers not giving their all for the public are a menace who should be put in jail, that the various appendages of players belong to the club rather than themselves, and beliefs in everybody working for the same goal and having a share of the rewards. In fact, the only part of modern football with which a reincarnated Shankly would likely be familiar is that he would still no doubt close the curtains if Everton were playing in his back garden. The most striking change he would find, of course, is to his professed belief that directors are only there to sign the cheques. In the first instance, this idea presupposes that said directors are actually “there” in the first place rather than 3,000 miles away on another continent, and in any case, SEPA transfers are the preferred way of doing business nowadays. More importantly, it vastly underestimates the power of modern owners and their assorted underlings.
Rafa Benítez once said of Chelsea that “the key to them is Abramovich”, and he was right. In the decade or so before the Russian’s arrival, they had admittedly already moved from being a club purchased by its previous owner for £1 and with a carpark behind one of the goals as the Premier League era dawned to regular contenders at the top end of the table, but it was the billionaire’s purchase of the club in 2003 that started them on the path towards being one of the biggest names in modern football who, despite protestations to the contrary, now have going on 20 years’ worth of serious history to their name defined primarily by silverware and famous European nights in April and May. We all said that Chelsea won the lottery the day Abramovich showed up on the doorstep of Stamford Bridge with his billions, but their fortune was every bit as vested in his willingness to actually spend it as the number of pounds and pence to his name.
That’s one side of the coin, the transformation of a club whose most expensive signing was Paul Furlong as recently as 1994 to one which can routinely demand the attention of the world’s best managers and players. The other side is that, at their worst, the suits in the boardroom now have the capability, in a sport whose relatively recent enrichment would surely be far beyond the comprehension of a time-traveller from the 1960’s or 1970’s, to literally destroy football clubs, or at least inflict serious damage. I wonder what Shankly would make of Leeds United, for example, one of the club’s greatest rivals during his time in charge who are still slowly working their way back from the cataclysmic events wrought by the mismanagement of a businessman in a suit named Ridsdale (who, incidentally, almost repeated the trick later at Cardiff and is now an advisor at another of Shankly’s clubs, Preston), and whose current owner’s highlights include sacking 7 managers in his first 2 years of ownership, brief disqualification from running the club after being found guilty of tax evasion and another suspension upcoming for sanctioning an illegal payment?
And he would surely be downright baffled at the power now wielded by the likes of Jorge Mendes (I wouldn’t know where to begin), Mino Raiola (sufficiently cocksure of his place in the world to call no less a manager than Klopp “a piece of shit” earlier this season) and Aidy Ward (who was instrumental in an 18 year-old deciding that he had outgrown one of the most storied football clubs in the world). This is the era of money and moneymen, and the idea of players, manager and supporters forming a “holy trinity” into which the suits daren’t step is now as antiquated as terraces, tight shorts and perms.
Liverpool’s owners hold the fate of their club in their hands to an extent that would have been unimaginable and maybe even horrific to Shankly, and the fear, of course, is that their definition of “success” has already been achieved and then some. Having bought Liverpool for in and around £300m back in October 2010, they now preside over a club valued by Forbes last year at over £1bn. Their investment was shrewd, a massive return already pretty much guaranteed. With that being the case, and regardless of how much revenue is being generated by the club, their approach to running Liverpool has every appearance of seeking to minimise risk above all else. Even Arsenal, a club at which the amount being spent on players has similarly long been a hot topic amongst supporters, have had a number of transfer windows where the amount spent massively exceeded anything recouped (2014/15 and 2016/17 in particular).
With regard to Liverpool, I find it hard to shake the feeling that very few major transfers during FSG’s stewardship have been completed without a comparable sum, or the prospect thereof, coming the other way. The £23m signing of Suárez in January 2011 came a few months after Javier Mascherano left for £18m; the same month, Andy Carroll arrived for £35m on the same night that Fernando Torres left for £50m; the following summer, the £19m signing of Stewart Downing was offset somewhat by the departure of Raul Meireles for £12m; Sakho arrived for £18m in the same season that Andy Carroll left for £17m; the summer of 2014 saw a host of players signed primarily out of the £65m fee received for the departing Suárez; Christian Benteke (£32m) and Roberto Firmino (£29m) arrived as Raheem Sterling (£50m) left, Mané (£34m) and Wijnaldum (£25m) as Benteke (£27m), Ibe (£15m) and Allen (£13m) departed. Only Allen’s arrival for £15m in the summer of 2012 really bucks the trend in any meaningful way, and most of the original fee was recouped from Stoke this season.
That feeling, I assume, is why Klopp was moved to explicitly discuss the matter last Friday. The last time the club had a manager of this stature guiding it, he was far more vociferous than the German regarding the need to sign players. Liverpool’s current boss has been more circumspect, but I don’t believe for one second that a coach as obviously driven, talented and passionate about the game as Klopp doesn’t want to work with the very best and to win. Speaking of Pogba’s transfer earlier in the season, he said that “other clubs can go out and spend more money and collect top players. I want to do it differently. I would even do it differently if I could spend that money”. However, he went on to qualify this by saying that “if I spend money, it is because I am trying to build a team, a real team. Barcelona did it. You can win championships, you can win titles, but there is a manner in which you want it”.
If the transfer business of Barcelona, who haven’t been afraid to spend to spend huge sums over the years on the likes of Suárez, Neymar, Fabregas, Sanchez, Villa, Mascherano, Ibrahimovic and others to reinforce what they already had, is a benchmark for Klopp, then it’s safe to say that he is not adverse in principle to “spending big” on players he wants. Mané and Wijnaldum certainly weren’t cheap. The question then becomes whether he receives the backing this summer that he seems to be counting on (“We all have the same plan: sporting director, scouting department, owners, myself…we want to make this club as big and as successful as possible…Will it be a similar transfer window as last summer when we broke even? I don’t think it is possible. Now there will be a few other faces”).
We can only hope so because, regardless of how disappointing the performances have been over the past couple of months, the majority of the current squad, which took 43 points from 19 games to start the season, should surely be retained and reinforced with three or four players of the highest quality. That, it seems to me, is not just how you “build a team, a real team”, it’s how you build the kind of squad required to support it. Sakho, maybe Lucas and, the way the signs are pointing, Daniel Sturridge are likely to be the only major exits from the club this summer, along with Markovic who in any case will have been on loan for two years by then, that’s if Barcelona leave it a little longer to go all-in for Coutinho and the club can convince Emre Can to sign a new deal. Breaking even with the income generated by those four is unlikely to be enough in itself, especially given that the style of football Klopp favours tends to rely more heavily on individual ability than, say, Conte’s Chelsea, where perceived weak links like David Luiz or Victor Moses have been able to form key cogs in a system built on defensive organisation (Luiz in Klopp’s system, for example, with Jordan Henderson frequently providing the only midfield protection, would surely be a different proposition to the one who has Kanté and Matić in front and a centre-back either side on a weekly basis). The talent required for it to function properly is likely, therefore, to come at a premium. All of this is not even considering the longer term issue of what happens if/when we reach a point where the manager wants to keep everyone during a transfer window but would like to add a couple more.
Klopp’s Liverpool, occasionally dodgy defence and all, has frequently looked as good as anyone during his time in charge. To do that consistently is a tall order which will only be achieved by showing real ambition in actions as well as words, the kind of ambition that other top clubs are likely to be showing. Failure to take advantage of this opportunity will only result in more restlessness as the club falls further behind its rivals. Whether or not a top-4 finish is secured between now and May, this really does look like being the defining summer to end all defining summers.