Thursday 14 December 2017

James Lawton: Owners must spend big for Liverpool to close gap

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: John W Henry watches the game from the stands during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield on September 10, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: John W Henry watches the game from the stands during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield on September 10, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
James Lawton

James Lawton

When Liverpool owner John W Henry’s young wife was first charmed by the emotion and the wit of The Kop – and said she was eager to learn its passionate football language – some fans thought the waiting days might just be over.

Now, that early faith in the possibilities of a little pillow talk and John W’s billions is more than a shade strained.

Some relief might come with victory at West Ham’s London Stadium on Sunday, and a last step to Champions’ League football against relegated Middlesbrough seven days later, but it will hardly banish the belief that Liverpool’s American ownership is still a long way from a big-league football mentality.

The bitter truth is that their idea of Liverpool Football Club as a prudent work in progress is again in danger of looking like a competitive illiteracy.

It is so far from the way generations of supporters have yearned to see their heroes in the 40 years since Bob Paisley’s team pulled off the first of five European Cup and Champions League titles in Rome with victory over Borussia Monchengladbach.

Liverpool, the team that knew players as dominant as Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness and Tommy Smith, are not supposed to wait for the day they can spring out of the bushes. They are supposed to be ready, now, to claim the richest spoils.

They are not supposed to bring on players. They are supposed to unleash them. They are not supposed to take a bow for belonging to the upper echelon of also-rans.

What is currently so exasperating is that Liverpool are nearly men of some striking accomplishments, moments of superbly heightened performance but a dogged failure to hit new levels that can be maintained with some assurance despite a manager in Jurgen Klopp who has known the sweetest of success.

Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and recently even Emre Can, are capable of some exquisite action. But their support system is simply not strong enough and the failure to address this problem in the January transfer window may yet bring devastating consequences.

Liverpool fans long since ceased to invest emotionally in the promises of tomorrow and carefully laid out business plans. As followers of one of the 10 wealthiest clubs on the football planet, their need is to see them compete with the game’s heavyweights. They see the huge spending of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City not as some luxury of the very rich but the underpinnings of any great club’s realistic ambitions.

It makes the game in East London arguably the most important Liverpool have played since Rafa Benitez scored his improbable triumph over AC Milan in Istanbul 12 years ago and then two years later yielded to the same club in another European final.

A win that would come so close to ensuring a return to the top level of club football next season will surely make a demand by manager Klopp for a massive summer war chest less a big ask than a serious work requirement.

He needs players not of intermittent brilliance but professional certainties. As it stands, Klopp’s messianic leadership is in danger of becoming – for a second straight season – an engaging but ultimately empty promise. He has pointed the club to the stars once again with his extraordinary passion but once more it has become a flight bedevilled by too many malfunctions.

An unavoidable fact is that Liverpool remain under-equipped for the highest ground. They have some talented troops no doubt but not enough of them, which is why the reported interest of Barcelona in Coutinho has brought a heavy frown and fervent denials from Klopp this week.

The loss of Coutinho, a close friend of Neymar Junior, is a possibility hardly less discountable than that of Luis Suarez when he wearied of trying to cover the distance between Liverpool aspirations and their serious chances of major success.

Jamie Carragher and Dietmar Hamann, heroes of Istanbul, continue to hammer home the questions that came with the lack of action in January. Then, Klopp was quick to say that he did not lack support back at HQ in Boston, Mass., but his insistence that the right players were simply not available did not impress the veterans of that last European triumph.

Carragher said: “A major disappointment, whether it was down to the manager or the board, was not getting any reinforcements in January. I’m not talking about huge buys, I’m talking about numbers. Liverpool need something. If you look at their bench, they haven’t got anything like the playing resources of the teams they are competing with.”

Hamann makes a more sweeping point. He says that Liverpool are too soft in midfield, have a goalkeeping weakness and are too easily stretched in certain areas of defence. It is an indictment which, you must believe, can only be properly countered by a massive investment in the summer.

The challenge resides most pressingly in the manager’s office, where Klopp must identify significant targets and have the will to play a hard game with the owners. How he fares may also dismiss or confirm Hamann’s doubts that the owners were right to give Klopp a six-year deal.

What Liverpool’s following is certainly entitled to expect is a much higher level of investment from owners who have encouraged the belief that they are aware of the old glory – and are committed to restoring it. They are, however, declarations increasingly hard to square with a refusal to make the kind of moves which increasingly separate the big winners from those who travel in their wake.

The American ownership of Manchester United dragged themselves to recognition of this reality when they splurged on Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The outlay was huge and without guarantees but they saw that they could no longer see one of the world’s most famous football clubs as no more than a particularly sumptuous cash cow.

Whatever happens on Sunday afternoon, Liverpool also have to recognise that they too are facing an extremely expensive moment of truth.

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