Premier League history tells us Liverpool should spend this summer – but Reds have already proven different
For all his motivational mantras, Jurgen Klopp is not given to conventional wisdom.
Take what happened in the summer of 2019, which is even more relevant in the summer of 2020.
The expectation – and huge external pressure – was that Liverpool would sign a first-team player. The general feeling was that the performance level of 2018-19 was unsustainable, and that they needed something extra to get ahead of Manchester City anyway. It is what teams who finish second always do. It was what Liverpool always did in the 29 years since their last title.
Klopp felt all that was irrelevant. He knew what stage of development his team were at. He knew any new signing could disrupt that. He was emphatically proven right.
A year on, he is being confronted with similar conventional wisdom. The belief, primarily articulated by Sir Alex Ferguson, is that you buy when on top; that you have to use your position of strength; to kick on.
It was also something said at Liverpool and is at the core of discussion over whether dynasties can be formed, whether you can go on and dominate.
This is now the next challenge for Klopp. This is what Liverpool are supposed to really be about, especially given they are now one title away from matching Manchester United and reclaiming their status as the English league’s most successful side.
It does instinctively feel like it is inviting risk to go a second consecutive summer without a major signing, especially when clubs like Chelsea are making such moves. There’s then the rare – and potentially fleeting – advantage that the club’s status is more attractive than ever. Liverpool genuinely have stars desperate to play for them. It is a rare position of power, that they have grafted for, and previously would have dreamed of.
That’s the reality although word around the club is mixed.
Many feel FSG just won’t spend in a market as uncertain as this, because that’s just not how they do business. They will wait until there is clarity on the issue of TV rebates and supporters returning, especially given the importance of the latter as a revenue stream. The refusal to go for Timo Werner points to this.
Others believe this might be too canny in a market as flat as this, and that there are real deals to be done. There are some suggestions Liverpool will make the right deal if it becomes available. They have made contact with Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, and he would be exactly the kind of wing-forward they want. They would also be willing to wait a year.
But do you miss out if you wait? That question doesn’t just apply to Sancho.
The examples of previous new Premier League champions – to compare to the modern era – are instructive.
How previous new champions reacted
Manchester United 1992-93
Average age of best XI: 27.4
Transfers: Roy Keane, £3.75m
Next season: 1st
Blackburn Rovers 1994-95
Average age of best XI: 25.7
Transfers: Matty Holmes, £1.2m
Next season: 7th
Average age of best XI: 29.2
Transfers: Freddie Ljungberg, £3m; Nelson Vivas, £1.6m; David Grondin, £500k
Next season: 2nd
Average age of best XI: 25.7
Transfers: Michael Essien, £24.4m; Shaun Wright-Phillips, £21m; Asier del Horno, £8m; Lassana Diarra, £1m.
Next season: 1st
Manchester City 2011-12
Average age of best XI: 27
Transfers: Javi Garcia, £17m; Jack Rodwell, £12m; Matija Nastasic, £13m; Scott Sinclair, £6.2m; Maicon, £5m;
Next season: 2nd
Leicester City 2015-16
Average age of best XI: 28.8
Transfers: sold Kante; signed Islam Slimani, £28m; Ahmed Musa, £16m; Nampalys Mendy, £13m
Next season: 12th
Manchester United ended their 26-year wait in 1993, and then broke the British transfer record for Roy Keane. He went a long way to ensuring that wasn’t a solitary title. Chelsea continued their spree in 2005 – most prominently bringing in Michael Essien – and continued their domination. Arsenal were tentative in 1998, signing a young Freddie Ljungberg as an alternative, and allowed United to overtake them. Blackburn Rovers only bought Matty Holmes in 1995 and collapsed. Leicester lost N’Golo Kante in 2016 and lost their way.
There were bigger reasons for how the latter two declined, and that reflects how this isn’t as simple as signings. It is true that the bolder teams in those cases continued their success, but it’s really about the state of development of a squad, and at what point the manager thinks they’re at. It’s also about whether they even need signings. That is hard to say with Liverpool, but that’s also where managerial insight and foresight makes such a difference.
There were many summers, after all, when Ferguson just kept United ticking over with minimal or low-profile purchases. Among them were 1994, 1995, 1999 and 2009. You would think the most commanding period of dominance in English football would require more signings than David May and Tony Coton in consecutive summers, but this was what happened.
It also so happened Ferguson had the finest group of academy graduates the game had seen. They were ready for so much. Liverpool don’t have that profile, but do have broadly similar questions.
Where are they as a side? How long have they got left together?
The average age of the best XI is 27.1, which is in the middle of other first-time champions. Arsene Wenger really had to replace a mid-30s defence by 1998, which is perhaps one reason they didn’t get near United in 2000 or 2001.
But this is much more complex than directly comparing. It is not just about how long the players have lived but how long they’ve played together.
A wealth of evidence from football history indicates the most any group has together at the top is three or four years. At that point, the mental energy naturally subsides, and they need significant refreshment.
This is also where it’s hard to say with Liverpool. The signing of Virgil van Dijk probably represents this particular side’s coming together, and coincided with their first real achievement, in reaching the 2017-18 Champions League final.
They have been at their absolute best, however, since that point. What people will always remember about this side are those record-breaking 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.
But the aim is obviously to give them many more memories.
So many points over such a long time does seem unsustainable, and there is that suspicion the team has now peaked.
At the same time, that is something else that was said last year. Klopp proved that wrong, just as he’s proved every other concern about this team wrong. It would be in-keeping with this reign to just keep going.
Tied to this is the question over how long some of the players can keep going. Each of the front three, for example, are now over 28. That isn’t individually a problem – and you only have to look at Cristiano Ronaldo or Edinson Cavani for how modern attackers keep scoring well into their thirties – but you would maybe ideally want a bit more variance within a collective.
That is where another line from 2019 may be relevant: “development from within”.
Liverpool do have players coming through. Many at the club have been awaiting Curtis Jones’ impact. There are no questions about his talent but there are some about whether he completely suits Klopp’s frenetic approach. Neco Williams is meanwhile a ready-made alternative for Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The logic of signing players like Takumi Minamino, then, is to gradually adapt them to the side without needing to regularly break up a forward line like Liverpool.
That shouldn’t be overlooked in all of this. Liverpool haven’t followed the conventional wisdom generally. They have made this team by pointedly not signing first-team stars, but bringing them in before their best.
It is why not signing big this summer doesn’t mean this team are past their best. It certainly wouldn’t be wise – conventionally or otherwise – to doubt them.