PLAYERS signed on freebies or for a pittance? Problem positions not addressed? Doing business almost exclusively with mid-table or relegated clubs? Turning a profit in the transfer window? Ah yes, the dying embers of the Hicks and Gillett regime, we remember it well. Still, how times have changed, eh? Eh? Well, they have, haven’t they?!
While it may border on the hysterical to equate the current situation at Liverpool Football Club to the darkest days in our history, to dismiss the above comparison out of hand would be to give the current owners a pass that fewer and fewer fans believe they deserve, writes PAUL CANTWELL.
When the erstwhile owners signed the likes of Sotirios Kyrgiakos, David N’Gog and Philipp Degen for little or no money in 2009/10 it effectively confirmed what many of us had long suspected — the then owners had zero ambition and were running the club into the ground (the metaphorical ground, that is — not the actual one they had promised three years previous.)
No sane person can possibly argue that current owners, FSG, are running the club into the ground, but the ‘zero ambition’ charge is becoming decidedly more difficult for the Boston outfit to shake. Indeed, it’s a charge that gathers more and more traction with the passing of each underwhelming transfer window.
The timing of this piece, just a few days after the transfer window shuts, leaves it open to accusations of knee-jerkism, but in truth this could have been written at any point over the past three years. Instead, it was only fair to give the owners the benefit of the doubt and see how they acted in the first transfer window of their regime where they could not trot out the well-worn line about not wanting to ‘mortgage the club’s future.’ With the massive new TV deal, allied to the recent Forbes valuation of the club at £1billion, the previous pragmatic tone no longer carried weight.
So, how did that transfer window go? Well, pretty much like all the others under FSG: books were more or less balanced, players were signed exclusively from the young-with-potential-and-therefore-no-need-to-pay-big-wages shelf and, seemingly, not a single discussion was held with a player who could reasonably be described as ‘world class’, ‘highly sought after’ or ‘a serial winner’.
While each of these failings are grist to the mill for the growing number of fans questioning the direction of the club under the current owners, they also make it increasingly difficult for FSG’s remaining supporters to point to any tangible sign of ambition, at least in terms of on-field success.
To take just one criticism of FSG’s transfer policy — the lack of ‘serial winners’ we go for — is to draw a clear parallel with one of the team’s most obvious and debilitating failures: inconsistency. Under FSG, the club have focused almost exclusively on signing players from mediocre teams. And when you sign mostly mediocre players from mediocre teams, you don’t just tend to get mediocre talent, you get a mediocre mindset.
The club is effectively asking players to swap a mentality of ‘if we win one in four and draw another we should avoid relegation/finish top half’, to one of an obsessive, pathological drive to win, to be the sort of players who hurt from the final whistle of a defeat till the first whistle of the next game, to be players who take each defeat like a grave insult to their honour. The former attitude gets you eighth place finishes; the latter, title challenges.
It’s difficult to change this mentality in one player, never mind a whole squad. But that’s the position we find ourselves in; we have an entire squad of players who have spent their careers in such a frame of mind, either with us or their previous clubs. Simon Mignolet, Nathaniel Clyne, Ragnar Klavan, Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno, Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi and Sadio Mane all came from the likes of Sunderland, Southampton, Newcastle or foreign clubs that were mid-table or slightly above, but rarely title contenders.
Contrast with Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, who have all added players this summer who have either won or challenged for a domestic title in the past few seasons. These clubs pay higher wages and for that money get experienced pros who know how to win, whereas we get inexperienced kids who aren’t at that stage.
A perfect example of the poverty of FSG’s ambition is the ‘keeper situation. Last season the club finished six points off a Champions League spot, with conservative estimates having Mignolet costing us at least ten points over the campaign. So clearly we needed a top class keeper, right? So, do we go after a proven, experienced top level keeper like a Kevin Trapp, a Claudio Bravo or a Rui Patrício? Do we try to turn, say, Hugo Lloris’s head with an eye-watering increase in his pay packet?
No. Instead we buy a kid for £4million (on £15,000 a week, as claimed on some websites) from a relatively small club, whose only experience of English football is playing for City’s under-21 side. This kid is now expected to marshal a defence with hundreds of first team appearances under their belt, and in a foreign language to boot. By all means, buy Loris Karius for the future, bed him in slowly, but this should not be the answer to an urgent problem. Perhaps FSG will get lucky and Karius will be the great success we all hope but that still won’t change the fact that it’s reckless, pie-in-the-sky, penny-pinching economics.
