Yeah, sure, the title is clickbait. A similar tactic is used by the utterly vapid ESPN.co.uk, who utilise antagonistic headlines to encourage hits on a plethora of shitty opinion pieces lamenting faux crises at ‘big clubs’ (usually because they failed to win one match) or their nauseatingly obsequious daily focus on Manchester United’s next vanity signing. State or insinuate something inflammatory and opposition fans that indulge in schadenfreude, or thinned skinned supporters of the club in question, will be drawn to it. Misery loves the company of confirmation bias.
But anyway, back to Liverpool. Their fans are miserable, jaded by a quarter century of false dawns. The latest occurred this January, when their title challenge crumbled due to a lack of squad depth and quality, itself a legacy of inexplicable January transfer window inertia and an equally perplexing lack of investment during the previous summer.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It shouldn’t be like this. Getting rid of the previous owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who, in an act of catastrophic stupidity, were prepared to see the club disintegrate to protect their investment, and the agony that process entailed, was supposed to give the club another chance at prosperity, only for rank mediocrity to become entrenched under new ownership – Fenway Sports Group.
The near Gillett and Hicks disaster coupled with the faulty perception of how their success with the Boston Red Sox was achieved (let’s note that the Red Sox have had the second or third highest payroll in Major League Baseball for most of FSG’s tenure), allowed FSG to arrive with the kind of enticing narrative that appeals to sanctimonious tribalism – they would compete financially but do so by being smarter than Liverpool’s rivals.
“We are committed first and foremost to winning. We have a history of winning, and we want Liverpool supporters to know that this approach is what we intend to bring to this great club.” – John W Henry 2010
There’s been precious little of that. Yet, as with most ‘big clubs’, Liverpool supporters are expected to finance, either directly through merchandise and ticket prices, or indirectly, through television revenue and various club sponsorships, a league title contender. For FSG being ‘clever’ is a euphemism for avoiding unnecessary risks, that means not wasting company profits on the sporting costs Premier League contention nearly always requires, particularly without any guarantee of it consistently bringing further dividends. Loyalty has its limits, by treating the fans as consumers, and asking them to pay a premium, you inevitably incur demands that the product matches the price paid, which Liverpool’s doesn’t and, the 2013/14 season aside, hasn’t.
Let’s give FSG some credit here. A few spasms on ticket pricing aside, so far they’ve avoided eruptions of mass hostility thanks to creating a cyclical paradigm that manipulates the desperation of Liverpool supporters for meaningful contention, never mind success, by offering them a new avenue of hope that it will finally arrive. Most often it’s through a change of manager, but another method is to publicly orchestrate a re-structuring of the recruitment apparatus. This is followed by fluff rhetoric that these changes will provide the correct execution of FSG’s moronically pious and illogical recruitment policy. This is business strategy 101: when a business is underperforming and the consumers start becoming wary – rebrand, or in this case, reconfigure it.
“Spending is not merely about buying talent. Our ambitions do not lie in cementing a mid-table place with expensive, short-term quick fixes that will only contribute for a couple of years.” – John W Henry. September 2012
It’s simple but also despicably clever stuff. Parse Henry’s comment above with the decision to partner Kenny Dalglish with Damien Comolli, before giving a technical committee populated by scouts and spreadsheet analysts (one of whom, Michael Edwards, has ascended, astonishingly, to be the current Sporting Director) parity with manager Brendan Rodgers, thus developing an aborted collegiate approach to identifying transfer targets, with how quickly FSG pulled the plug on both Dalglish and Rodgers, and it’s impossible not have grave doubts about their stated objective.
Enter Jürgen Klopp. FSG recognised that with underwhelming results, thanks to the damaging monetisation of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling, the decline of Steven Gerrard, and modest investment in new players relative to transfer income, particularly over the last three years, they had to rebrand their failing model with stardust. Plus, changing the manager, and hoping he can rehabilitate a squad of players perceived to be underperforming, is cheaper than buying new players and backing the incumbent (and often, at that point, beleaguered) manager.
The euphoria surrounding Klopp’s arrival afforded FSG another opportunity. He brought a sense of overwhelming relief that the club’s name was still relevant despite spending years mired in mediocrity post Benitez. This wave of optimism allowed FSG to complete a conversion faith. Klopp’s resolute self-belief and track record in unheralded and youth player development was, we were told, synonymous with their buy low, sell high monetisation formula in the transfer market. Finally, after three managers in five years, they had the man who had successfully implemented their strategy elsewhere, and now he could do it at Liverpool. They’d make money off the pitch through consistent Champions League qualification (after all, John W. Henry aspires for Liverpool to be like Arsenal), develop young players to be sold for profits, and Klopp would help them win on it. That the Premier League operates at a different financial echelon to the Bundesliga, and competition for Champions League places is fierce every season, was swept away by the mood. Liverpool had Klopp, nothing else mattered.
