TRANSFERS are never easy. There are a series of moving parts that shift and sway in different directions each day. They involve grandstanding to the press, denials and the issue of tapping up players. Everyone plays up to the media and no secret is left unshared, writes KEVIN KOCZWARA.
For Liverpool, since the turn of the century and introduction of social media, the club has struggled to find its identity in the transfer market. Every summer the window opens and Liverpool have a “war chest” to spend and almost annually someone steals Liverpool’s beat — usually Tottenham or Jose Mourinho. Fans are left lamenting missed targets and lost excitement.
Since Fenway Sports Group took over the club in 2010, there has been a pattern of trying to implement “Moneyball” tactics in the transfer window. Liverpool’s owners have tried a director of football and now there is the much-maligned transfer committee, which is really nothing new or original or different from a director of football save for the big name at the top who faces scrutiny when a plan fails.
This summer seems to be the first in recent memory where the club has a list of top targets and the committee aren’t budging. Liverpool’s modus operandi has been to sign midfield dynamo Naby Keita from RB Leipzig, to go back to the Southampton and sign centre-back Virgil van Dijk, a young left-back in Andrew Robertson and Mohamed Salah, the latter two the only players the club has signed outside of Dominic Solanke, who will likely only feature as a bit-part player this season.
So, why has Liverpool’s approach changed this summer from a team who scoured the bargain bins looking for value to a club determined to land only its ideal targets? Looking at John Henry and FSG’s approach to signing players for their baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, holds some of the answers.
When Henry, Tom Werner and their partners bought the Red Sox in 2002, the team had a few notable players but the team was a mishmash of bloated contracts and the team’s general manager at the time, Dan Duquette, did his best to keep the team afloat by making endless moves to raise money for new players.
The team’s stadium, Fenway Park, was in disarray and everyone knew the team either needed a new home or someone with a vision to revitalise Fenway and the team. Henry and his team, which included Werner and baseball purist Larry Lucchino, had a plan, but they needed some pieces to fall into place.
The major piece that fell into place for Henry and co was Theo Epstein. Epstein was a numbers guy and he took to heart the team’s desire to use the famed “Moneyball” approach that Billy Beane used in Oakland to make his small-market team with a small budget formidable and playoff ready. The idea was to use statistics and statistical outliers to find under-appreciated players for good value that fit a system. Sprinkle in some solid homegrown talent, and the Oakland A’s became a regular playoff team despite one of baseball’s smallest payrolls — equivalent to Leicester City’s championship season without the title to show, and the team actually stayed in the fight nearly every year unlike The Foxes. The Red Sox tried to lure Beane from Oakland, but the move didn’t work out and the team turned to Epstein.
When Epstein took over as general manager, the Red Sox were only a few outs from making it to the World Series. The team had talent, but needed a new manager and some final pieces to put them over the top. So, he set out on a mission to find the one piece he knew would put the team over the top: a starting pitcher who could win in the post season and command the locker room. During the winter of 2003 that player became available and nothing was going to stop the Red Sox from signing him.
Curt Schilling was one of baseball’s premier pitchers who had a desire to win, especially in the post season. And to get his signature, Lucchino and Epstein flew to his home for Thanksgiving dinner to convince him a move to Boston was the right one. The hard push paid off and the team was on its way to creating history.
Schilling proved vital for the Red Sox. They beat the New York Yankees in the playoffs, coming back from three games down in a seven-game series, and got the chance to play in the World Series which they won easily.
That move was a matter of persistence. Henry and co wanted the Red Sox to exploit the player market and find value in players but they knew that the team needed more than just good players, but ones that put them over the top and when they saw their opportunity to get one of those players, they grabbed it with both hands.
Henry and his team enjoyed nothing but success in their first five years in charge. Every move seemed to work. The Red Sox won two World Series — a second one after a blockbuster trade that got the team another all-star pitcher before the 2007 season. But the magic started to run dry with the team missing the playoffs for three straight years after the 2009 season.
