The wizard

Yes, listen to this. It’s one of Black Sabbath’s less-heralded and most-excellent of tunes. I’ll wait.

There comes a time when it’s difficult to quantify the value that a person represents in your local sporting institution. Oh, you can say things like “Well, we won x number of trophies/tournaments/matches/titles/whathaveyous and, therefore, Person is x level of amazing/legendary/irreplaceable/stupendous/random positive exhortation”, albeit with a bit more specificity and possibly even genuine feeling behind it. Since we have come to yet another ridiculous transfer window under the sorcerous reign of one Michael Edwards, I thought it might be a good time to take a look back at what he’s accomplished in some of his years at the club, at least since the Jürgen Klopp era began a unified approach to the transfer market amongst the staff, most notably with sporting director, Michael Edwards.

One of the main flaws of the previous regime under Brendan Rodgers is that the latter was uncomfortable in working with a sporting director/director of football. He felt that, being the manager, all transfer activity and the makeup of the squad was his purview. That’s a perfectly valid perspective, if one is equipped to do that job and the club is able to spend in a manner fitting the outlook of the manager. But what our scenario led to was a conflict between the notorious “transfer committee” and Rodgers, such that we found some great deals, like Joe Gomez from Charlton for €4.9m and Danny Ings from Burnley for €8.3m, but also spent €46m on Christian Benteke who, as a target man, didn’t really suit the rest of the squad. The counterweight to Rodgers wanting Benteke was that the committee (aka Edwards) spent €41m on one Roberto Firmino who has turned out to be worth every penny. Of course, that summer also saw the departure of Raheem Sterling for a variety of reasons, as well as club legend, Steven Gerrard, who didn’t see much point in another season under Rodgers but now regrets his departure before being able to work with Klopp. But one of the hidden gems would turn out to be the acquisition of James Milner on a free, who has been one of the greatest value-added acquisitions that the club has ever had. But let’s look at how things have proceeded with the current staff in place; the Klopp-Edwards era.

2016/17

The main acquisition was, of course, Sadio Mané for €41.2 million from frequent target, Southampton; a player whom Klopp had wanted while he was at Dortmund and about whom he’d be kicking himself for not pulling the trigger while Sadio was at RB Salzburg. The next-biggest purchase was Georginio Wijnaldum from relegated Newcastle for €27.5 million. This is an Edwards pick, through and through. The enormous value and flexibility that Gini provides and has provided throughout his Liverpool career makes him a clear, data-driven, Edwards player. But the fact that Klopp is also driven by that kind of flexibility in his squad is what makes the two of them such a great match. Instead of having a manager who has one way and requires the players to heed it, Klopp is able to adapt the tools at his disposal to play his way. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a style of play or doesn’t demand that players heed his approach. It just means that he’s able to take flexible players and extract what they can do best within his system. (To Rodgers’ credit, his years at Celtic made him a far more adaptable manager, which he has since demonstrated at Leicester City.) Another excellent arrival was Joel Matip from Schalke 04 on a free. Despite Joel’s everpresent injury problems, he’s an excellent CB who’s done great work for the club for no expense other than wages (which, y’know, are a real cost for someone who’s spent a lot of time in the physios’ hands.) You can also point out the one not-so-amazing purchase on Edwards’ resumé in this entire stretch with the arrival of Loris Karius from Mainz 05 for €6.2m. Karius was a decent keeper, despite his infamous (and concussion-driven) collapse in the CL title game in 2018, but his performance is way down the normal level of players we see assembled in the Klopp era.

As for outgoings. we got 2/3 of Benteke’s cost back from Ctystal Palace (€31.2m) and made a brilliant profit from Jordan Ibe’s sale to Bournemouth (€18m), which will become a recurring theme. Ibe spent four years in our system, after an initial purchase from Wycombe’s academy for €250k. We also made some money back on Wee Joe Allens’s sale to Stoke (€15m, albeit on a €19m purchase from Swansea.) This would be just the beginning of Edwards really taking control of the system, which eventually led to his appointment as sporting director in November, 2016.

2017/18

This is, of course, the year that Edwards became a football household name (despite his continuing to refuse interviews and keeping a very low personal profile) with the then-record-setting purchase of Virgil Van Dijk for €84.65 million from Southampton. Despite the clamoring from LFC fans (including your author) for defensive reinforcement in the 2017 summer window and the obstinance from Soton over the wishes of its player, Edwards landed the deal in January for which he was roundly mocked by Manchester club fans for supposedly drastically overspending on a defender. Strangely, all of those mocking voices soon faded away. In addition to Virg, one-season-wonder and two-time Golden Boot winner (and current Golden Boot leader), Mohammed Salah, arrived from Roma for €42m. This is where Edwards really steps into the spotlight, as Jürgen was still intent on Marco Reus as his winger-of-choice and had to be convinced by Edwards and his staff to take a chance on Mo. Given that Mo is now 14th on the all-time list for goalscorers in the club’s 129-year history in just 3.5 seasons, I think Mike got this one right.