This brings us to the most ubiquitously tiresome defence of FSG, namely that it’s people who have failed their strategy, not the other way around. Such an argument may have had merit five years ago, but continuing to believe in it now, with six years of evidence, is utterly foolish. If it doesn’t work with someone as good as Klopp, what then? And if Klopp is the right man, the one they’ve been searching for during the last six years, then their lack of investment in him thus far, with a negative net spend of over £15m covering his first three transfer windows in charge, contradicts not only this but their often publicly stated intention to compete. If they aren’t prepared to spend under Klopp, when will they?
Contrast the following quotes from FSG’s Mike Gordon, in September of 2016, with those from John W. Henry in the first two years after FSG bought the club, and they become revealing:
Contextualise this with Liverpool’s recent expenditure relative to income in the transfer market, and this now reads as, ‘We’re not prepared to compete with anyone, and we’re not going to try either’.
A team that’s won one League Cup, five years ago, and that, on average, has finished sixth since FSG arrived. But why shouldn’t he be happy with the squad that they have and that they’ve been building? The underlying process has made and saved them money. The player largely responsible for that sole anomaly of a title challenge in 2013/14 was swiftly monetised. As FSG know, your top earners tend to be your most coveted and valuable assets, and what better way to minimise risk than to sell them at their peak value; money made from transfer fees, and money saved from wages. Let’s suffix this with its wider contextual goal – a large transfer income allows all other profit streams to be sequestered from ‘sporting demand’.
More importantly such weaselly spin leaves Jürgen Klopp in a virtually impossible situation, he’s fighting on three fronts; against rival clubs, many of whom sport greater resources or owners who are prepared to spend significant sums on the sporting operation, against the disingenuous approach of Liverpool’s owners, and skewed fan expectations that often fail to account for the applied realities of the previous impediments.
The expectation that a high volume of managerial turnover will inevitably occur is now firmly embedded within English football culture, and FSG has fed it red meat, having sacked three managers in six years. Doing so allows them to posit their managers, or a director of football, for failing its strategy and therefore the club. Demolishing good football men to distract from their machinations is unforgivable, that they can rely on fans to be wholly apathetic during, or worse yet accelerate, this process is wholly depressing.
We know Klopp will stand his ground and do things his way, as managers of his stature always do. But if progression is slow, and not linear, or if none is being perceived, doubters will develop in the far distance, looming with the sinister intent of a mushroom cloud. And it’s unlikely that the nuclear wind will blow away from Klopp.
I suspect Klopp now realises that the incessant pining for instant validation in English football, that’s driven by media intrusion, is just too vacuous, fickle and impatient to allow time for his developmental ideal. His reputation doesn’t help him either. Nobody expected him to work miracles at Mainz 05 or Borussia Dortmund, but because he did they now do at Liverpool, where expectations are cripplingly unrealistic given the owner’s unwillingness to spend thus far. As we’ve seen with Arsene Wenger, who’s now being thoroughly ridiculed by the most moronic and vociferous of Arsenal fans, attempting to succeed while moderating the capitalist faith, but failing to do so, is portrayed as arrogant, anachronistic, or even worse, seen as a mis-guided form of intellectual vanity.
Those who would conflate Klopp’s vision with FSG’s will argue that things will be different this summer. If that turns out not to be the case, either through ineptitude or intent, perhaps they’ll see sense or maybe they’ll argue that Klopp should speak out, as Rafael Benitez once did against Hicks and Gillett. If Klopp states that, as far as he’s aware, he’s being backed, it allows the blame to be placed on him for not spending.
This brings us to Liverpool’s new Sporting Director, Michael Edwards, and potential questions over his motivations and loyalties. He’s ‘impressed’ FSG enough to outlast the man who brought him to the club, Damien Comolli, and ascend from the position of Head of Analytics to Sporting Director in five years. Klopp may be used to ceding these responsibilities, and working alongside someone with this authority, but for his and the club’s benefit. Will Edwards? It’s his responsibility to get Klopp the players he wants, but to also placate FSG’s desire to spend as little as they can get away with. Edwards will likely aim to do both, but if that isn’t possible, just which side is he likely to favour? If we take Edwards’ remit as so, “Edwards will now lead the club’s overall football development, including player identification, acquisitions, sales and retention”, then one wonders whether have FSG placed someone whose loyalty they’ve earned through a series fast-track promotions into a position where he can obfuscate, manipulate and mitigate Klopp’s instructions and desire for investment?
