And so for Liverpool, Burnley at Anfield next Sunday becomes the acid test and that, it is fair to say, is a sign of the times.
Having defeated Arsenal, Jürgen Klopp was in a reflective mood. He thought back to Liverpool’s beating Manchester City on New Year’s Eve, and contrasted it with the wider feeling that followed two days later having played against a lesser opponent.
“We won 1-0, if this victory had given us as much confidence as the draw at Sunderland had given us a knock, then everything would be fine, but it was not like this,” he said. “Man City was: ‘We can do it sometimes’, Sunderland was, ‘Yeah. That is the usual face.’”
Klopp was emphasising a point he’d already made about society. “We let the bad things influence us more than the good things, otherwise we’d celebrate our birthday maybe longer than one day.”
Perhaps the most accurate assessment of where Liverpool really are at came next: "If we judge the players after the best game of the season, then we sign a contract for another six seasons,” he concluded. “If we do it after Leicester then you change the whole squad. But the truth is always in between.”
It was an admission, then, that right now Liverpool are a work-in-progress. “You say it is about quality, and sometimes probably yeah, we don't have the quality,” Klopp continued. “But with quality you have potential, and you make quality with work.”
The danger for Klopp is, for the last six years that has consistently been the line from his employers, Fenway Sports Group: the one that hints at a brighter future being ahead, albeit one that is never delivered because Liverpool’s better players get fed up with waiting for a collective potential to be realised and end up leaving before trophies and medals are achieved, leaving Liverpool back at square one. Supporters know about the unhealthy cycle, patience is becoming thinner and so, if Klopp is using the same message in a year’s time it is fair to assume he will not be as popular as he is presently.
Fenway remain convinced of their strategy which involves overpaying for young players before anyone else supposedly notices them and Klopp should be aware that while two other managers have been and gone, the strategy remains and so does Michael Edwards, who was officially appointed as the club’s sporting director in November when it seemed Liverpool would be in a title race. For the previous eighteen months, it had been Edwards’s responsibility to identify targets through his scouting network and extensive statistical data programme, before negotiating deals with clubs, players and their agents.
If Klopp’s future is influenced by FSG’s history, FSG’s beginning is linked to what went before them. Perhaps the most significant information coming out of Liverpool last week, indeed, related to its financial results, reflecting a long-term reality. ‘Liverpool is the only club in the top ten of the Deloitte football money league that didn’t play in the UEFA Champions League last season,’ a statement read. Liverpool interpreted this achievement as a demonstration of strength by its commercial operations to ‘support the reinvestment into the playing squad.’
Ian Ayre is gone now but since the arrival of FSG towards the end of 2010, one of his consistent claims has related to the determination of Fenway to capitalise on Liverpool’s global appeal in a way neither either of the previous owners were supposedly able to. Ayre perceived it as a failure the decision not to have Anfield’s merchandise store open the morning after all staff had been invited to Istanbul to witness what proved to be an improbable 2005 Champions League final victory over AC Milan.
And yet, if it is objective to analyse performance over a five-year period, which it surely is, it is worth remembering that on average Liverpool’s standing in the Deloitte league between 2004 and 2009 was one place higher than it is now, ignoring 2010 as a year for any sort of reasonable conclusion considering the mess Tom Hicks and George Gillett had left it in.
While Fenway might defend their record since by pointing out that new financial challenges across Europe have emerged - most notably from City and Paris Saint-Germain - this can be offset to some extent by the fall of major Italian clubs like AC Milan and Inter Milan in relation to the standings.
If the position in the Deloitte money league really is relevant, it reflects just how Liverpool are underperforming, especially when you compare it to UEFA’s rankings.
Between 2004 and 2009 Liverpool’s average place in the European game was fourth. In the last five years under FSG it has fallen to 27th. It means that back then – in the supposed bad old days when Anfield’s merchandise store was closed after arguably the most glorious night in the club’s history – Liverpool were punching four places above their weight financially and now, they are 18 places below roughly where they should be.
Domestically, Liverpool are the fifth English club in last year’s Deloitte findings – as they have been for the last five years and if finance counted for everything, that would have resulted in consistent appearances in the Europa League rather than the Champions League – affecting Liverpool’s UEFA ranking. And yet, this is a period where Liverpool’s average finishing position in the Premier League has been sixth anyway.
If the 2015/16 Deloitte table is to be taken as something to be proud of about then consider this: Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton and West Ham were all below Liverpool in that table but finished above them in the Premier League last season: a season where Liverpool’s wage bill was confirmed at £208 million, which was bigger than City’s and Arsenal’s.
The most serious question Fenway should be asking themselves is this: if Liverpool have the resources of a top ten European club, why is the team’s performance on the field nowhere near that of a top ten European club?
Fenway can remind of the carcass they inherited but it seems unfair to have it both ways because they bought Liverpool on the cheap and if you compare any work to some of the worst months in the club’s history, then you are always going to be better. How many years of grace do they deserve? It seems unbalanced to claim credit for being in the top ten of the money league and always remind that they inherited problems - surely those problems have been solved to get them so high with Deloitte so consistently?
There can only be one conclusion: Liverpool have spent but they have not spent well under FSG and for that, the responsibility is layered between the owners themselves because they make the appointments and the people they have brought in or promoted: Damien Comolli, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers, the old transfer committee members, Dave Fallows and Barry Hunter; Ayre, the former chief executive, Michael Edwards – and to a much lesser extent, the current manager.
On Friday Klopp revealed he is planning an overhaul at Liverpool and though he did not confirm numbers, Liverpool will need as many as six signings if the club return to Europe’s top table by dining in the Champions League.
In his public role – now that everyone knows what he’s supposed to be doing - it brings a sharper focus onto the work of Edwards. Again, Liverpool are facing another one of those defining summers.
Independent News Service
Arsene Wenger reminded critics on Saturday night that he was responsible for Alexis Sanchez’s development as an Arsenal player and said he had “no regrets” about dropping him from the team that lost 3-1 at Liverpool.