The post mortem is underway into a second successive late January meltdown for Liverpool and this time, Anfield’s silent conductors need to face their own inquisition.
This has been a curious case of history repeating itself, as Liverpool have backed up an apparently significant victory against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City with disastrous defeat at Swansea that dented their hopes of a top four finish in the Premier League.
Then, to make matters considerably worse, they crashed out of the FA Cup against West Bromwich Albion last Saturday at Anfield to plunge the club into another mid-season mini-crisis.
Twelve months ago, a morale boosting win against Guardiola’s City sent Liverpool into 2017 dreaming of success, only for their dreams of domestic cup success in two competitions to evaporate in alarming fashion for manager Jurgen Klopp and his team of nearly men.
Defensive calamities, goalkeeping uncertainty and question marks over the club’s lack of spending in the transfer markets were topics dominating the Liverpool agenda as January came to a close a year ago and 12-months on, the same issues are lingering in the air once more.
There is no doubt that Klopp needs to take his share of the blame for two truly dreadful performances against Swansea and West Brom that may well have ensured his third season at Anfield ends trophyless, with at least two of the recurring flaws in the Liverpool team solely down to the German tactician and his coaching staff.
That Klopp is still juggling the blatantly unworthy talents of Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius on a weekly basis casts huge question marks over his judgement of goalkeepers, as the accident prone duo have proved time and again that they are not equipped to fill the Liverpool No.1 jersey and should have been replaced long ago.
What of the defensive lapses in concentration that have barely improved since the £75m signing of Virgil van Dijk? Well, Klopp and his coaching staff have huge question to answer on that enduring Achilles heal as well.
Yet Liverpool fans are no fools and while they will accept Klopp is not making the kind of progress they would want in key areas, the bigger focus of their annoyance in the coming weeks and months should focused on the club’s owners, John W Henry, John Werner and their Fenway Sports Group (FSG).
Welcomed into the club by Liverpool fans delighted to rid themselves of the despised duo of Tom Hicks and George Gillett in 2010, FSG arrived with a promise to steady the Anfield ship and guide the club back to glory days that have become an increasingly distant memory in an Premier League era dominated by Manchester United and Arsenal, with Chelsea and Manchester City latterly gate-crashing their party.
FSG’s move to recruit Klopp to replace the unfortunately discredited Brendan Rodgers as Liverpool manager in October 2015 was viewed as evidence that the club’s owners were as ambitious as they claim to be, yet a glance at the transfer balance sheet over the course of the last three seasons confirms otherwise.
As we head towards the end of Klopp’s fifth transfer window as Liverpool manager on Wednesday, the transfer profit and loss account being overseen by FSG and their youthful sporting director Michael Edwards makes for somewhat alarming reading.
While transfer figures are hard to clarify as most clubs now declare an ‘undisclosed fee’ for a majority of their deals, the widely reported figures of Liverpool player trading for the last two season reads something like this:
2016/17 season – £61.9m on signings, £76m on player sales (a profit of 14.1m)
2017/18 season – £154.9m on signings, £177m on player sales (a profit of £22.4m)
The balance sheet for this season is bolstered by the £142m sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona earlier this month, but how can a club of Liverpool’s stature be operating at a profit for transfer trading at a time when Premier League clubs are spending money like never before?
Manchester City look set to burst through the £400m barrier for player purchases since Pep Guardiola arrived at the club in the summer of 2016 with the signing of Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte in the coming days, while Manchester United have been spending their way towards success by signing star names like Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez over the last couple of seasons.
Amid that backdrop, FGS seem determined to turn Liverpool into a business that sells star names before they buy replacements, with their recent purchase of Van Dijk appearing to provide tangible evidence of that policy.
Independent.ie understands that Liverpool chiefs were reluctant to pay Southampton’s £75m asking price for Van Dijk at the start of December, but then changed their mind inexplicably and informed the selling club that they would hand over that club record fee after all.
Could it be that Liverpool made their move to sign Van Dijk once they decided to sell Coutinho to Barcelona? That was certainly the suspicion some Southampton officials raised after the second of those two deals was confirmed.
In essence, the ‘statement signing’ of Van Dijk appears to have been a deal funded by Barcelona’s cash and while Naby Keita will arrive at Liverpool in the summer for a fee that could rise to £60m, the imminent departures of high earners Emre Can and Daniel Sturridge will help to create space in the budget for that signing.
It is hard to imagine that this book balancing accountancy exercise is what Klopp signed up for when he agreed to end his sabbatical from the game to become Liverpool manager, but now he finds himself making excuses for his caution of his paymasters.
While the German’s charming skills in media conferences ensure he has enough intelligence to sidestep questions about FSG’s ambitions or the abilities of transfer chief Edwards, it is hard to imagine he is enjoying trying to match the Manchester clubs with one arm tied behind his back.
Now we wait to see whether FSG finally begin to show the ambition worthy of a great sporting institution like Liverpool FC because if they don’t, the passionately proud supporters attached to this sporting ‘brand’ – to use a term Liverpool’s American owners will associate with – are likely to make their feelings known very soon.
Liverpool fans have a history of standing up against those who they believe are undermining their club’s spirit and soul and the current owners need to tread very carefully to ensure they do not lose the loyalty of supporters who have every right to expect more.