On top of those two, the 2017 summer window also brought Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal for €38m and Andy Robertson from Hull City for €8m (with Kevin Stewart going the other way for €4.5m.) It’s fair to argue that, although Ox fits the Edwards/Klopp model for versatile players, he hasn’t exactly paid off in consistency because of some injury issues. He’s provided some famous goals at key moments (think: Man City) but hasn’t quite been the rock of reliability that someone like Gini has been. In contrast, paying a net €3.5m for Robbo qualifies somewhere in the top 10 list of “steals of the century.” Not only has he been a hallmark of consistency from a playing time perspective, but he’s also been so outstanding from both a defensive and offensive standpoint (setting records both with and without Trent Alexander-Arnold for goal contributions from a left back/defender) that the price that was paid is almost comedic; especially considering how few other offers were coming in for a left back from a relegated side. Andy, more than any other player, blew the lid off the data-driven approach that Edwards and his team were using. We also managed the free transfer of the Golden Ball winner of the 2017 U20 World Cup in the form of Dominic Solanke.

On the outgoing side, Edwards was almost solely responsible for the highway robbery that was the €145m sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona. Given that Coutinho was widely considered to be our best player at the time and the Catalans had been responsible for the removal of one of our other best players in Luiz Suarez three years earlier. I say “almost solely responsible” because some credit has to be extended to Josep Bartomeu of Barca and his ego, who agreed to the deal. Edwards also inserted a £100m premium clause in the contract for any other player that Barcelona would attempt to purchase from LFC for the following three seasons (which was not invoked, for obvious reasons.) Given the wide divergence in the clubs’ respective fortunes and Coutinho’s career route since then, we probably have to look at that “steal of the century” label again. We also managed €28m from Crystal Palace, to make Mamadou Sakho’s loan permanent, which was a nice €9.2m profit on his purchase from PSG, as well as €5.7m from Lazio for long-time club servant, Lucas Leiva (for whom he is still a regular starter.) Not much else of note occurred in the outgoing column, but after the Coutinho deal (which Barca is still paying), what else needs to be? As a side note, due credit has to be extended to FSG for backing the VVD purchase, since the Coutinho money wouldn’t actually be accessed until the following summer…

2018/19

That Coutinho cash? Here it goes. Somewhat stung by the in-retrospect colossal deal that they’d given us for Mo Salah, Roma extracted €62.5 million for Alisson Becker, the goalkeeper that we’d peppered with 7 goals in the Champions League semi-final tie a couple months previous. Of course, given the huge contributions he’s made since, that price actually seems quite reasonable for someone often labeled the “best keeper in the PL” and one of the best in the world. Alisson was another long-term target of Edwards and his staff, since his emergence with Internacional in Brazil, so finally bringing that deal home was probably pretty satisfying. On top of that was the best quiet deal of the year in Fabinho for €45m from Monaco, since the season had only ended 24 hours before when he was announced as the heir apparent for the #6 role in Liverpool’s 4-3-3. A key player in their surprise 2017 Ligue 1 title-winning and CL semi-final squad, Fabinho has since been worth vastly more than his significant price, both in his preferred DM role and as a CB in this injury-played season. Plus, late in the window, we picked up Xherdan Shaqiri from relegated Stoke for the eminently bargain price of €14.7m. Rumor has it that he didn’t have that many other offers for a guy who’d won the CL with Bayern and been the best player on Switzerland’s national team for a number of years. Once again, the always roving eye of Edwards. Which brings us to the Keita question…

€60m was set aside for Naby Keita’s purchase from RB Leipzig. It had actually been put in place the year before (17/18) but delayed for a year so Leipzig could continue their pursuit of being the first club to break Bayern Munich’s decade-long stranglehold on the Bundesliga (a quest, alas, which has continued to come up empty and seemingly will again this season.) Naby was another of Edwards’ data-driven targets since the period he’d been at RB Salzburg alongside Sadio and every indicator from his time at the two RB clubs and at Liverpool says he was worth the cash. Statistically, he’s amazing. But the problem is that he can’t stay on the pitch. That makes him a different situation from Joel, who has also been great for us but also can’t play more than two games at a time, since you can just shrug your shoulders to some degree and say: “Got him for free.” (That’s not entirely true, since his presence on the roster also kept us from buying another CB last summer, but still.) €60m is a huge chunk of coin, even in these insane times (which are now somewhat less insane, financially at least, because of the pandemic.) The numbers on the pitch say you can’t really hold this one against Edwards because it’s basically just bad luck that Naby can’t show more of what he’s obviously capable of doing and certainly a much different situation from what happened with, say, Karius.

The outgoing list was much lighter in cash impact than the previous year, but not lighter in terms of outright theft. Dominic Solanke was sold to Bournemouth for €21.2m of pure profit. The Cherries, of course, have seen very little return on that investment. Similarly, Danny Ward was sold to Leicester for €14m, which also was also almost pure profit on a €1.5m purchase from Huddersfield Town. The Foxes, similarly, have not seen much from that outlay. If Edwards could be said to be nothing else (and he is so, so much more), he’s a helluva salesman.