The owners can point to an outlay of hundreds of millions spent since they took control of the club in 2010, but that’s misleading on several levels. For starters, their net average outlay per season stands at a very modest £26m, the same as it was for the first few years under Hicks and Gillett (transferleague.co.uk). Even ignoring the new TV deal, the club’s commercial growth alone over the same period dwarfs that figure. But more significant still, are the wages the club offer.
Take the comparison of Mane and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Although costing roughly the same in transfer fees, United are paying Mkhitaryan a reported £200,000 per week, plus a £6.2m signing-on fee, whereas Mane is receiving £90,000 a week (if Mane received a signing-on fee it wasn’t made public.) So, over the five years of their respective contracts, Mkhitaryan will cost United roughly £90m, whereas Mane will cost us around £60m. While Mane has made a promising start to his Liverpool career, in general you get what you pay for and United have signed a Bundesliga player of the season, who had more goals and assists combined than any other player in Germany last season.
In fact, our fellow non-Champions League-playing rivals have no less than seven players on more than our highest paid players (James Milner and Daniel Sturridge, who are both on £120,000 a week), while other Champions League absentees Chelsea have six players earning more than our top earners. While United’s turnover may be higher, and Roman Abramovich’s pockets deeper, the new TV deal should have allowed FSG to at the very least revise the wage structure, to a degree that would enable us to compete for the same calibre of player. Instead, the combined wages of our six summer recruits is £340,000 per week — or just £50,000 more than Paul Pogba’s weekly wage.
Many argue against spending for the sake of spending and ridicule the fear many fans have of a net spend that’s in the black, and rightly so. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit, after all. But the issue is how we made a profit. Was it by cannily off-loading lots of deadwood and replacing them with a few high quality proven winners who command big wages? Or was it by off-loading lots of deadwood and replacing them with players of a similar level who will be next summer’s deadwood? Time will tell. But, if recent experience is anything to go by, it will most likely be the latter.
The defeatist attitude of many fans to the transfer market (‘what’s the point, they won’t come’) seems to be based on the absence of Champions League football, but, again, that argument doesn’t fare well under scrutiny. As mentioned above, United and Chelsea are sitting out this season’s showpiece event but it hasn’t curtailed their ambition in the market. Liverpool only finished six points off the Champions League places last term, not 26. There was nothing to prevent the club from approaching, say, Lloris, and saying, ‘look, we weren’t far off last season and we think you’re more than good enough to help us bridge that gap. Besides, the contract is for five years, not one’. Again, it’s a matter of ambition.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of another tepid transfer window comes in the form of the seeming acquiescence of the manager. When he was appointed almost a year ago, it was widely reported that Jürgen Klopp told the owners he would be happy to work with the current squad, and would not be demanding bottomless pits of transfer funds. It would have been hoped that the glaring defensive frailties and maddening inconsistency of the team last term would have disabused the German of his extremely optimistic notions. Instead, Klopp repeated the message a few weeks ago when asked his opinion of the Pogba signing. “Other clubs can go out and spend more money and collect top players. I want to do it differently”, Klopp said. Such romantic ideals allow clubs to gain the higher moral ground, but rarely the higher league position. Clubs like United, City and Chelsea spend big money for a reason.
There is no doubt the club have been careful, to the point of parsimonious, with their wage structure and spending since taking over. This has led to a lack of leaders on the field and a raft of either mid-table or ‘young with potential’ players that now populate the current squad, players whom the club can pay relatively low wages and for whom a resale value is foremost in mind. This can be interpreted either as a sensible business strategy or, perhaps, a desire to make the club more attractive to potential buyers. But one interpretation it does not lend itself to is that of a club with serious ambitions of winning the title.
Although only three games into the nascent campaign, the team has amassed a mediocre four points from a possible nine. Although two of those games were away to clubs who finished top four last season, in truth both Arsenal and Spurs were there for the taking. It’s hard not to see the four points as a mediocre return, and a reflection of the owner’s mediocre investment and mediocre ambitions. But then again, they are a young four points with potential so perhaps FSG can one day sell them for five.
So, we should just pack in it and not bother then? Of course not. None of this is meant to sound like the death knell on a season that’s less than a month old, but rather as an overall assessment of FSG’s investment and, by extension, ambition for the club. We all hope the team can finally end the wait and bring the title back to Anfield next May. But if they do, it will have been achieved despite FSG’s transfer policy, not because of it.
One of the positives from this transfer window has been the bucking of the recent trend of selling poorly. The club should be commended for getting the prices they did for Brad Smith, Jordon Ibe, Christian Benteke and, to rob Jamie Carragher’s line, Mario Balotelli. But ultimately it’s in the club’s purchases that we would like to be commending the owners, not the sales. Otherwise the most satisfying sale of all may be that of the club itself.
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