Phil Noble/NMC Pool/PA Wire Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp with Virgil Van Dijk
splash the cash

If Klopp shops smart this summer then Liverpool will dominate the decade

Manchester City will bounce back while Chelsea are also showing signs of a revival but so long as Klopp learns lessons from the past then Liverpool will win more titles.

SCOTT SELLARS, IT is fair to say, is not a name that will be rolling off too many tongues around Anfield. Nor will you hear of too many Liverpool fans putting Matty Holmes’ stats into a Google search engine. Or Adam Reed’s for that matter.

The truth is younger Reds supporters won’t have even heard of those players while the older Koppites are scarcely likely to remember them. After all, what is there to recollect?

The answer is a trend. Way back in 1992, Leeds United did a Liverpool, bridging a gap from a half-forgotten era to the modern day, three years before Blackburn won their first title in 81 years. Each time, the crash was almost more memorable than the ascent, Leeds following their ’92 triumph by finishing 17th the following season, failing to win once away from home.

Blackburn’s sequel was similarly unwatchable. They finished 7th, 13th, 6th and 19th in the four seasons following their success, the seeds of their – and before them, Leeds’ – downfall sown in the summer after their breakthrough wins; Blackburn buying Reed for £200,000 from Darlington, Holmes for £1.2m from West Ham.

Neither made much of an impression.

Even so, they weren’t the worst pieces of transfer business in that post-title era, a dubious prize won by Per Pedersen whose 1997 sale from Odense was a record for a Danish club. He scored just one goal for Rovers.

Pedersen’s predecessor, Alan Shearer, found the net considerably more often but was gone a year after winning the title, following the trek that David Batty, the England international midfielder, had already taken from Ewood Park to Newcastle.

Now while there’s an easy argument to make that a club Blackburn’s size were always vulnerable to market forces, in football, no matter what the era, a simple principle remains. If you shop well, results will follow. If you don’t, they won’t.

It’s why Sellars’ arrival at Elland Road in July 1992 as a watershed moment for the Yorkshire club. He cost Leeds £800,000 – a sizeable fee in 1990s terms. Nine months later Howard Wilkinson sold him for a £100,000 loss after playing him just seven times. The rather more curious decision that season was Wilkinson’s decision to offload Eric Cantona to their biggest rivals.

Here is another of football’s underrated maxims. Smart managers buy well but the best ones are those who know when and who to sell.

And top of this unrecognised podium is Jurgen Klopp. While much – quite rightly – has been made of what he has achieved in the last five years, it’s worth pointing out that not only did the German identify talent that others couldn’t see, he also had the intelligence to recoup cash for those who didn’t fit into his plans.

A moment in January summed up the revolution. His Liverpool team were just after winning at Tottenham when Klopp arrived into the post-match press conference to point out how Spurs away on 17 October, 2015 was his first game in charge. Tellingly, none of the starting X1 from that latter day started on this one.

It wasn’t just that he’d shown he had an eye for a bargain – getting Andy Robertson for £8m, Sadio Mane for £34m, Mo Salah for the same price, Georginio Wijnaldum for £25m, Fabinho for £39.9m.

liverpool-v-crystal-palace-premier-league-anfield-stadium Darren Staples Salah has scored 92 goals since arriving for £34m. Darren Staples

The memories stirred by that Tottenham game had a pointed effect. “We had the same meeting room, same hotel as my first game, it was like being in a time machine, really,” Klopp said. “Nothing had changed. But the team has changed, obviously. We have tried to do it piece by piece.”

They certainly succeeded. It’s easy to forget now that the price Klopp paid for Virgil van Dijk and Robertson precisely matches the income Liverpool got from the sales of Danny Ward, Dominic Solanke, Andre Wisdom, Lucas, Kevin Stewart and Mamadou Sakho.

In football, a smart manager doesn’t just know who to sell but when to do it. Hence when Barcelona called, he listened. Philippe Coutinho hasn’t come back to haunt Klopp, much like Arsene Wenger’s decision to cash in on Nicolas Anelka in 1999 stood the test of time, especially as Anelka’s much cheaper replacement, Thierry Henry, did alright for himself at Highbury.

Like Klopp, Wenger and Alex Ferguson perfected the art of gathering cash from the sales of scarcely known players – Robert Pires’ £6m price tag being largely met by the departures of Jason Crowe, Tommy Black, Julian Gray and Stephen Hughes for an aggregate total of £4.5m. It’s safe to say those bits of wheeling and dealing worked out well for Arsenal.

That’s the task facing Klopp this summer. It’s hard to see how Xherdan Shaqiri, Adam Lallana, James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne fit into his future plans, given how they started just 13 Premier League games between them this season. For context, Clyne played 37 league games in 2016/17; Lallana featured in 31, Dejan Lovren and Milner in 36.

“I remember that first game against Tottenham when the manager came, and the intensity levels were through the roof straight away,” Henderson said in January. “Pretty quick it went very high. I was injured, but I was watching and everyone was racing around. That’s the way the manager wants to play, and now it’s the way we want to play, too. So he demands a lot, but we demand a lot from ourselves.”

The harsh truth is the players mentioned above aren’t meeting those demands anymore. There’s a two-tiered system at Anfield; Alisson has started 22 of their league games this term, Trent Alexander-Arnold has clocked up 31 Premier League starts; Robertson 28, Van Dijk 31, Henderson 24, Fabinho 17, Wijnaldum 29, Mane 26, Salah 27, Firmino 29.

champions-league-napoli-vs-liverpool Cafaro / Lapresse Robertson, signed for £8m, has started 28 league games this season. Cafaro / Lapresse / Lapresse

That leaves Mr Back Up – the kind of player who has the quality to step up when asked to but the humility to accept his place in the shadows when everyone is fit and available. John O’Shea ticked this particular box at Old Trafford, Steve Nicol, Sammy Lee and Craig Johnston performing similarly ego-free roles at Anfield in the 1980s before becoming stars in their own right.

History, once again, has never seemed more relevant to the present day. Liverpool’s greatest era was based on their unique ability to ruthlessly discard heroes and know when to promote the new kids on the block. Ferguson too was an expert at knowing when to re-energise his squad, Cristiano Ronaldo proving to be a rather smart replacement for David Beckham in 2003.

And that’s the template Klopp has to follow now, to identify tomorrow’s stars, players who would be willing to salute his officer class in their first year at Anfield but who’ll be seeking to usurp them in their second. January’s acquisition of Takumi Minamino from Salzburg suggests he’s already embarking on this policy. 

The best time to buy is when you are winning. Ferguson did, following up his breakthrough title by signing Keane from Nottingham Forest in a record deal. Then you have George Graham who reacted to Arsenal’s first league in 18 years by ditching John Lukic for David Seaman within a year while Jose Mourinho celebrated Chelsea’s 2004 title win, their first since 1955, by signing Michael Essien. It was Leeds who opted for Sellars; Blackburn for Holmes, Leicester City for Islam Slimani.

That’s what happens when you get it wrong. Get it right, and Liverpool could end the ’20s with another four or five titles. Shop well and this decade will belong to them.

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