As Bill Shankly said "At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it; they are only there to sign the cheques." That was the case when he revolutionised Liverpool in the sixties and seventies, taking them from the doldrums of the second division to domestic dominance, setting the foundations for their later European success under Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan. Now, though, forty years after he stepped down as manager, it’s hard to imagine what he would make of the club’s current hierarchal composition, as the dysfunction off the pitch threatens to undermine the progress made on it.
The January transfer window came and went and Liverpool didn't bring in a single reinforcement to a squad that has been decimated by injuries over the first half of the season. Brendan Rodgers’ side have fought admirably to currently sit in fourth place despite the manager barely having his strongest eleven all available together at any stage of this campaign. Had you offered that to most Liverpool fans last summer they would have followed in the footsteps of their vexatious number seven and bitten your arm off for it, but the lack of activity in the transfer market last month has led fans to question the ambition of the club’s owners.
It has been patently obvious for some time that Liverpool need to improve at full-back, central-midfield and out wide; they attempted to solve two of those positions in the summer but neither Aly Cissokho nor Victor Moses are good enough in the long-term and are unlikely to have their loan moves made permanent. But one of the only players the club appear to have attempted to sign was Mohamed Salah, who joins the ever-growing list of players Liverpool have pursued but ultimately lost out on - often to their close rivals, and there is a very worrying trend developing when it comes to the club’s attempts to negotiate any significant transfers: they are just not very good at it.
This is not some knee-jerk, reactionary hyperbole because the club lost out on one player. I have seen nothing of Salah bar the odd YouTube compilation so I have no idea if he would have been a good signing. I have no idea whether the £12-£15m Chelsea spent on him is more than he’s worth, and I would guess that he’s earning more at Stamford Bridge than what he would have been earning at Anfield. What I do know is that the club clearly wanted him, and were heavily linked with him for months before the transfer window opened, but it took Chelsea just a few days to beat Liverpool to his signature.
"At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it; they are only there to sign the cheques."
Of course, it helps that Chelsea are bankrolled by a billionaire and had just received £37m from selling Juan Mata, but this is a recurring theme for Liverpool. The club – and I say the club because it’s unclear who controls what, but I presume it’s mostly FSG – put a certain value on a player and refuse to go beyond that, even if other teams will. It’s a justifiable principle, for the most part. After well over £55m was wasted on the Moneyball-inspired signings of Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, you can understand why FSG are hesitant to sanction big money signings, especially when the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho only cost a fraction of that and have been huge successes so far.
Football is never that simple, though, is it? The calibre of players Liverpool should be attempting to sign are likely to draw interest from other big teams, so in order for them to fend off competition for a player, they’re going to have to offer either the player or club more money - that’s just the way of the world. It’s all well and good accusing players of being mercenaries, but why would a player who has no affinity towards Liverpool choose them over a team who are offering similar financial incentives and are regulars in the Champions League? The club have found that out the hard way, particularly last summer.
It’s not as if Liverpool boast world-class players all over the pitch and there’s only a small pool of players in world football that would improve them. They have one genuine superstar, a small handful of brilliant players and the rest are decent, average or too inconsistent to accurately judge. The latest Deloitte Football Money League ranks Liverpool at 11th, the highest entry for any club outside of the Champions League, and with the club drastically slashing the wage bill over the past two seasons, and spending frugally, there should be money available - not that anyone is suggesting the club break the bank this window, just a few key additions to strengthen the squad.
The problem does not just lie with the owners, however. The club installed a transfer committee over a year ago, consisting of Brendan Rodgers, Ian Ayre, Dave Fallows, the head of recruitment, and Michael Edwards, the head of analysis. So far they have proven to be about as useful as an ashtray on Ian Ayre’s precious Harley Davidson. The scouting team, committee or whoever is responsible have had ample time to draw up a list of affordable, realistic targets for every position, but in the two transfer windows since their inception only one signing, Coutinho, could be labelled a true success; Daniel Sturridge was a target long before the committee existed.
The person I feel most sorry for in all of this is Brendan Rodgers, because Liverpool are clearly making progress under his tutelage but he’s again been let down by the club in the transfer market. You would imagine – or hope, rather- that he has some say in the club’s transfer dealings, but you look at some of the moves made last summer – or the summer before that - and you really wonder whether he does. A head coach more than a manager, it seems. Considering how sparingly he used Oussama Assaidi or Nuri Sahin last season, and Tiago Ilori, Luis Alberto and Iago Aspas this season, it’s hard to believe he campaigned for the club to sign any of them too vehemently.