2019/20

And, suddenly, the quiet time. Jürgen, as always, was the front man for the club (he is the manager) in this period when many supporters were clamoring for reinforcements to a squad that won the CL and finished with 97 points in the Premier League. Not seeing any need to make changes, he and Michael Edwards simply didn’t. And, hey, we won the Premier League. When reminded of a player who was available for what amounts to spare change for a top 6 PL club, they went in for that player in the form of Takumi Minamino (€8.5m from RB Salzburg) in the winter window, after seeing him play well against us in the CL, but otherwise kept largely out of the market. Sepp Van Den Berg arrived in the summer from PEC Zwolle (€1.9m) as a future project, but the only other significant business was actually no business, when Adrián appeared to make up for one of our outgoings (long-time, faithful keeper, Simon Mignolet.) That turned out to be smart thinking from the home office, since Adrián was called upon in our season opener and did spectacularly well for an almost literally last-minute free transfer. But, otherwise, expenses were absent. Considering the amount we’d spent in the previous two summers, this was probably wise.

Outgoings were a bit more prominent, with Danny Ings’ loan to Southampton made permanent for €22.2m for a €14m profit on a player who, unfortunately, didn’t see much time on the pitch. Similarly, Ryan Kent was sold to Rangers and Stevie G for €7.2m and Mignolet returned home (roughly) to Club Brugge for €7m. Otherwise, it was all about analysis and looking to the future.

2020/21

And here’s where some of the financial magic begins to really appear. With the entire world locked into something resembling a recession/depression and football taking a large hit from the absence of matchday income, the profligate spending, especially by the Premier League, seemed to be ready for a sharp decline. That, of course, didn’t happen, with PL clubs spending around €1 billion (with a ‘b’) over the summer, but Liverpool wasn’t ready to ignore the reality. With FSG dictating that the club must live within its means, imagination was going to have to be used. As much as there were clubs who were ready to sell to make up for the void at the ticket office, that also meant that the buying clubs wouldn’t be quite as ready to throw caution to the wind (I know. A billion! But stay with me here.) Despite the disruption, Edwards’ analysis and plans stayed in motion. He and his team just had to get more creative and hope that other clubs would play along. Thankfully, most of them did.

The first target was Thiago Alcântara, who was going to be out of contract with Bayern Munich at the end of this season and had expressed a desire to move on. Wanting to get something for one of the best midfielders on the planet, Bayern agreed to a €22m deal, which in the contest of the times is remarkably cheap in the first place, and only €5 million of it was due up front. Next was Diogo Jota, a young attacker with vast potential who wasn’t seeing much game time at Wolverhampton. Knowing they were selling to a direct rival, Wolves stroked the price a bit (€41m), but it was alleviated by Ki-Jana Hoever going the other way for €10m and, again, required an expenditure of only €4m up front. Then, there was needed LB reinforcement in Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiacos for €13m but, again, only €500k due immediately. So, yeah, the club only had to drop €10m in cash to get Thiago, Diogo, and Kostas.

Meanwhile, we sold Ovie Ejaria, who’d been knocking around the U23s for some years, to Reading for €2.3m, regular starter Dejan Lovren to Zenit St. Petersburg for €12m, and Rhian Brewster, who had never played a single minute of PL football, to Sheffield United for €26 million. Everyone could see Rhian’s ability and could understand why he might not get game time behind Bob, Sadio, and Mo. But, still, to make that kind of cash on someone who’d never played in a league game? That’s knowing how to sell something and not just to Bournemouth. But the latest winter window was possibly the crowner.

Everyone knows about our ridiculous injury problems. With the latest injury to Fabinho, everyone knew that we’d have to go into the market, backs to the proverbial wall… or so it seemed. At the same time we were getting the latest bad news, stories began to appear about Virg making “miracle progress” and perhaps even seeing game time this season. News about Joel’s latest injury was basically absent. There was little prospect of making an outrageous purchase as the money simply isn’t there. Plus, Klopp has stated before that the club has significant plans for next summer’s window. Consequently, the first effort was confined to the lower English leagues, with Ben Davies arriving from Preston North End for €1.5m. But we needed more, so Edwards reached out to cash-poor (as in, on the brink of insolvency) Schalke and landed Ozan Kabak, already a long-term target of the club, for a loan fee of €1 million. Schalke, wanting to have something to look forward to, asked for a buy obligation of €20-25 million. The wizard refused, but did agree to a loan option of €18m. Thus, if the injury status of our three senior centerbacks out for the season, looks decent by June, we can save 18 million and put it towards another big target. If not, we have a player we’ve been interested in, anyway, for a pretty decent price. Meanwhile, we have a really bright prospect from the lower leagues, along with our regular backups (Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams) as a buffer. After the window had closed, the news came out that Virg isn’t anywhere near returning to action and Joel was, in fact, done for the year. The media can be a wand to wave like any other for a capable wizard.

Liverpool’s success in recent years is the product of a group effort: willing and ambitious owners plus excellent players plus one of the best managers in the world plus a backroom staff that’s as ambitious and excellent and capable as any of the rest of that group. We’re incredibly fortunate to have all of them driving things forward, especially in these precarious times. Despite his aversion to the press and the cameras, Michael Edwards, too, is deserving of every bit of approbation that comes his way.

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