In December of 2010, baseball free agency had just begun and The Red Sox needed something so they made moves, signing two players to huge deals. That was seen a backwards step for the Red Sox organization, which had avoided big free-agent contracts since buying. Boston’s two championship teams were built around shrewd trades and smart player acquisitions — plus some talent already in place. But the moves proved costly and changed Henry’s and the Red Sox’s approach to signing players in the future.
Henry didn’t want to sign one of those players, but the team’s front office did and he relented, ponying up the cash despite being unsure of the move. The Red Sox proceeded to lose 11 of their final 14 games and missed the playoffs that season. It was an epic collapse. That acquisition compounded the issues the team had in the locker room. After the season, stories of players eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games during matches came out. Players complained about the media and its negative influence. The team fired its manager and its general manager, Epstein left.
The team had a terrible 2012 season and went as far as to trade their two big signings to the Los Angeles Dodgers — along with a pitcher involved in the chicken-eating incident, a utility player and $11million in cash — for a couple of bit-part players.
A year after the trade, the Red Sox won the World Series with a lot of young players and some veterans on small, short-term contracts. The team was a perfect blend of young talent and under-appreciated veterans who fit roles. It was Moneyball at its best. The team won despite boasting an unremarkable roster. Players blossomed into their roles and the team vowed to never spend big on ageing free agents again.
While this was all going on, Henry and FSG were grappling with the acquisition of Liverpool. They were trying to learn about the Premier League, football globally and Liverpool’s own quirks and the club’s fanbase — often referred to as knowledgeable, just like Red Sox fans. They had to clean up the mess left by Tom Hicks and George Gillett, including getting rid of Roy Hodgson and his abysmal squad. They had to repair an ageing stadium without harming the history or atmosphere, similar to what they did with Fenway Park.
In January of 2011, they made their move. They bought Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez for record fees and sold a broken Fernando Torres for a record fee. The pair of Suarez and Carroll were as different as any players can be. Carroll the bruiser and hard partier; Suarez the mysterious foreigner who scores goals for fun but gets a temper when things don’t go his way.
The next summer, they welcomed Brendan Rodgers and it was easy to see that Carroll’s future lay elsewhere, that his price tag weighed him down and the Liverpool support was tired of seeing him injured or lumping into defenders. At the same time, Suarez began his upward trajectory to becoming one of the world’s best players.
As the Red Sox were on their way to winning the World Series in 2013, Liverpool were having similar success. The team had been reshaped by Rodgers and the transfer committee. Suarez had become a beacon and bargain-bin players like Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho blossomed. Steven Gerrard was repurposed and youngsters Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan came good. The reflection was almost identical.
The fall happened just the same. Both teams suffered lapses the season after for different reasons: for the Red Sox, age, injuries, lack of luck; for Liverpool, losing their best player, signing a bunch of mediocre players and having their second best player injured. But the lessons for FSG stuck. They knew spending big didn’t correct all the issues of the previous season. Sometimes it helps (see Manchester City’s first few years under new ownership), but more often than not, spending money without a plan means too many high earners and no way of trimming the fat. They saw it first hand in Boston when they tried to sign big-name players to big contracts and now they’re paying one of them millions of dollars to go away.
At Liverpool, the owners went a different route. They went with a new manager and his vision. When Liverpool brought in Jürgen Klopp to replace Rodgers, it was seen as a coup. The club had wrestled one of the sport’s most highly-regarded managers out of his own self-induced exile and the team didn’t have to promise to overhaul the squad because he vowed to work with it.
Instead, Klopp has done his best to piece his team together and reinvent players in new positions to better suit their skillsets. He’s spent barely any money by the standards of the modern game. In his first summer transfer window, Klopp even made the club money while improving his team.
So now, with the team in the Champions League again and a show of faith in Klopp, Henry and co have sanctioned big money, but they don’t want it wasted on secondary targets. They don’t want another Mario Balotelli. They want Klopp to get what he needs to move Liverpool forward.
