I’ve been running this blog now for around two years. It’s grown steadily during that time, gaining a decent number of readers and the associated Twitter account enjoys a decent amount of interaction. I would like to think that the reason I have grown steadily is that I often put forward sensible, level-headed analysis of both the team’s performances and the way that the club is being run. I’m sure that if I wrote more reactionary pieces then I might well see the account grow much quicker, but I wouldn’t be sticking true to my beliefs. As far as I personally am concerned, I’d rather see the club run in a financially sensible manner, which I believe that Fenway Sports Group are doing. I don’t think they’re perfect owners, but I’m not sure that I know what the perfect owner looks like. The financial doping of Manchester City & Chelsea has changed the footballing landscape, but I’m not entirely sure I’d feel comfortable with ‘buying success’ in the same way that they have.
One of the criticisms I’ve encountered any time I’ve released a sensible, calm-thinking piece about the club is that I’m ‘accepting mediocrity’. It’s one of the most pointless and frustrating insults that can be thrown at people. If it’s not that then it’s a sly comment such as ‘I just want the club to be a success’, as though those of us that don’t immediately cry “FSGOUT” any time anything happens would quite like to see the club fail. The irony is that the FSGOUT crew would most likely not mind seeing the club fall short if it increased the chance of the owners leaving. In a microcosmic example of that, I recently saw someone say they’ve ‘love us to lose 4-0 if it meant that Jordan Henderson never played for the team again’. I don’t even know where to begin with that sort of thinking. The idea of ‘accepting mediocrity’ is something I’ve been thinking about recently and it led me to ask: is accepting reality the same as accepting mediocrity? Here’s why I think it isn’t.
We Were Close To Rock Bottom
In the days before FSG bought Liverpool Football Club, there was a very real chance that it was going to have to go into administration. Tom Hicks & George Gillett had sidled the club with debt, sacking a European Cup winning manager in favour of Roy Hodgson. Two days after they spent £300 million to buy the club, John Henry and pals saw us slump to a 2-0 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park, leaving us second from bottom with just six points to our name. By the time Hodgson was sacked in January of 2011, things had only mildly improved. We’d won seven of twenty games in the Premier League and were in twelfth.
The decision to appoint Kenny Dalglish on an interim basis was a clever one, uniting the supporters and bringing a bit of hope back to the fanbase. The problem was that the Scot had been out of the game for some time and, even though he led us to two cup finals and won a trophy, the league form under him was still pretty dire. It’s easy to forget now, but just seven years ago the club was enduring its worst period since the days before Bill Shankly arrived. That Fenway saved us from the almost certain destruction we would have seen occur had Hicks & Gillett remained in charge doesn’t give them a free pass forever, but it does need to be borne in mind when discussing where we are now.
It’s easy to say that Jürgen Klopp hasn’t won anything yet and therefore doesn’t deserve the adulation that he’s been on the receiving end of, but he arrived at the club when it had barely recovered from the days of confusion and inner turmoil that existed well into even Brendan Rodgers’s reign. Rafa Benitez is a manager that deserves an enormous amount of respect, but it’s an awful lot easier to take over a team that’s been winning trophies regularly and contains the likes of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Sami Hyypia than it is to manage one that has won one trophy in ten years and lacks all of the older leaders. Let’s have a quick look at the team that lost 2-0 to Everton two days after FSG bought the club and the one that drew 2-2 with Spurs the other day:
Hodgson’s Everton Side
- Raul Meireles
Jones, Aurelio, Kelly, Spearing, Jovanovic, Babel, Ngog
Klopp’s Spurs Side
- van Dijk
Wijnaldum, Moreno, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mignolet, Ings, Solanke, Matip
If you can’t see the marked difference in the quality of the playing then I’m not sure what you’ve been watching for the past seven years. The team we have now isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s so much better than it was when the current owners arrived. They have invested in players according to what each manager has wanted, with blame for any failing thereafter surely down to the man in the hot-seat. It was Brendan Rodgers that wanted Christian Benteke, for example, just as it was Jürgen Klopp who allowed Philippe Coutinho to leave and decided not to replace him. If the owners had refused to allow either of them to do what they did, is that a healthy place to be in? I’m not sure.
Top Clubs Don’t Sell Their Best Players
On the second of July 1986, Liverpool sold Ian Rush to Juventus for a then British record fee of £3.2 million. As part of the deal he actually remained at the club for another season on loan, scoring thirty goals in the First Division. An incredible figure, but one that led to precisely no silverware at the end of that campaign. That is just one example of the club selling its best player in the past, with the added advantage of proving that even keeping hold of him for an extra season didn’t guarantee a trophy of any kind. There are other examples, too. Even if you look away from Liverpool to our arch rivals Manchester United, you can find examples of them getting rid of top players. Cristiano Ronaldo is the most obvious one, leaving just after the Red Devils had done the double.
