Liverpool’s recent pre-season tour of South-East Asia and Australia perfectly demonstrated the paradox in which the Merseysiders currently exist. For whilst the lucrative four-match tour may have provided the club with a welcome reminder of the enormous global popularity they retain, with fans snapping up every available ticket to cheer on their beloved team from the stands, down on the pitch the body language of their want-away star forward Luis Suarez spoke volumes of just how far the team’s on-field stock has fallen in recent times. The club as a brand can rightly claim to reside among the game’s elite but the same cannot be said of the team, where a succession of mid table finishes have firmly established the Anfield side among the distant second tier of the Premier League.
The Uruguayan’s disinterested demeanour betrayed a frustration at what he clearly sees as a dilution of his considerable talents by having to ply his trade with such an average team. Undoubtedly one of his sports’ greatest practitioners, the 26 year old has decided that an annual race for Europa League qualification does not represent the apogee of his talents and has instead identified title challenges and Champions League football as a more worthy stage upon which to perform. Considering the ephemeral and fragile nature of a professional footballers’ career, this is not an unreasonable conclusion.
Whilst the manner of Suarez’ exit may be unedifying, with the striker choosing to air the club’s dirty laundry in public this week, in truth the nature of the exit lies somewhere on the periphery of importance. Instead, what is motivating Suarez’ desire to leave is where the narrative should be focused.
Unable to attract top names with either participation in the Champions League, nor with wages commensurate with the game’s greatest talents, Liverpool’s already tenuous grip on the coattails of the game’s elite is in danger of becoming no grip at all. With each passing season the club remains outside the top four; with each home game played before the relatively small crowd of 44,500; with each snub the club receives from the games top players, so Liverpool float further away into the football ether.
While manager Brendan Rodgers may talk of top four aspirations, in truth, they amount to little more than a pipe dream and will continue to remain so in the absence of a considerably heavier flow of income than the one on which the team currently survives. After an initial foray into the transfer market failed to yield Champions League qualification, owners FSG seem to have receded into their financial shell and would now appear to be prioritising profit above all else. Liverpool’s net spend to date in the current transfer window stands at a paltry £3 million, compared to £90 million for Manchester City and £30 million for Chelsea - who have also had a £30 million bid for Wayne Rooney rejected.
With a relatively small stadium, no Champions League income and no oligarch or oil baron to bankroll them, Liverpool are operating on an entirely different plain from their Champions League peers, a state of affairs reflected in their recent league standings. In the four seasons since Rafael Benitez last led the Anfield side to Champions League qualification, the Reds have finished 7th, 6th, 8th and 7th and whilst the annual pre-season wave of optimism has once again washed over Anfield this summer, in truth it’s hard to see how the additions of unproven youngsters such as Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto are going to bridge the ever-widening chasm that exists between Liverpool and their top four quarry. What the club need at this moment in time is a state-of-the-art stadium and an open cheque book. Instead they have football austerity.
There is a suspicion FSG may have bitten off more than they can chew. Whether lured to the sport under the naïve belief that the much vaunted Financial Fair Play would act as a great leveller and not some toothless rule to be easily circumvented by imaginative accountants, it would appear the Boston Sports Group have grossly under-estimated the stake required to play with football’s highest rollers. With the wage bill slashed and transfer fees at a fraction of their previous levels, FSG seem steadfast in their belief that financial prudence provides a viable route back to the summit of the English game. That a rookie, unproven manager like Rodgers is expected to catch the top four clubs under such straightened conditions is fanciful in the extreme.
So what non-fanciful hope of Liverpool returning to football’s top table? Perhaps the recent rumours of the club being put on the market will turn out to be true and an Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour-type sugar daddy will ride to the rescue and restore the club to its former glory, if not to its former values. Perhaps Rodgers will turn out to be one of the games all time greats and bridge the gap to the top with these most modest of resources. Perhaps…
It is against this backdrop of the club's uncertain future that Suarez - one of the top five players on the planet - is expected, by some, to remain at the club during, what would be, his prime years. It is an expectation as unreasonable as it is unlikely. Regardless of the identity of Suarez’ new club, it seems certain his Liverpool days are numbered. And whilst he will undeniably be leaving behind one of the greatest names in world football, he most certainly won’t be leaving behind one of its greatest teams.