For Liverpool’s owners, this moment draws similarities with Boston in 2003. A young team is on the verge of something special, but it needs certain pieces to push it to the next level. No longer are Liverpool in need of young, promising talent. It needs a few top-tier players to move it forward. There have been no alternate targets emerging because there is no backing down and no alternatives to the quality of player Klopp wants.
If he can’t have them, why waste the money throwing it at a player or two he’s unsure of? Why waste the time and resources? There’s value in the market and then there’s value in getting the prime targets who stand out above everyone else and make the team a contender for the title. Liverpool has been building for this moment and now is the time to seize it.
Henry and co are backing Klopp because they’ve seen this before. They’ve been burned countless times in the past and had to reevaluate their strategy, but they’ve also won and seen how one move can change everything.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo
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Is this a f##king joke.. they haven’t backed him with A THING yet, to read this you’d swear they have gotten some huge deals across the line, they have FAILED like they do every year just in a different way this year.. it has so far been the most disappointing window in recent memory given the expectation and what was needed and promised this summer.. and unless they deliver BOTH VVD and Keita then they HAVE TO GO.. this is their make or break window it shouldn’t have even got this far, they are the worst owners if ANY top side in world football but some people gave them this window thinking would be different, so far they have signed a garbage championship left back, a kid from Chelsea’s u23’s and Salah. they have embarrassed themselves with another PR disaster and grovelling apology, been warned for the THRID time about tapping up and have failed to deliver ANY of Klopps top targets yet again.. now with 2 weeks left in the window the noises are that the VVD and Keita deals are dead and its unlikely they will sign alternatives, definitely not in VVD’s case so they are very close to the worst window they have EVER had in what was supposed to be their defining one.. make no mistake Keita, VVD signed and Coutinho kept or there should be no more discussion. the most staunch FSG delude can have ZERO excuses.. they like the last crowd of Yanks will have to be shown the door.. Tick tock.. “Were in wrong hands, were in wrong hands, Liverpool football club were in the wrong hands.” FSG OUT
“now with 2 weeks left in the window”
Actually it’s 6 weeks Tom isn’t it? August 31st? FSG may not be benefactors in the way financially doped clubs like Chelsea and the Northern Chelsea (City) are, but they’re at least decent custodians and haven’t put us into a ridiculous highly-leveraged debt like Leeds were under Ridsdale. And don’t forget we were on the brink of bankruptcy and technically insolvent when they took over. I’m not a cheerleader for FSG but there is a lot worse out there – we know, we had them.
A little over the top fella…….your use of capital letters implies a bit of a rant. And it’s got to be said, you stating that there are only 2 weeks to go before the transfer window shuts – when there’s the best part of 5 as of today – suggests you’re trying to ramp up the pressure on the owners. If the transfer window closes and LFC haven’t made any signings in terms of their major transfer targets I shall acknowledge your prescience…..in the meantime, just calm down a bit eh?
Well said Alantl
Chill ya beans lad. No FSG “apologist” but people (you ain’t a lfc fan in my eyes) like you are doing my nut in.
I don’t think you understand FSG’s role in all this. FSG won’t be landing anyone. They aren’t involved in recruitment except to approve spending. They have done their bit by approving significant funds for Klopp’s preferred targets. It is then up to the Edwards, his recruitment team and Klopp to land them.
If the window ends a disaster and season then disappoints, I’m sure FSG will consider wielding the axe. They have sacked 3 managers and one director of football during their time as LFC owners and have never been shy about wielding the axe at Red Sox. FSG are hard nosed and don’t accept mediocrity.
Basically what you mean is that FSG have come up with adding another stonking good reason (excuse) to explain why so little a percentage is spent by the end of the Window in August.
Many of us out here were wondering what we will be told when the window closes. Now we know.
Good read mate. Enjoyed it and it makes sense. Then again I’m not rabidly anti-FSG (I’m pretty FSG-neutral), and you’re going to get a few of them I think!
They earned £100 + in TV money only not talking about other sources still what did they buy? Bought 2 players and one on free till now! We are going to have a worse year with our defince and all other teams improving! The season starting soon still the same old story.. it is bout time things change for real.
