A year has been wasted at a time when Liverpool could ill-afford it.
April 12, 2023 2:52 pm(Updated 2:53 pm)
Liverpool’s failure to sign a high-level midfielder last season was sold – to supporters at least – as a positive. The club and its owners were refusing to compromise on their top targets and that target, his name flashed up in neon lights, was Jude Bellingham. What point was there buying burgers when you had fillet steak on order?
It made some sense at the time. Borussia Dortmund sold Erling Haaland to Manchester City and were not prepared to lose two of their jewels in the same summer. Bellingham, developing excellently and having broken into Gareth Southgate’s England team, was not publicly pushing for a move. Liverpool believed they were in pole position having pushed Manchester City all the way in the Premier League and reached the Champions League final.
But for the cynics, the strategy contained inherent and predictable risk. Three of Liverpool’s most-used midfielders this season are Thiago, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho – aged 31, 32 and 29. Liverpool played 63 matches last season, pushed relentlessly hard in every competition and then began this campaign knowing that there was a World Cup to fit in the middle.
Liverpool need midfield energy like no other team because they depend upon the effectiveness of their transitions. When they win the ball, they must pivot immediately to an attacking unit with the full-backs pushing high. When they lose it, those midfielders must become firefighters to fill in the gaps. Fail to do that, as they have so often since August, and the fear sets into every player behind them. Silly mistakes happen; decisions are made badly or made so late that they become bad by default.
And now for the unfunny punchline: Bellingham is reportedly now out of reach. The spin is that Liverpool would prefer to focus on rebuilding the midfield rather than buying one glamour signing. There is logic here too, in the cold light of day: spending more than £100m on a single player when you need at least two (and maybe three?) midfielders is also a risk.
But if this is merely a strategy pivot and not an admission of defeat, why did they not just rebuild last summer? Many of the names mentioned – Matheus Nunes, Youri Tielemans, Conor Gallagher and Moises Caicedo – could have been signed last year if the price was right. And in the case of Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister, the prices have significantly increased over the last 12 months.
Firstly this is a PR problem for FSG at a time when Liverpool’s owners are coming under increasing pressure from supporters. Some of this is unfair entitlement: no club has the right to compete at the top end year on year and Liverpool have enjoyed more days in the sun under FSG and Jurgen Klopp than in their previous three decades combined. But the allegation is out there: Klopp is the master of this era, not them, and this doesn’t help.
The pursuit of Bellingham, pushed down the road, has been used as a carrot for supporters and has now seemingly become a mirage. They feel lied to. It reminds of the Alex Ferguson quote: “If your destiny depends on one person, then you have not built a very solid organisation.”
More importantly, a year has been wasted. Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Henderson, Andrew Robertson and Fabinho are all 12 months older and seem to have aged more quickly than that over the course of this season. Liverpool basically chose not to rebuild their midfield in order to wait for one player, thus risking a fallow year. And then because they suffered a fallow year, they now aren’t going to sign that one player.
If this represents the most significant misstep of the FSG era, they can ill-afford for that to become a second mistake – the rebuild now has to work. With Manchester United re-rising and Newcastle United rising, Chelsea and Tottenham unlikely to be so chaotic and limp respectively again and with Arsenal becoming a title challenger to Manchester City, standing still is the same as moving backwards.
And that is where Liverpool find themselves, with the same dilemmas as last summer but with fewer options and a starting position from far further backwards than where they were. It all feels so deeply demoralising because it was so damn predictable.