How to see clearly out the window

I try to avoid thinking about this

There’s a genuinely annoying phenomenon that takes place in almost every summer transfer window (and the occasional winter one…) where a sizable segment of Liverpool’s fanbase decides that if we aren’t spending a significant amount of a Gulf state’s GDP on new players, we’re falling behind/giving up/FSG is ruining the club with their cheapness/etc. What makes it even more annoying is that Twitter keeps proffering the topic “Liverpool FC” to me, which is inevitably filled with an unending stream of people with all varieties of this drama queen behavior. Those tweets probably show up because this same coterie of fans follow each other and like every post that fits their jeremiad perspective. I don’t want to block said topic, because in the rest of the year some interesting stuff comes up, but it’s like being followed around by the nihilists that just won’t shut up, Donny. The most impenetrable point of their “reasoning” is the idea that FSG, the owners that saved the club from bankruptcy, hired Jürgen Klopp, shelled out record-setting amounts for players like Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson Becker, and Fabinho and then spent even more money in a summer where the club lost millions to get Diogo Jota and Thiago Alcãntara (i.e. last year) is now somehow determined to be “cheap” and, of course, destroy the club. The implicit accusation behind this is that the players that we currently have on the roster (the same ones who won a European Cup two seasons ago and the PL title one season ago) won’t be good enough without spending hundreds of millions more on new faces like the oil clubs (and World’s Greatest Marketing Venture, Manchester United) are doing. Many of these people outraged at not having new players to fawn over are the same ones constantly complaining that various players on the bench aren’t being given the opportunity to show what they could be doing, i.e. the backup quarterback phenomenon; always somehow the best player on the team that the coach won’t cop to. The fact that bringing in all those new faces will give these guys even less opportunity apparently doesn’t occur to them while they’re distracted by something (hopefully) new and shiny. In the interest of pointing out some of the more obvious missing factors from their pseudo-analysis, I’m writing this counter-rant today in lieu of some kind of season preview which no one will read, anyway.

Factor 1: The real dollars/pounds/Euros

FSG isn’t in the interest of owning and supporting Liverpool just because they’re big Reds supporters. FSG is a business. They’re here to make money. As with any business, you do have to spend money to make money (which they have; I’ll get to that in a bit) but there’s a limit to all things. Generally, unless you have the bottomless pit generated by fossil fuels (for now…), you’re not going to be able to constantly spend money on new players without getting some value in return. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a general slowdown in the market over the past couple years. Man City just spent £100 million on a single player after selling three more for a total of £38 million. They have that luxury because the owners are pouring hundreds of millions into the club whether UEFA/the PL choose to pay attention or not. Liverpool’s owners, despite being insanely rich, aren’t quite that mad, as it were. They’ve made a number of long-term decisions, like the upgrades to Anfield, the new training center at Kirkby, the Nike deal, and others that should generate much more revenue for the club than was the situation when they took over, but those aren’t instant fixes like Sheikh Mansour’s checkbook. The club’s model is to be sustainably run because revenue for our owners doesn’t spill out from holes in the ground. Panicking after a ridiculously injury-ridden season is not sustainable behavior.

Furthermore, the club has spent money in this window. Our most dire need last season was a top-level fourth centerback. We thought we could skate by with three and Fabinho and, in most other seasons, we might’ve been able to. But then we lost all three to season-ending injuries and, on top of that, even lost the two most regular replacements to injury, as well. Those were extraordinary circumstances, but the club has stepped up to answer the most burning question on most supporters’ minds by signing Ibrahima Konaté for a cool £34 million. That, just like the cash splashed last year on Thiago and Diogo, is real money, even if it doesn’t grab the inflated headlines of a Sancho, Varane, or Grealish. This isn’t two years ago, when the club won their 6th European Cup, bought no one but a teenaged project (Sepp van den Berg)… and then proceeded to walk the league title by 25 points. (Guess that worked out…?) But the fact remains that there has to be revenue coming in for revenue to be spent, now and in the future. With the still uncertain situation vis-à-vis fans in the stands this year and the club still trying to get back to a revenue positive situation, it’s understandable that FSG may be hesitant to really splash the cash, ‘lest we step a lot closer to the disaster that was a decade ago, when it was an open question whether the club would be able to keep going at all and, if it did, whether that was going to be down in the Championship. This is far from an idle threat., the owners of Inter Milan, are the biggest privately-owned retailer in China. Because of COVID problems, they went from almost a billion in profits a couple years ago to a $4.5 million loss last year. Consequently, Inter is having a bit of a fire sale this year just a couple months after winning their first scudetto in a decade. They’re doing that because they need the money to save the club from bankruptcy. Sound familiar? Anyone thinking that spending money just to keep up with the Joneses is a viable approach should peruse the innumerable articles about how Barcelona just let their greatest-ever (and still best, probably) player walk on a free (to an oil club… sigh…) because they couldn’t and still can’t afford to pay their current roster. But that’s far from the only complication. It’s just the most obvious. But sometimes of even more concern is the next one.