£100 + millions I mean
Very good article, fsg do make excuses and they should be ashamed. What about the supporters, we have vision too. If they sell courtinho that is me finished with Liverpool. Leipzig have not backed down and neither have southhampton. Although quite frankly waiting for them to look for buyers is just another excuse. I feel sorry for the position van dyjk is in and Liverpool should feel some responsibility. We should put an offer in straight away because the guy must be feeling very let down. After all we know you are full of promises but he doesn’t,t realise that when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is you back down with one excuse after another. Why do we always miss out on players what are you doing wrong, apart from always making idiots of the club.
P.s. Why can,t Neymar play football without his mate courtinho. He,s got friends at anfield. Big tart! He can,t leave Barcelona without procrastinating and messing PSg about so why should he expect courtinho to just up and move.
Does the article not contradict itself? Should we buy top quality or look for the next great thing! Pretty hit and miss at the red socks, would be no different at LFC! In fact they had more success with the money ball tactics so why go all out for top players?
Few holes in your thought process
What he’s saying is that there needs to be a mix. Buying 8-9 big money signings a la Man City doesn’t work any better than well-selected moneyball signings.
But a championship-winning team needs a genuine superstar in the key positions on the field (i.e. the pitcher in baseball). Currently for us that’s Klopp, actually, but to kick on we probably also need one in each of the key positions on the field – hence why were prepared to spend big on a CB and a CM (but not a LB).
I think if you look at Citehs performance over our performance since FSG bought us, it clear to see Citeh have massively out performed us.
People talk of “moneyball” signings but don’t substantiate or provide any evidence sabermetrics applies to the game of footy any more than it applies to one man hitting a ball thrown by one man with a stick.
Our spend is mid table and I don’t see how our transfer business so far is going to help us compete in cups, champions league and league when we struggled to get 4th with only the league last season.
FSG are shite.
FSG are experienced at bringing championships to their fans. They seem to be doing all the right things in LFC with the stadium, marketing and business side. Bringing in Klopp to handle the football was a coup and if you are not happy with the players and results you should start with Klopp.
Enjoyed that article.
Theo Epstein then went to the cubs and broke their duck in terms of winning world series.
Does he know anything about footy? ha ha
Interesting article. My personal opinion is the club’s strategy has changed in line with it’s finances and managers and little else. In debt, look for value and cheap imports. Come out of debt in line with the first big rise in tv money, but still without significant funds, and buy 20 – 25m players mostly Premiership proven (Rodgers strategy) as it’s deemed they’re less likely to fail. Then when the tv money rose astromonically try and buy the best around that would consider joining us.
LFC spend what they have and nothing gets left over. It’s there in the accounts in black and white. Last summer was clearly down to Klopp. It’s him who has the vision that if you buy a second choice/rate player then a) you’re stuck with him and means you don’t get quality and b) you don’t win trophies with them.
I don’t fully understand it when I see people elsewhere going on about value. To me it’s just common sense that if you’re gonna spend £40m plus on a player then he should be under 28. Anyone with a brain should be able to grasp that. Van Dijk is an example of how the value argument is over. We’re willing to pay £50 to £60m for him but he’ll have no resale value. We’re buying him to compete for the next 8 years.
here’s a quote from Andrew Friedman of the LA Dodgers (who are at the cutting edge of baseball management): “If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent.” it’s important to produce an accurate valuation of a player (which is what ‘moneyball’ is primarily about), but such a valuation should be a guideline not a rigid ceiling in negotiations… because if you are too rigid, you will literally get nothing done. i would say that’s the maxim from baseball they should keep in mind if they are serious about competing at the top. and btw, the red sox have ALWAYS remained among the biggest spenders in MLB (never going lower than 4th in terms of payroll) even during their ‘cheap/young’ years.
FSG have not backed the club. Only spent £30m net so far. They’ve created a lot of smoke and mirrors though. Poor owners who have not spent anything over past 4 windows. These are facts. They must be judged on them…. unless of course ur happy with the ambition. Then don’t complain. But certainly don’t fabricate lies to support FSG. They’ve done nothing on the pitch. Yet.
