Comment - Liverpool badly need to beat Arsenal after a week that again revealed their transfer spending is not right
It was 40 years ago on Saturday that Liverpool won at Anfield to lead the First Division by two points on the way to what was arguably the high tide mark of their glorious past: a season which delivered the domestic title, European Cup and narrow defeat in the FA Cup final.
This has been a week in which those days seem as elusive as ever. A pitiful performance in defeat at Leicester which considerably reduced the prospect of a second top four finish since 2009, the announcement of a £19.8m financial loss last season despite record commercial revenues and the bumper TV deal - and to cap it all Manchester United equalling the club’s record of 41 major trophies by winning the League Cup.
The numbers provide a clue to the reasons for struggle. The club lost money in 2015/16 because of the vast amount they paid out on players and a new manager, with £14.3m going out on agents’ fees alone – more than any other Premier League side, according to figures released in November 2015. Yet still the squad does not look remotely strong or deep enough.
The club’s principal owner, John W Henry, was proclaimed as the individual who would play the transfer market like he had the New York Stock Exchange futures market, when he arrived at Anfield in 2010. He was fascinated with Saturday’s opponents, Arsenal, because he’d been told by his friend, baseball general manager and ‘Moneyball’ exponent, Bill Beane, that they were the ones to copy. Henry even hired a sporting director, Damien Comolli, on the basis of the players, such as Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Gaël Clichy, the Frenchman had seemingly brought into Arsenal.
There is no way of ‘beating’ the transfer system, of course, and that is why Liverpool head into Saturday with all the usual uncertainties about whether they have actually made any progress at all in Henry’s seven years at the helm. The level of angst about why a team who had 16 days off to prepare for Leicester should have lost so comprehensively to them is hard to overstate but there was metaphor in the fact that Lucas Leiva, a 30-year-old central midfielder bought by Rafael Benitez, was in central defence, up against Jamie Vardy, the rapier fast player of the year with a point to prove.
The 4-3-3 system which is manager Jurgen Klopp’s article of faith seemingly cannot function when Jordan Henderson – a very good player on his day, though not a world class one – is missing from it, as he was after injuring his foot before Leicester. One of Bob Paisley’s articles of faith was a central defensive pairing who knew each other. Liverpool have had 20 different combinations under Klopp.
The money has simply not been well spent. It is challenging for any group of players being asked to play at Klopp’s required intensity – the title-winning Liverpool sides mixed it infinitely more, incidentally – but even more so when so much depends on so few game-changers.
Klopp made it clear on Friday that he has spending plans for the summer, though he did not attempt to hide that the greater recent success or metropolitan lifestyle offered by Chelsea or even United may make them more attractive than Liverpool. Or that if Barcelona tried to buy one Liverpool could fend them off, with Philippe Coutinho the most likely target.
"Transfers?" Klopp asked. "Of course we have to improve the squad. That is clear. Ok then. Two is a little improvement, four is modest, six is big. What are you looking at? Between two and six! Is it seven? I have no idea!
"We can go for the players we want to go for, I am sure. But can we go for a player Manchester United want to go for? If Man Utd make an offer, if Chelsea make an offer, does it make sense to jump in? I don't know.
"So is it then about money, or is it about that players think, 'Manchester is a nicer city or I want to live in London instead of Liverpool'?
"We have to make a decision apart from what the other clubs want.”
Within an hour of defeat to Leicester, the club were revealing the identity of their new chief executive – Peter Moore, currently chief competition officer at Electronic Arts - and the fact that he has no football expertise is strategic. Liverpool FC can run as a global commercial business, so the theory goes, while the football people – Klopp and sporting director Michael Edwards – look after the football.
The priorities are upside down. The money-making flows from football success. Some genuine football expertise would have seen to it that the two individuals who can wed the current Liverpool to their past – Carragher and Steven Gerrard – are at the hub of the first team set-up in coaching roles.
The future looks even more uncertain for the visitors, with all of Arsene Wenger’s Delphic talk about his future. Defeat at Anfield before the near certain Champions League elimination to Bayern Munich next Tuesday would confirm Arsenal as aside cast adrift, waiting for a new beginning.
In Klopp, Liverpool have the most charismatic manager since Bill Shankly; an individual with a capacity to drag his players through hedges, who is only just reaching the end of his first full season. But the side could drop to sixth by Saturday night if they lose and Manchester United win. The Merseyside derby on April 1could then be a fight-out for Europa League football. Somehow, the quest for those old Anfield glories feels as old as the hills.