It is demonstrably a fallacy to suggest that top clubs don’t sell their best players. The problem we’ve had at Liverpool is that we’ve done it with far too much consistency and if you look at it as a whole then it can start to seem like a pattern. Since the arrival of Fenway Sports Group we’ve allowed Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho to depart the club, to name just four players that were arguably our ‘best’ at the time that they left. Yet looking at them as one homogenous group isn’t really fair, considering that there was a logic to why the club allowed them to go.
Anyone who watched the football we were playing under Roy Hodgson could easily have understood exactly why Torres decided his time at the club was coming to an end. Demanding that talented, ball-playing centre-halves simply hoof it up the pitch for the Spaniard to chase was frustrating to watch, so goodness only knows how it was to play in that sort of side. Luis Suarez could’ve easily downed tools when the Liverpool owners refused to sell him to Arsenal, despite the fact that the Gunners had apparently triggered his release clause. Thankfully he was never the sort of player that was likely to do that, but the club will have made promises that he could go the following summer if a better club came in with a more appropriate offer.
The stand-off with Raheem Sterling was an interesting one. Personally I would have liked to have seen what his agent, Aidy Ward, would’ve done if the club had refused to sanction his sale. Ward, you’ll remember, spent the summer of 2015 saying that his client wouldn’t sign a contract even if it was worth ‘£1 million per week’ and labelled Jamie Carragher a ‘kn*b’. Bridges were burned and there’s a logic to why they chose to sell him after that became clear. Then there’s Philippe Coutinho. Supporters believing that the manager should’ve forced him to stay – and it was very much the manager’s decision – should perhaps ask themselves where Riyad Mahrez is since Leicester City refused to sell him.
You can point to Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City and say that they haven’t sold their best players and, to some extent, that would be true. Yet they’ve all been winning trophies during that time and haven’t therefore had players agitating to leave. It’s a double-edged sword, with the best way of convincing your top players to stay involving winning trophies and the best way of winning trophies requiring you to keep your best players. If you don’t win trophies for long enough then they’ll want to go and it’s difficult to persuade them not to. Had we kept Coutinho and he’d essentially ‘done a Mahrez’, would that have increased or decreased our chance of winning trophies? You need to persuade them to want to stay, not force them not to leave. Which is to say nothing of the fact that David de Gea would be at Real Madrid right now if not for a problem with a fax machine.
Without Money, We Must Play Smart
Had Fenway Sports Group spent £100 million every summer since they arrived at the club, we’d have still only spent £200 million more than Manchester City have spent since Pep Guardiola arrived at the club alone. Add to that the money that Sheikh Mansour had already invested in the playing squad before the Spaniard arrived and you can see how they’re not on the same playing field as everyone else. If you can’t compete in the same bracket as those top sides then you need to do things smarter, which sometimes involves improving steadily rather than shooting for the moon. Here’s a look at the number of times Liverpool have finished in the top eight positions during the Premier League era:
- 8th: 3
- 7th: 3
- 6th: 3
- 5th: 2
- 4th: 6
- 3rd: 5
- 2nd: 3
- 1st: 0
We have finished inside the top four fourteen teams since 1992, finishing outside of it eleven times in the same period. The balance, then, is only barely in the bracket that means we’re definitively a top four side. If you look at the last ten seasons alone then, starting with 2007-2008, it reads, 4th, 2nd, 7th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd, 6th, 8th and 4th. Four top four finishes, six finishes outside the Champions League places. Last summer Manchester United spent over £150 million and promptly ended the season in 6th, only making the Champions League because their route to the Europa League final involved playing a team from the Dog & Duck and other such nonsense sides.The point being that spending money alone doesn’t guarantee you success. Spending money more intelligently is the key if you want to consistently challenge for the title. Many decided that Jürgen Klopp was a fool for not strengthening in the January transfer window, especially given the sale of our Brazilian midfielder to Barcelona. My problem with that logic is that the manager clearly felt that none of his top targets were available and settling for second-best isn’t his style. I personally think that Riyad Mahrez is a good player, but he’s not Klopp’s number one choice and the £90 million quoted by Leicester City for him is, frankly, ridiculous. Agreeing with the manager’s decision not to spend money unnecessarily to only improve the team incrementally doesn’t mean that I’m happy to ‘settle for mediocrity’. I want the club to get back to winning consistently, but I’m also aware that we haven’t really done that for more than a decade.
Leicester’s winning of the Premier League was a 5000/1 shot for a reason – those sorts of things simply don’t happen unless a miracle of coincidences line-up in a team’s favour. Instead of shooting for the moon once every five years or so, I want us to create a team, a system and a structure good enough to have us there or there about every single year. Do that and we’re far more likely to win the title than by hoping the stars align. That isn’t settling for mediocrity, it’s acceding to reality.