In the players’ restaurant at Anfield there is a slogan painted in red on the wall.
“Gather as team-mates and leave as family,” it reads. Increasingly, though, it feels like a brotherhood that has taken Liverpool to new heights is heading for an inevitable summer break up.
On Friday it emerged that Roberto Firmino will leave at the end of the season, bringing the curtain down on a glittering eight-year Anfield career. But he won’t be alone.
Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and even one of the club’s greatest recent servants James Milner are all currently heading for the Anfield exit door ahead of what promises to be Liverpool’s biggest rebuild for a generation.
It will test the structures, philosophy and financial strategy of owners Fenway Sports Group like never before but it is needed. This weekend’s visit of a revived Manchester United, eviscerated at Anfield 4-0 less than a year ago but now 10 points clear of Jurgen Klopp’s underpowered Reds, should certainly focus minds. With Newcastle and Chelsea snapping at their heels Liverpool need to rediscover their edge, and must be ruthless in doing so.
Liverpool insiders would counter that these storm clouds were always expected. Their unprecedented run at the quadruple last season drained bodies and minds. This was always viewed as a transitional season and a conscious recruitment call appears to have been taken to save money when they failed to land priority target Aurelien Tchouameni, who opted instead for Real Madrid. They feel the promotion of 18-year-old Stefan Bajcetic and Harvey Elliott, 19, will bear fruit in the long-term.
An insight into that thinking came this week when the club’s outgoing head of research Dr Ian Graham told the Financial Times Business of Football summit that “underlying performance data” suggests the season hasn’t been as bad as it appears.
“I’m not suggesting our performance against Real Madrid was good but some of those goals had large elements of luck or unexplained variance included in them,” he said in a memorable intervention.
It is a hard message to sell to supporters but despite this season’s struggles, Liverpool’s owners don’t intend to deviate or modify their data-driven approach, either in performance strategy or recruitment.
Confidence in their methodology will face its sternest test in a transfer window which will surely decide their destiny. Jude Bellingham represents the ultimate litmus test of their aspirations.
They are in a crowded field bidding for the England man, with Manchester City, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea also interested. But even with Champions League qualification in the balance at Anfield they believe there is a route to signing Bellingham, who is understood to have been impressed by the analytical approach his friend Erling Haaland used to map out his future.
Haaland’s camp used a points system and commissioned data reports to see which of the super clubs interested in him would best suit his style and help him to achieve his ultimate goal of being the best player in the world.
Bellingham has a similar goal and his summer decision will not be dictated by finances. Instead it will be a methodical deep dive into which coach will enable him to flourish and develop. The belief at Anfield, where the money to pay for the player has been set aside, is that might just favour them given Klopp’s deep admiration for the England international.
The team needs more than just Bellingham, though. Having effectively sacrificed this season’s title tilt at the altar of waiting for better options a complete refit of their midfield engine room is in the offing. A move for England international Mason Mount, who believes Chelsea’s contract offer significantly undervalues him, probably makes sense.
Another centre-back to replace the injury-prone Joel Matip and compete with Ibrahima Konate is also required.
Liverpool have taken steps in recent weeks to steady the ship by addressing some long-term concerns. The appointment of Will Spearman in the pivotal head of research position will be followed by Julian Ward’s successor as director of football before the end of the season.
But perhaps most importantly of all, John Henry ended speculation that a full sale of the club was being considered last week. Instead he spoke of optimism that outside investment, and the sale of a minority stake, was close.
Fresh funds will be crucial for a club that doesn’t have the backing of a sovereign wealth fund. As Liverpool have found this season, standing still is falling backwards in the Premier League.
Caqueret and Hjulmand the best stylistic alternatives for Bellingham
Jude Bellingham may be on the market for £120m this summer but there is value for Liverpool in the transfer market if they look hard enough.
i commissioned Analytics FC, whose Transferlab tool is used by the likes of Leeds United and West Ham along with other European top-flight clubs, to utilise their data-driven approach to find Liverpool’s best and most realistic transfer options.
They inputted the characteristics that Jurgen Klopp most prioritises to build a bespoke profile of the sort of player the club should be targeting.
We asked for midfielders – the Reds need a couple of high-quality, high-octane options to supplement an area that has failed them this season – and a centre-back.
“We built a profile that includes certain Klopp-relevant metrics, including pressing, ball-winning, transitional passing, one-touch passes, line-breaking passes and switches of play. In layman’s terms it’s the player who knits things together through pressing, smart but infrequent carrying, and clever passing,” explained Alex Stewart.
Bellingham is the gold standard but Analytics FC also identified Lyon’s Maxence Caqueret and Lecce’s Morten Hjulmand as viable, cheaper alternatives.
“Caqueret is a superb all-round midfielder, who can tackle, press, and shift the ball quickly into dangerous areas and Hjulmand is another interesting prospect,” Stewart said.
“Physically imposing and playing for a Lecce team who are the most Klopp-like side in Serie A in terms of directness and pressing, the Dane tends to play slightly deeper but has the passing skillset and dynamic defending to suit a Klopp team well.”
In terms of a sitting midfielder, it will come as little surprise that the data suggests Declan Rice would fit into their midfield perfectly. But a summer outlay on both Bellingham and Rice is surely unrealistic.
Real Sociedad’s Martin Zubimendi and PSV’s Ibrahim Sangare are more economical options.
“Although stepping up from the Eredivisie to the Premier League is quite a jump, data nerds have been loving Sangare since his days with Toulouse and he’s proven he can step up to a club of Liverpool’s stature,” Stewart says.
Of the attacking midfielders on the market, RB Leipzig’s Lazar Samardzic is a compelling alternative to Bellingham. ‘Positionally versatile and smart,’ says Stewart. ‘His passing accuracy is excellent.’
Lens’ Facundo Medina and – somewhat surprisingly – Sevilla’s Loic Bade, discarded by Nottingham Forest, rate highly in the central defender search as players in the Virgil Van Dijk mould.
But if you want the best, you have to pay.
“The gold standard young defender, who also profiles extremely well as a similar defender to Van Dijk, is Red Bull Leipzig’s Josep Gvardiol,” Stewarts suggests.
“Although price and a bidding war with Chelsea could be prohibitive, there’s no doubt that Gvardiol has all the tools to become the world’s best centre back.”