THE clock is really ticking now. The transfer window is done for in four weeks’ time. The league campaign starts in less than 10 days and potentially the new season’s most important game — the first leg of a Champions League playoff — is scheduled within the next fortnight.
Liverpool can ease themselves in at Watford on August 12, there will be a guaranteed 38 of these Premier league fixtures to fulfil and time for mistakes to be corrected. But on August 15 or 16 (the exact date will be known this Friday) anything less than comprehensive readiness could see Liverpool taken to the brink of elimination from the competition they toiled for the whole of last season to qualify for.
Back in May, Liverpool would add four or five first-team level players. Back in May forecasts were that over £200million might be spent with signs that the owners were suddenly alive to the need to give Jürgen Klopp the correct tools for his work. Now in August, Liverpool have signed one first-team player, Mohamed Salah, and two squad players, Andrew Robertson and Dominic Solanke, for approximately £50m. This wasn’t the way it was meant to be.
Liverpool have very publicly pursued two stellar targets. They looked ready and able to spend circa £70m apiece on Virgil van Dijk and Naby Keita, while firm links to Arsenal’s contract renegade Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain persist.
Yet here we are, on the cusp of 2017-18, with no further deals looking imminent. Rivals Manchester United have secured Victor Lindelof, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku for around £170m. Manchester City have brought in five senior-level players for over £200m. Chelsea have signed Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alvaro Morata for around the £150m mark. Arsenal have secured Alexandre Lacazette for £50m but no-one else of substance and neighbours Tottenham seem intent on proving some abstract point by signing absolutely no footballers.
Liverpool are leaving it late. Much later than last summer when Klopp had virtually his full contingent of new signings in for the entire pre season. The Liverpool manager knew it would be tougher this time around as he targeted footballers of stature that clubs had no intention of selling. To compound the sense of mounting pressure, Liverpool now face the threat of having to go backwards before moving forwards again. Barcelona want Phil Coutinho and will not simply be rebuffed by Liverpool’s “not for sale” declarations.
The entire summer’s worth of preparation for a very important season feels like it is on a knife edge. Many varied scenarios could yet be played out. Liverpool could suddenly seal deals for Keita and van Dijk, but feel forced to bow to pressure from Coutinho to let him make a “dream move” to Barca. Liverpool may sign just one more player and resist the pressure to sell. The smartest money may even be on nothing happening; the summer of 2017 being a victory over player power. Liverpool, Southampton and RB Leipzig have more in common than separates them just right now. They are each engaged in staring contests with their respective star men.
Klopp will be privately contemplating what nothing looks like. He will know that deals for players who are valued at £70-100m plus don’t just get signed off lightly. He and Liverpool allocated time to allow for foreseeable complexities. The problem is that most of this time has now elapsed.
The Liverpool manager does not have the luxury of just shrugging off relative failure in the transfer market. He has to take Liverpool into the Champions League and establish them there. This dual objective requires personnel in terms of quality and quantity. So what options does he have left?
Option one: Pay up. Sit director of football Michael Edwards down alongside him in a room and make a Trans-Atlantic conference call to John Henry in Boston. Klopp would tell the gathered that he could neither guarantee significant progress in the Champions League, nor requalification for that competition via a top four Premier League finish, without the players he had outlined last May. He might tell his colleagues that the club MUST find the additional cash to secure the deals. He might argue that money can always break a deadlock. He may urge Liverpool’s hierarchy to think outside the bank and bid far higher than initial valuations suggested would be required.
Option two: Switch to lesser targets. Klopp could accept that if he can’t get quality he at least needs quantity. Lucas Leiva and Kevin Stewart have left and Mamadou Sakho will surely go soon. Liverpool are simply short in midfield and central defence. A midfielder like Leicester’s Danny Drinkwater is gettable at half Keita’s price and Chelsea are rumoured to be considering him. He may not be world class but he has a proven pedigree. Young Renato Sanches would be sold by Bayern Munich for a fair fee. Likewise with van Dijk, there are other centre halves in Europe. Stefan de Vrij at Lazio has a reputation for reliability and competence and again would be purchasable for half the cost of Liverpool’s primary target.
Option three: Work imaginatively with existing resources. Never has the “like a new signing” cliche felt so applicable. There’s the reborn incarnation of Daniel Sturridge for starters. Kept fit, he’s a bonus world-class player. Trent Alexander-Arnold doesn’t look like he’s just stepping up nicely as a squad option he’s bashing on the first-team door and keeping Nathaniel Clyne up nights. Alberto Moreno did an impression of the best left back in Europe for an hour in the friendly against Bayern. Marko Grujic looks less raw and more ready, and Klopp may now have found the position in midfield for 17-year-old Ben Woodburn that will facilitate all his gifts.
Option four: Pay (relatively) silly money for Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s had his injury issues but less so last season and, given his age, potential ceiling and positional versatility, he could solve all sorts of problems. Arsenal don’t want to sell the player to a rival, but would sooner sell Chamberlain than Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil. They may need to sell one to fund an increased wage package for the other two. Chamberlain is not as valuable to Arsenal as van Dijk is to Southampton or Keita is to Leipzig. Arsenal will not want to give Liverpool a cheap deal for their man, but overpaying by £10-15m for Chamberlain would be less costly overall than it might prove to break the deadlock in other bigger deals.
Getting just one more big deal over the line would calm nerves at the club. Time is running out to complete that kind of deal but there is definitely still enough of it left for Liverpool’s summer work to suddenly take on a very different complexion.
Seeing off Barcelona’s threat to take Coutinho would not just be a neutral development, it would lift spirits and enable Liverpool to build on a successful season rather than have to take the kind of hit suffered after near title-winning seasons in 2009 and 2014. Barca’s interest raises Coutinho’s stock and lifts the player’s confidence. For this season, at least, Liverpool will be the beneficiaries.
Prediction: Liverpool sign van Dijk and Chamberlain and keep Coutinho.
See you on September 1.
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