When your footballing allegiance is not even close to being a secret, it is easy to fall into the trap of overcompensating by excessively praising your rivals and underplaying your own club’s success. We can only presume that thought process led to Liverpudlian Tony Evans ranking the seasons of the top six clubs in the Premier League and placing Jurgen Klopp’s Reds in fifth, with Manchester United top of the pile and actual fifth-placed (crisis club) Arsenal in third.
Evans described 2016/17 as ‘a good, but not great, season for Liverpool’ in the manner of somebody who has watched too many trophies being lifted to get excited about finishing fourth. But through the eyes of a neutral (though I have to stop saying ‘Premier League neutral’ now that the unthinkable has happened), this was a different sort of triumph. This was a team rising from eighth to fourth, defying the odds and pundits that made them the slowest runner in a six-horse race to finish in a Champions League place.
Suggesting that Arsenal had a better season than Liverpool or that Manchester United had a more successful campaign than Tottenham without the context of wage bills, transfer budgets and expectations should – in my opinion – be the preserve of fans rather than those of us who make a living from football. Objectively, Liverpool and Tottenham both had great seasons in which they overachieved over a 38-game season, while Arsenal and Manchester United were flawed but at least partially rescued their campaigns with trophies. And Chelsea won. No caveats required. This is not pure mathematics and two trophies are not always worth more than one.
Evans goes on to say rather bleakly say that he has seen ‘few signs’ of the ‘shrewdness’ Liverpool require in the transfer market, but surely last summer’s transfer business was the very definition of ‘shrewd’. If recording a profit while making a team four places, 16 points and 15 goals better is not shrewd, then dictionaries need to change a definition that encompasses the word ‘astute’.
Wheat was successfully and profitably separated from chaff and the signings of Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Joel Matip gave Liverpool their joint-top scorer, their leading assist-maker and their most reliable centre-half…for less than £60m. How quickly such excellent business has been forgotten. If Klopp’s second summer as Liverpool manager is as successful as his first, Liverpool will be equipped for the Champions League just as they were equipped to claim a Champions League place.
“I’m really optimistic for our future, not because I’m crazy but only because I know what we have, I know what we will get, I know what we can get,” says Klopp, but it is difficult to see his positivity echoed among fans, many of whom have decided – as is traditional – by June 5 that this summer is a write-off. It is true that Liverpool will not be competing in the same market as either Manchester club or Chelsea, but that has been the case for longer than it may be comfortable to admit. Liverpool may lack money but do they have their own resource – a persuasive, successful manager who has traction outside of these islands.
In 2014, Brendan Rodgers claimed a Champions League place for Liverpool and then spent £117m on players without making one single ‘wow’ signing, with the possible exception of the unwanted Mario Balotelli. He failed to bring in a single player – with the possible exception of the unwanted Mario Balotelli – who would not have signed for Liverpool regardless of their qualification for the Champions League. When Liverpool needed to take a step forward, Rodgers was left floundering.
Contrast that with Klopp, already reportedly close to a move for Mohamed Salah, who claimed 15 goals and 11 assists in Serie A last season. Still only 24, Salah tellingly turned down Liverpool for Chelsea in 2014, saying: “I received a phone call from Mourinho and that changed everything.” Now Liverpool have a manager who can make the same kind of persuasive intervention. It may not make up a £50,000-a-week shortfall to what Liverpool’s Manchester rivals can offer, but it could sway players like Salah, Naby Keita or Alexandre Lacazette who operate just outside that top echelon of players who can name their own wages.
Liverpool’s record in the transfer market in recent years is just the wrong side of patchy, and last year brought its own mistakes with a lack of left-back arrival or long-term goalkeeping solution, but Klopp can already present Matip, Wijnaldum and particularly Mane as evidence that the trend could yet be reversed. When a former Bundesliga winner and Champions League finalist says he knows what Liverpool can get and he is still optimistic, he has earned the right to be believed and trusted.