Factor 2: English players for an English club

Liverpool plays football in the English league and, thus, is considered an English club (Scouse, not English!) That means they have to apply themselves to UEFA and the FA’s regulations on the number of non-English (the more delicate term is “non-homegrown”) players in the squad. With the squad as it currently stands, we are maxed out in that respect, as we’re filling all 17 of the possible slots out of 25. No more non-homegrown players can be registered for the PL and, thus, the Champions League, as well. If we’re going to bring in Saúl Ñíguez or anyone else from outside the isles, we’re going to need to sell someone else. The obvious candidates in recent months have been players like Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi; two solid guys who will seemingly never be able to break into the starting rotation and for whom ready (and homegrown!) replacements like Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott are already available. This need to have local lads leads to what is commonly known as the “English tax” in terms of players moving from one English club to another, as the selling club knows that they carry even more value than what their nominal skill point might suggest. This is why it’s worth it for clubs like Man City to sign a massive new contract with a player like John Stones whom, until his recent resurgence in the latter half of last season, seemed to have dropped to being their fourth-choice centerback. (This is above and beyond City’s ability to pay ridiculous sums to everyone because they’re drawing from the GDP of Abu Dhabi.) But it’s also likely why the option wasn’t exercised for Ozan Kabak. Gini Wijnaldum leaving was essentially a straight swap for Ibrahima. Even if we really liked what Ozan was doing, we didn’t have the squad space to keep him.

Tying this back to events from a few months ago, it’s an open question as to whether the clubs that made up the European Super League would have been bound by any domestic rules of this sort. It wasn’t that far in the past that the English Football League was an all-English affair. There basically weren’t any players from the continent or elsewhere. The ESL would’ve been the converse and closer to the reality that many supporters imagine about their clubs, anyway, in that big clubs like LFC and Juventus are international draws and have fans worldwide. It doesn’t matter to many of them that a majority of the players wearing that red shirt didn’t grow up in England, to say nothing of Liverpool itself. They just know them as “Liverpool players.” The ESL would’ve been an international league without a need to represent a particular nation or domestic collection. It would’ve been simply Chelsea and Milan, not Chelsea, the English side, and Milan, the Italian one. One of the main objections that many had to the concept of the ESL was that it removed the big clubs even further from their local origins and the communities around them. One of the real upsides to our collection of homegrowns is that two of them, Curtis and Trent Alexander-Arnold, as well as several of the academy kids, are not only products of that academy, but are from Liverpool, bringing the club back to its roots, so to speak. But the most important point is that even if FSG wanted to spend like crazy, there’s a limit to whom they could throw that money at and for. And that brings us around to an even more important personnel issue for the club that has nothing to do with regulations or money.