Are we really no longer going for young, promising talent? Keita is 22. Before the summer we were linked with Julian Brandt who didn’t want to leave his club so we went for Salah instead. Last summer we were linked with Dahoud but couldn’t get him so we went with Gini instead. We were linked with Gotze but we got Mane instead. Mostly the players we got were the second-choice players and were older than the reported first-choice ones. So there is an appearance we are going for older more experienced players, but isn’t that just because we couldn’t get the younger players? I mean, I hope you’re right, because I’d rather we were targeting the ~25 year olds, but I’m not sure the strategy has changed that much? Unless of course, the players we got weren’t the second-choice but we were aiming to get them in addition to the ones we missed out on.
That we’re going for van Dijk is most likely because ‘young promising talent’ is the last thing you want in a CB for the way we play. Again though, I really hope you’re right and the recruitment strategy has shifted a bit.
It’s clear we have been going for a mix of age/experience for a few years now. Milner, Lallana, Lovren, Benteke, Toure, Lambert, Klavan. None of them that young, all of them targets rather 2nd choice to a young player.
Fair enough, but if we’ve been going for this mix for a few years now, then the central point of the article that there’s been some sort of seismic shift in the recruitment policy is a bit of nonsense, no? Nevermind that the majority of the players you list were not brought in to be in the first eleven, and would fall under the ‘value’ category. The owners definitely are backing Klopp in pursuing van Dijk and Keita and not backing down easily – and maybe that’s what’s different – but I don’t think the recruitment policy has changed that much. I guess what’s strange to me is that the “second-choice” targets from last summer and with Salah look to be a better choice than the reported first-choice ones we missed out on… Which at the end of the day doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence about the whole thing.
Age is one thing and upcoming talent is another. It’s just common sense to go for players 22-25 as opposed to a policy. Keita may be 22 but he’s going to cost £70m plus. We’re not getting him both young and cheap in the hope he improves because we know we can’t afford him or attract him when he’s proven. He’s bloody expensive and brilliant now. Just happens to be young too. I think it’s Klopp who likes them young because he can develop them easier but your whole list is full of quality and none cheap. My point is we were always going to try and buy players who would get in our first 11. Players of that quality don’t come cheap. We knew that and were prepared to pay it. The policy has changed over time in line with our economic fortunes and the managers strategies.
This article is exactly correct. Finally someone got it right. As a baseball fan, I have seen it work in Boston and Chicago. Transfer fees throw a wrench in things compared to baseball, but this plan will work. It already is. Like scoring in football itself, getting to the top is a process. It will work. And when it does, they will stay at the top for a long time. And by the way, yes, they are still signing young talent. The big targets are young. And they will still be worth more than we paid in 3-4 years if we decide to sell for another big time youngster.
Have to disagree with Tom’s FSG OUT agenda. If he got his wish in exchange for a faceless Chinese conglomerate ownership group with “deep pockets” but shady finances he might reconsider his FSG OUT comments. I think on the whole FSG have moved the club forward tremendously in a short space of time, but they have also made some mistakes. But they seem quick to recognize their mistakes and try to fix them. (I don’t think they necessarily are at the root of the VVD tapping up issue and subsequent apology – it seemed more of a lower level internal leak that embarrassed Southampton into action). I think there are similarities between winning at baseball and football (or any other major team sports for that matter) and that FSG do seem to know how to run a successful sports franchise on and off the field. The article does a good job of explaining that. As far as transfer targets go, it seems we expect other clubs to immediately roll over, take our offer and hand over their superstars like VVD and Keita, but if Barcelona offer £72m for Coutinho then it’s over our dead body. This strategy of going after top class players instead of players who might become top class is definitely new, and in my opinion FSG deserve the benefit of the doubt. They together with Klopp will get it right.
The FSG “moneyball” thing has been done to death and no one can argue the franchise is exactly were FSG want it. Profitably competing for nothing whilst keeping hopes alive in the deluded.
We are a small time Arsenal.
