WITH the January transfer window a little over a month away, attention has started to turn towards the Liverpool squad, and the potential to compensate for some of its seemingly obvious deficiencies, writes SAM JONES.
Following a summer that started with enormous promise – talk of £200million war chests, Champions League football to lure big names and top targets apparently on board early – the end result was less than satisfactory. The acquisitions of Andy Robertson and Dominic Solanke added promise, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shows signs of developing into the player Arsenal thought they were getting and Mohamed Salah has been a revelation, eclipsing Sadio Mane’s debut season already.
But what of the problems? Anyone could have told you, and probably did tell you, that we needed a ‘keeper, a centre back and a midfielder. And a 20-goal-a-season striker, while we’re at it. An entire spine. Not one of these things were delivered. We tried, we very obviously tried, first securing Virgil van Dijk, then quite spectacularly not securing van Dijk, before repeating the same trick with slightly less catastrophic results with Naby Keita. We got him in the end, though he’s still turning out for RB Leipzig until the end of the season.
But what went wrong? The van Dijk saga was a massive embarrassment rolled into a huge disappointment, and was a clear setback for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool.
The majority of fingers were pointed at Michael Edwards. Klopp seemed to have done his part by selling the club to van Dijk, making him choose Anfield over Chelsea or Manchester City. Quite a coup. The rest is history, and the extent to which it then went wrong was baffling. How had we managed to mess it up from such a position of strength? What new depths of incompetence had we plumbed now?
It’s easy to suggest that our mistake was in the manner of our approach. That we had somehow used the press in a new and unreasonably overt way to try to secure the deal on the cheap. On the face of it that seemed to be the case, but I’m not sure. The synchronised declaration by the Liverpool press that van Dijk had chosen us wasn’t anything new. This sort of thing goes on all the time. I find it hard to believe that we came up with some new approach to transfer dealings that suddenly caused everything to go wrong. We managed to get Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain with broadly similar tactics in play.
There clearly was a mistake though, and the man who is living with the consequences of this error is Klopp. On the one hand he seems to have done everything right. Van Dijk, Keita and even Thomas Lemar, three of European football’s hottest properties, want to play for us. Yet none of them do. So where was plan B? It must surely be possibly to upgrade on our current centre backs, for example, even if we can’t get van Dijk.
Klopp here, as with the problems with our buying, is a victim of circumstance. Easy to dress it up as a stubborn and dogmatic commitment to his one and only target, but this would be approaching hubris and that doesn’t seem like something reasonable to level at this manager. Someone who is potentially, if not already, genuinely world class.
There are things he needs to learn, for certain. It would be wrong to claim he was the finished article, and he would probably be the first to tell us that. But at the moment, it is also hard to say what those deficiencies are. Dogmatic approach to transfers? That’s not as clear cut as it seems. Poor in-game management? We can’t know for sure that the players simply can’t deliver what they are supposed to when Alberto Moreno loses his head and everyone else decides to join in.
Until Klopp is able to field a team that he can genuinely call his own we can’t judge him fully. His potential to deliver is always going to be limited by the players on the field, and given that there is a structure in place to deliver these players ultimately his potential to deliver is going to be limited by that structure.
Klopp and his team had identified potentially world-class additions to the squad, and, crucially, talked them into coming here. We then somehow managed to not sign them. So the weak link in our world-class team is the person whose job it is to finish the job and get the deal over the line.
Because the mistake that we made wasn’t doing something different, getting cocky and talking to the papers. It wasn’t a tactical error. The mistake we made was a strategic one. It was not recognising that the context we were operating in had changed. The landscape had shifted, and that as a result we did need to do things differently.
The new TV deal in England, and the proliferation of nouveau riche clubs across Europe meant that the traditional leverage of the big club — money — was diluted. The problem wasn’t that Southampton were suddenly more annoyed than when we bought Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne or Mane, the problem was that they now didn’t need the money and could afford to tell us what they always wanted to tell us before: get fucked.
And it’s not just Southampton. Leipzig can tell us where to go as well, and AS Monaco get to play hardball. This is the new normal. And if the people buying our players for us were world class they would have identified this in advance and come up with a solution. That’s what people who are leaders in their field do. This is why they are the leaders in their field. Instead we went in hard and early, and gave all the other big clubs a big hint about the change in the landscape. A chance to learn from our mistakes.
And this is the concern. We’re going into the January transfer window, a time that could be of pivotal importance for the long-term fortunes of this side, and the success of that is in the hands of the only people at the club whose ability we can be sure about.
Klopp may or may not be word class, we can’t tell without the players. Some of these players may be world class. Without the correct teammates we’ll never be sure. The people doing the buying aren’t world class as it stands. We know that, they’ve proven it, and that means that unless something changes, we can only be as good as they are.
There was the suggestion of learning a lesson over the van Dijk debacle, which possibly showed to some extent when they signed Keita, and that shows promise. But unless they find a way to turn players wanting to play for Liverpool into players actually playing for Liverpool, we won’t see any progress. And having not capitalised on the biggest opportunity we have had in years, there’s one more bite of the cherry. One chance to fill the gaps in the squad that stop us taking advantage of there being three spots to go for behind Man City and four average competitors for them. We can’t afford to get it wrong again.
If Klopp and a Liverpool side containing a lot of talented players are to live up to their potential, then the administration of the club need to as well.
A repeat of last summer will only serve to confirm that they are the weak link, and if that proves to be the case then changes will have to be made.
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