“I’M not just talking about winning games, but the way we do things and the way we conduct ourselves. The class and dignity this club was renowned for. It’s the way Liverpool used to be seen by people and we should be aiming to recreate that.”
Jamie Carragher is speaking on the eve of his testimonial in September 2010 amidst a time of unprecedented turmoil at Anfield. The owners are aloof and vilified, the manager is Roy Hodgson and the summer just been has witnessed a dampening of expectations in the transfer market without the allure of Champions League football. It’s a seismic pre-season in the recent history of the club; marking an abrupt end to the Rafa Benitez era and a sharp change in direction.
In a wide-ranging interview Carragher talks about the club reclaiming its identity, about the end of internal politicking and open hostility with other Premier League clubs. He exudes a positivity completely at odds with the situation at the club as it begins its descent down the domestic and European food chain.
The manager had been appointed not because he was the best person available, but because he was cheap, English and well respected; someone to “steady the ship”. His nationality was widely seen as the most important aspect of his appointment, a reclaiming of traditions and a clean break from the continental ideals that had seeped into the club through 12 years of foreign management.
Throughout the club, from the coaching staff to the playing staff, a feeling prevailed — among sections of the fan base and the UK media too — that Liverpool had lost its identity.
Between 2005 and 2010 the club had spent only 31 per cent of its transfer dealings within the Premier League. The spine of a Champions League winning side, and the 2008-9 vintage, were drawn from within the academy, across Europe and the world, with a prominent sprinkling of Spanish-Latin American flavouring coming after Gerard Houllier’s French wave at the beginning of the decade.
Of the £208.55m spent between 2005 and 2010 only £64.7m went on “Premier League proven talent” — one of the biggest myths in football — with Benitez spending well over half of his £61.2m outlay on Robbie Keane and Glen Johnson. Those summers of 2008 and 2009 look to represent, with hindsight, the moment that the Premier League premium jumped up a level, after the modest sums that had been spent on Yossi Benayoun, Jermaine Pennant, Craig Bellamy and Peter Crouch in the previous windows.
(Though a sizeable sum was spent to bring Javier Mascherano from West Ham, he was hardly “Premier League proven” as he languished in the reserves behind Hayden Mullins for much of his time there).
What’s key is that the acquisition of Premier League talent was always supplemented by arrivals from afar. Rather than forming the basis of a pre-ordained policy, the player’s background didn’t matter, it was their skill set and character. Only Benayoun and Crouch made a lasting impression, with the others failing to fire beyond the short-term — or in Robbie Keane’s case, failing to fire at all.
Since the appointment of Hodgson and the arrival of FSG the shift in player recruitment has been stark. From the summer of 2011 up until the summer of 2014 the amount invested in Premier League proven talent has jumped to 52 per cent of the total transfer outlay; a significant increase on the years that preceded it and a trend that has survived changes of manager and numerous shifts in recruitment policies.
There are some caveats; that the inflation of Premier League prices will invariably take a larger chunk out of your budget than before, and the extended absence of Champions League football that impacted on the club’s ability to attract top talent. Yet still, the numbers that Liverpool shelve out on Premier League players in this period are eye-watering: £167.25m out of a total gross spend of £322.8m. Daniel Sturridge aside, the money is invariably splashed on players at mid-to-lower-level clubs; Aston Villa, Blackpool, Newcastle, Southampton, Sunderland and Swansea — the reality of the “Premier League proven talent” misnomer.
The £35m that Kenny Dalglish and Damien Comolli splashed on Andy Carroll was an early indicator of where they, and the owners, saw Liverpool’s transfer philosophy heading. The calendar year of 2011 saw an unprecedented splurge on Premier League talent of £81.75m; not only were the Reds spending more than at any point since 2005 — indeed in their history — but 73 per cent of their outlay was being funneled within the confines of their own domestic league.
The idea that buying English-based players offered a guarantee over foreign investment had taken root — that they would be less of a gamble, would take less time to bed in, and provide a decent resale value. It is a policy not dissimilar to the one Dalglish would have recognised from the club’s history; identifying domestic talent that was ready to take the step up. Football has changed, however. That the club’s best signings since the turn of the millennium had little or no Premier League experience upon arrival was, seemingly, ignored.
The English obsession is safe, predictable and not exactly cost-effective. Limiting your squad to a certain cross-section limits your potential. A melange of backgrounds and footballing cultures keeps things fresh and broadens horizons, new ideas seep through and are encouraged rather than restricted. Buying from an English source isn’t necessarily worthless — in 2005 Liverpool won the European Cup and then signed Peter Crouch (God knows what Twitter would have made of that) — but importantly that was supplemented by purchases from abroad.
The club has not invested in English-based talent as heavily or unilaterally since 2011 but it has remained a distinct feature of the overall plan, as shown by the £49.5m spent on Southampton players last summer.
At the time of writing Liverpool have agreed terms with six new signings, five of whom have come from England, four from the Premier League and three on free transfers. The media line has remained consistent, that the club values and actively targets that infamous red herring; Premier League proven talent. The capture of Roberto Firmino is significant in many ways, namely how the club have identified a target and quickly done their business. It suggests, too, a flexibility to the English doctrine that has dominated the summer so far, and the endless links to Christian Benteke.
Are the transfer committee haunted by the deals of summer 2013, in particular the moves for Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, or the failures of Nuri Sahin, Fabio Borini and Oussama Assaidi? Perhaps. But it should be remembered that no transfer is guaranteed, that 50 per cent of transfers fail no matter their provenance. The remaining targets — presumably one or two more strikers — should be identified intelligently, with their integration into the Liverpool set up and style of play being the distinction they should be merited on, not the league the play in.
Further restrictions on the pool of talent will further restrict possibility; the English obsession will ultimately hold Liverpool back.
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