So people moaning at FSG, are you suggesting they 1) buy players that Klopp doesn’t want or 2) pay 120million each for VVD and Keita or 3) what?
Also, As Jonagho says, Moneyball is about accurate player valuation not the use of stats. All baseball team use stats. A key thing Oakland did was reinterpret these stats. For example, traditional stats treated getting to first base with a hit as different from getting a walk, which is kind of like treating a goal in the top corner as different from one along the ground. As others have alluded to, one of the things they noted in football was the undervaluation of young players. Henderson should have been the perfect moneyball signing, an 8mil player actually worth 15mil. Except they went and paid the 15mil! Doesn’t seem like bad business now mind.
If we lose Coutinho without proper replacement and without Keita and VvD signings, FSG is finished.
Not only would they’ve shown their incompetence again, but they would’ve also managed to damage Klopp’s reputation severely. Klopp said “We’re not a selling club”, Klopp said “Coutinho is happy at LFC an feels home in Liverpool”.
Selling Coutinho now is like a low blow to Klopp and LFC development, like back in Jürgen’s BVB days when the news that Mario Götze would join Bayern Munich next season broke one day before Dortmund’s CL semi-final against Real Madrid. If FSG let Klopp down like the stupid kid Götze back then did, then f*ck them.
Not really sure about what this article is trying to say, but that is not my immediate worry because everyone has a fundamental right to an opinion, right now I am keeping an eye on this window and by the end of it we will know what is what, by then it will not be about opinion or stats or data we will see the facts before our very eyes.
What does FSG out mean? To be replaced by who? There is more rubbish spouted on this forum than is currently taken to landfill every day in the UK.
The article is excellent but why I bother to read the comments even I don’t understand.
The lack of IQ points among the FSG out brigade is mind blowing. Some basic facts,
That we’re not winning trophies now is mainly because we’d fallen behind so many other clubs financially.That came about through 25 years of financial mismanagement coupled with petro dollars going into other clubs.Those chickens come home to roost gradually and FSG took over a mess.
When they arrived they were very clear that they weren’t sugar daddies but that they wouldn’t saddle the club with their debt and all the revenue the club generated would go back into the club.We were all happy with that and they’ve been true to their word.They havent taken a penny out of the club and they’ve also made big strides on the commercial side,which was neglected for so long and which is vital to become an elite club again.If you’re upset they’re not sugar daddies,that’s on you not them,you weren’t paying attention.
The FSG have to go shouts show absolutely no awareness of the big picture.For a start,an overinflated sense of entitlement is not a reason to cause a civil war among your clubs support.And what do people reckon is the most likely outcome of “forcing” them out?I know people ignore FFP or like to pretend it doesn’t exist but it’s very real and the circumstances where new owners come in and do a Man city or a Chelsea don’t exist anymore.There’s a small amount of leeway for new owners but it is small and after not very long the club are operating under the same rules as everyone else.There’s far more bad owners out there than good ones both currently and potentially and FSG being forced out would give them no incentive to pick the best ones for us,just the best ones for them.Most likely outcome is new owners who go above and beyond to win the bid because they’re going to leverage all the debt onto the club.Now instead of a situation where all the revenue we generate goes back into the club,large chunks of it goes to paying our new owners debt.All they’d have to do is keep the club in the league for a decade or so to see the return on our investment (not theirs because it won’t have cost them a penny).
FSG are businessmen,nobody is denying that but it’s their own money they invested and their business interests are served by the increase in value in their asset,which is a good thing for everybody because with the model we operate under,there’s huge incentive to try and be succesful on the pitch and being successful commercially drives that.Are they perfect owners? of course not,they’ve made mistakes and will continue to because all owners make mistakes.Take yourself out of your LFC bubble and see how many clubs supporters are unhappy often with stuff going on at their club but that’s football.We have good owners though and fair owners who’ve been true to their word of how the club would operate.I know many don’t want to believe it,but them pumping in their own fortunes to buy players is not something they could do at this point even if they wanted to,but remember that told you from day one that they wouldn’t be doing that anyway.