Factor 3: Personnel impact and long-term squad planning

FSG, Michael Edwards, and Jürgen have made no secret of the fact that they’ve always approached the club with long-term plans in mind. When FSG hired the manager, they collectively knew that it would take a couple years to get the squad functioning the way he wanted it to. This is what’s usually referred to in sports as “getting in the coach’s guys” so that he/she can have access to players that fit their system. Edwards’ job is about finding players who are intended to be here for the long-term, as well as finding new players to make sure that the squad isn’t caught in a scenario where an entire position group is aging out at the same time. We’re going to be coming up against the last of those situations soon, as Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mo Salah are all 29. So as exciting as it might sound to run out and buy Romelu Lukaku as Chelsea has done, there are two things to consider there: 1. He’s 28, which is probably older than we want for a starting forward in our current situation. 2. He doesn’t really fit our style of play in the first place. So, although he’s a remarkable player and would almost certainly add immediate value to almost any squad, he doesn’t fit Liverpool’s current mode of operation. He doesn’t have the speed to replace either Mo or Sadio and he certainly doesn’t possess the kind of ball manipulation instincts that Bob has. So we’d be paying a ridiculous amount of money for a guy that wouldn’t even fit in with our current starters and who’d be expected to begin declining around the same time all three of them also would be. This is the exact argument against the frequent fantasy du jour of many Reds fans that involves bringing Philippe Coutinho back to Anfield. He’s 29 and he doesn’t fit into our current mode of play. It doesn’t make sense on any level: financial, strategic, or planning. But most people just think about spending money because we have it and often doing so based on outdated perceptions of a player (the pic at the top with The Hodgson and Co. should be warning against that), with those more reasonable perspectives lost in the thrill of getting a new player.

But the other thing that the Coutinho situation hearkens to is the internal dynamics of the squad. Jürgen is big on belief in his players. He wants them to believe in themselves the way he believes in them. There’s a famous line about Dejan Lovren, where Klopp supposedly told him that “if you believed in yourself the way I believe in you, you’d be the best centerback in the world.” (One wonders if this led to Dejan’s eventual self-declaration as one of the “best defenders in the world.” It’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance.) That belief in his squad also means that Klopp wants all of them to be on the same page. Everyone has to be committed to the project, to their teammates, to the strategy, and to Liverpool Football Club. The story has drifted around that Jürgen objected to the idea of Coutinho returning even if we could get him on the cheap. Coutinho had opted out. He wanted something other than Liverpool that he valued more. That’s not what the manager wants. Everyone should be here because they want to be here; to win trophies for Liverpool and The Kop. In that respect, you often have to pick your transfer targets carefully. You don’t want figures that might be more interested in their own accomplishments than in those of the club. You want those guys who are excited to be wearing the red shirt. A simple glance at Ibrahima’s Twitter and Instagram production since he arrived shows you exactly that, as he regularly gushes about how happy he is to be at Anfield and to be playing for Liverpool. That’s the kind of enthusiasm that the manager demands. That belief in his players can carry over into a bit of fan frustration, as I’ve often questioned whether subs could’ve been made sooner in a game where certain players just haven’t been working out, but that’s the very tiny price we pay to have a manager and person like Jürgen leading the club.

There’s also the question of academy success and continuity. As noted, we have one nailed-on starter in Trent and a likely regular starter in Curtis who came from the academy, with several other prospects behind them like Kaide Gordon, champing at the bit to be on the first team. If we want the academy to continue to attract the best prospects from England (and, given the current regulations and the continuing problems created by Brexit, that’s going to become increasingly important), we have to demonstrate that there’s a path to Anfield for those prospects. If we solve every problem by going out and buying from Italy and Spain, the opportunities for those young players become scarcer. Again, this is an example of long-term planning that means building up the club so that it runs sustainably and the greater revenues can be poured back into the club, in the form of better contracts for current players or better improvements to Anfield or any number of other things, rather than shelling out for ridiculous transfer fees just because Man United did it. I’m not suggesting that anyone else should start castigating the parade of idiots on Twitter because you’ll be there all day and drag yourself down to their level. Just be content that there is solid reasoning for not spending like there’s no tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow, the season opens on Saturday and I’m at the point where writing a few thousand words in a preview that no one will read is feeling like a waste of time. Part of it is that because we haven’t brought in anyone but Ibrahim and the squad is largely the same AND the fact that a good chunk of the squad didn’t play that much last season, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot new to say that isn’t direly colored by the number of missed games and so forth. So I might do a bit of a preview of the league in the context of how Liverpool should compete in it and leave it at that. If there’s any interest in seeing more, feel free to sing out.

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