More than £20m was spent on Ilori, Alberto and Aspas and they have managed seven starts between them. Aspas, 26, at least had one season of top-flight experience in La Liga, but the other two haven’t managed a full season at the top level. I had seen nothing of Iago Aspas before he signed, but I’m struggling to comprehend how anyone who went out and watched him play in the flesh, let alone a professional scout, could not see how physically inadequate he is, and how, because he’s not very quick, that may be a problem in the Premier League. Watching Aspas struggle through a game reminds me of Scrappy Doo getting held at arm’s length, puffing and panting but ultimately getting nowhere. I feel sorry for him, to be honest, because he’s just not being put in a position where he can succeed.
The signing of Luis Alberto is a microcosm of the club’s incompetence. His record at Barcelona B in the Segunda Division was promising, and at 20 he still had plenty of time to improve and develop. No problem, one for the future. But to pay nearly £7m for a player with barely any top flight experience and is not even a regular for Spain at youth level is ridiculous, especially when you consider the club sent Suso, arguably a better player, out on loan to Almeria, where he’s featured regularly and impressed. It’s not like Alberto was more ready for first-team football, because he’s barely been used by Rodgers, who has shown he’s not afraid to throw a young player in to the deep end if he feels he’s ready.
To make matters worse, Liverpool didn’t even recoup what they spent on Alberto when they sold Jonjo Shelvey to Swansea, who has plenty of Premiership experience and was even capped by England at senior level. Considering the inflated prices that home-grown players are usually sold for, the whole debacle is just baffling. But at least Alberto has managed two starts in the cups; Tiago Ilori didn’t make a single appearance for the first-team before he was sent out on loan to Granada last week. To me, it seems as if the club are signing players that the manager does not want or rate, which is incredibly naïve and counter-productive; it serves little purpose other than to recklessly waste money, money which appears to be in short supply.
It seems harsh, but the bottom line is none of this helps the likes of Ilori and Alberto, who already have fans on their back, not because they have done anything wrong, but because they have done nothing at all. I, and every other Liverpool fan, sincerely hope the two go on to be brilliant players for the club, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the club grossly overpaid for three players who have contributed nothing this season when the money could – and should – have been put towards a player that would come in and improve the first eleven. If Liverpool currently had Suso and Borini to call on - players who were at the club at the start of the summer - instead of Alberto and Aspas, the squad would be better for it.
What makes all of this infuriating is that Liverpool are as close to returning to the Champions League than at any point since they were knocked out of it in 2009.
With the battle for fourth place evenly poised, Rodgers had 15 senior players available to train the day before the derby. 15! A calculated risk needs to be made and if an extra couple of million is needed to secure a signing or two, is not that worth it to greatly increase your chances of finishing fourth and returning to the cash cow that is the top four? Speculate to accumulate and all that. And presuming the owners are setting the values for players, how are they evenly remotely qualified to do so as they have no background in the sport whatsoever?
Listen, I have no problem with the club casting the net far and wide for potential signings, not that Iberia constitutes as far and wide - in fact, I encourage it. More and more countries that you wouldn’t class as footballing powerhouses are producing quality players, and if Liverpool can unearth some gems in some untapped markets then fantastic. The minor European countries and South America in particular are goldmines, and if Liverpool can circumvent the problematic work permit regulations then they could be on to the perfect strategy to close the gap on the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea without spending as lavishly as they do.
Just look across Stanley Park to Everton, who Liverpool face today in the Merseyside derby, as proof that big money isn’t needed to improve. Everton, by the way, have finished above Liverpool for the past two seasons, and that was with David Moyes at the helm. Despite them having a fraction of Liverpool’s budget for the past decade, the much-derided Bill Kenwright has got The Toffees on a pretty level playing field. Even this summer, The Blues sold one of their best players, but managed to upgrade him at half the price and then bring in several players to improve the squad - yes, some of them might have been on loan, but the difference between both clubs is that Everton’s loanees have impressed. In January, he brought in two more players and got Leighton Baines to sign a new long-term deal.
When you’re getting constantly outperformed by an extroversive impresario who used to be on Corrie, it’s time to make changes. All the countless sponsorship deals and extra revenue are irrelevant if clubs with smaller budgets are more efficient and successful where it matters. Wasn’t Liverpool’s chairman, Tom Werner, a big sitcom mogul back in the day? How come he can’t go and get Sly Stallone to come to Anfield? Or is it something Kenwright learned in the Rovers, perhaps? Maybe FSG should see what Roy Cropper is up to now that he has a bit more free time on his hands; let’s face it, things couldn’t get much worse, could they?
The club’s owners need to get their business in order or they’ll soon become the new pantomime villains in L4.