I’ll concede that this is pure speculation. If Klopp is isolated in such a fashion fighting back becomes a Catch 22 situation for him, given his previous stance he could be labelled a hypocritical opportunist, and he knows that demoralising morale and attracting unwanted scrutiny by starting a mutiny would surely see his end. However, such a revelation from source is required to galvanise jaded minds into action. Liverpool fans know full well how costly it would’ve been had Benitez remained silent. But those were vastly different circumstances, it’s far more difficult to rouse support for boycotts or protests for just underachieving or for not spending enough, and unlike Hicks and Gillett, FSG, smartly, haven’t saddled the club with acquisition debt and threatened its existence, or potentially placed their control of the club in the hands of a third party.
This last point is important, as FSG are going nowhere any time soon. It’s a snide device wielded by those who defend the current ownership model, to contrast them with the dismal Gillett and Hicks experience whilst perniciously offering the hope that a takeover may be imminent. Believing that they’re just waiting for the right time to sell makes them and this purgatory bearable.
Still, just why would FSG sell Liverpool? FSG, then named NESV, bought the club for £300m in October 2010, ‘a steal’ according to them. At the time of writing, April 2017, it’s now valued in most quarters at over £1b. That’s an increase on the purchase price of roughly £100m per year. Given a slew of sixth, seventh and eighth placed finishes Liverpool’s performance on the pitch has done little to stunt this trend. The increase is largely thanks to the Premier League’s worldwide popularity, its grotesque domestic television contract, and Liverpool’s name still, in the modern context, being synonymous with success and relevance thanks to the Benitez years. Because the value of the club goes up irrespective of performance, all FSG have to do is just sit there, sack a manager every few years when the fans get restless about poor results and a lack of progress, sell a player for a significant profit every other year, and pocket the profits. Look at it dispassionately, and it’s simply smart business.
Not so smart are these joyless FSG astroturfers who have conflated Klopp’s ethos and FSG as one, there’s quite a lot at stake for them. Being right on the internet is really important. My impression is, without collating any data – suitably, there’s a direct correlation between statistical analysis and believing in FSG’s ‘model’. It’s understandable, FSG are their intellectual kin, and there’s pride in one of their own applying their methods at this level and at their club. Their arrival and their stated intentions of how they were going to win also popularised the debate around the use of statistics in football. Never mind that, unlike Baseball, football statistics consumed in a vacuum are a wholly inaccurate and arbitrary measure of performance and value, to which Liverpool’s scattergun transfer approach will attest. Surely these are just teething problems that all pioneers at the vanguard of progress suffer? Applying any form of spin or excuses to sustain their elevated sense of self-worth is justified, as FSG’s success would validate their expertise status on social media. It takes a special brand of delusion to defend FSG by denying the proven common sense that buying quality players and keeping your best ones tends to work quite well. Perhaps Klopp failing due to Liverpool continuing to not do this would be the epiphany? But as with Benitez before, by then it’ll be too late.
While fence sitting is a craven act, it’s understandable that many fans have opined that this summer offers the acid test of FSG’s ownership. Will Coutinho be monetised as Suarez and Sterling were? Will Champions League qualification change the scope of the transfer spending and the profile of their transfer targets, or will it be players that the club would’ve been able to sign regardless? There is a consensus that changes are required, and that leads us to consider the most important question of all – in a league filled with high profile, winning managers, leading teams who are expected to challenge and win, not all them can, and if Klopp isn’t provided the means to, just how long will he put up with it?
That’s something to ponder. The reality is Liverpool needs Jürgen Klopp, he doesn’t need them. He’s simply worked too hard to be dragged down into mediocrity for pure greed by empty suits that don’t care about him or the game. His talents and persona deserve support and patience, as, thanks to FSG cementing their also-ran status, Liverpool won’t get a better manager. FSG don’t, they’ve wasted enough time already, and have only shown themselves to be a cynical and manipulative body that has little interest in winning. So, something will likely have to give. Can Liverpool fans live up to their own billing as the most knowledgeable fans in the world? Most did so when it came to the crunch seven years ago. For the sake of their club and for Jürgen Klopp they need to prove so again and find ways of directing their future frustrations at the correct source of the club’s stagnation.