How do Liverpool finally attract “star quality” players?

Brendan Rodgers has admitted that it “wasn’t through want of trying” that Liverpool failed to sign star quality players in the summer. Ahead of the trip to Old Trafford, Rowan Dix ponders why Liverpool fail to attract the quality of player they desire.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, September 19, 2010: Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard MBE leads his side out for the Premiership match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There was a rare turning of the tables in the summer. For once, we had the allure of Champions League and Manchester United didn’t.

However, even without the Champions League incentive, Man Utd still attracted world-class talent in Angel Di Maria and Rademel Falcao, plus up-and-comers like Daley Blind.

And yet, even with Champions League to offer, Liverpool sold its only world-class talent (perhaps unavoidably), and could only attract a clutch of decent “mid-table stars” (from the over-achieving Southampton in particular), a sprinkling of young talent, and as a last resort – arguably one of the most iconically lazy and unprofessional strikers in world football.

Coming off sixth-place, no CL, and a season of ‘crisis and decline’, Man Utd remained an attractive world-class proposition.

But coming off a second-placed title challenge, CL qualification, and glittering headlines about our attractive and dynamic attacking style, Liverpool remained ‘second-tier’ in the eyes of Europe’s top talent.

For whatever reason, Champions League qualification was still nowhere near enough to finally overtake Man Utd in terms of prestige and reputation. Why?

Of course, the comparison goes well beyond Man Utd:

  • Chelsea attracted Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, who are both thriving in the club’s dominant season.
  • Arsenal (who finished five points behind us and got smashed 5-1 at Anfield at the height of our surge) beat us to Alexis Sanchez.
  • The champions Man City, while quieter than others last summer, are able to reach out and snare star players like Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure, when needed.

This is now a 20+ year pattern, through three different owners and seven different managers.

Arguably the last time Liverpool attracted a ready-made world-class player was Fernando Torres for about £20-million in 2007 (still a lot of money at the time – and probably akin to £40-million or more today). That was on the back of two Champions League finals in three years, including the legend of Istanbul.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Saturday, March 14, 2009: Liverpool's magnificent captain Steven Gerrard MBE celebrates scoring his side's second goal, from the penalty spot, to put his side 2-1 up against Manchester United with team-mate Fernando Torres during the Premiership match at Old Trafford. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I haven’t counted Luis Suarez, who arrived for £22.5-million as a promising but unpolished talent, and left as a world-class player three-and-a-half years later.

Both Torres and Suarez arrived amid excitement, came close to winning a title, ultimately couldn’t fulfil their ambitions, and chose to leave for ‘bigger clubs’ after a few years.

By contrast, the quartet of United, City, Chelsea and (to a lesser extent) Arsenal, seem to attract at least one ready-made world-class signing every couple of seasons, as well as going into overdrive with two or three big names when renewal is required. Since Torres signed for Liverpool seven years ago, all of those rivals would’ve signed (and mostly retained) at least four to five would-class players.

So – is it just a question of financial power, and those billionaire clubs consistently out-bidding us with transfer fees? That’s undoubtedly a factor. For example, Di Maria at 60 million was out of our range (except perhaps as a direct in/out for Suarez).

But given that most of these world-class players are going to rival clubs for very matchable fees (eg. Costa – 32-million / Sanchez 30 to 35-million / Fabregas 26-million), I don’t think it’s anywhere near the main reason.

In general, we’re not talking about unmatchable £50-million transfers here. Liverpool’s main signings each season (while of arguably lower calibre) are already approaching those same fees, give or take a final bit of sweetening.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 25, 2012: Liverpool's owner John W. Henry and wife Linda Pizzuti during the Football League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg against Manchester City at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The increasingly-militant Rodgers and FSG haters will predictably lay the blame there – claiming the ‘inexperienced’ manager and hierarchy are appalling judges of talent who somehow lack the wisdom to even spot, appreciate and want these established world-class players in the first place… or that Rodgers lacks the stature and reputation to coerce big egos (compared to Mourinho and Van Gaal, etc)… or that they’re too obsessed with the ‘romantic’ notion of developing our own young talent, to the detriment of the here and now.

Some crazies have even started slagging-off Rodgers because he’s Northern Irish, and must therefore be some kind of stupid, shifty, con-artist who’s full of “blarney”! While I understand the pain of our current plight, that’s just sad, prejudiced loser talk.

And again – I mostly disagree. Whatever criticisms you label at Rodgers and FSG, it’s irrational to suggest they just ‘don’t bother’ trying to sign world-class talent because they’re somehow obsessed by some less ambitious model of success.

There’s no doubt Rodgers would’ve preferred Sanchez to Markovic in the summer. With some sensible offsets, Liverpool could afford the £30 million price. But Sanchez didn’t want to come.

Rodgers would’ve preferred Diego Costa to Balotelli. If you’d used the Balotelli and Lambert fees (and maybe forgo another lower-level signing), and the club could afford him. But Costa chose a ‘bigger club’.

Rodgers would’ve preferred Fabregas to Emre Can. We could surely afford 26-million. But Fabregas chose Chelsea instead.

I’m not saying Rodgers did or didn’t actively target those particular players. I’m simply saying:

A) If targeted as priorities, the club could afford to compete, have a bid accepted, and reach the contract stage with these top-level players.

B) Whatever your other criticisms, Rodgers and FSG are smart enough to know you need at least some special world-class players to compete… and they would’ve tried to sign them.

So – there must be something else going on in the hearts and minds of these top-level players themselves, when presented with the chance to join Liverpool.

As well as Champions League this season, we’ve permanently got more money, more fans, more history, more pedigree, better facilities and more prospects than battling mid-table sides. So why are we competing for the very same players as those mid-table sides instead of attracting the really elite cream?

There must be other reasons why United, City, Chelsea and Arsenal can compel a signature out of the best players in the world (or at the very least – Barca and Real’s excellent but out-of-fashion offcuts), while we’re constantly left settling for promising youngsters and the best players from mid-table sides, in the hope they can step up.

If our failure to sign ready-made world-class talent isn’t explained by lack of money, ambition or effort, it must be something else behind the scenes.

Solve that… and you go a long way to solving Liverpool’s two-decade curse.

Rowan Dix