As Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool prepare for next week’s encounter with West Ham Utd without a single recognised striker available to them – Luis Suarez facing the inevitable one-match suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards that his petty petulance wholly merits – the folly of one of the most disastrous periods of transfer dealings in the history of ANY club is once more laid bare for deserved ridicule.
In a six-month spell stretching from January 2011 to the summer transfer window, Liverpool lavished a staggering £85M+ to herald in the ill-fated ‘Second Coming’ of King Kenny Dalglish….the English Revolution that was to signal a bright new dawn at Anfield. But amidst the haze of abysmal signings and careless and incompetent sales shines three beacons of incomparable despair and hapless dealings; namely the £35M acquisition of Andy Carroll, the £20M splurged on Stewart Downing and the £14M spent on the services of Jordan Henderson! Virtually £70M frivolously wasted on players who, barely 12mths into their respective Liverpool careers, find themselves blatantly surplus to requirements and seemingly on an irreversible slide towards the exit door!?!
Following a typically intense and detailed Anfield medical that left no stone unturned – the same stringent demands that saw the permanently injured Alberto Aquilani sail through with honours – the injured Andy Carroll arrived as a direct replacement for Fernando Torres, having irrefutably proved his mettle during his debut six-month EPL campaign as the first-choice striker with boyhood club Newcastle. A reasonable return of 11 goals in 19 EPL appearances provided a tantalising glimpse of his future potential….but a fee of £35M?!? To put that staggering fee into perspective Man Utd paid around £27M for Wayne Rooney, Barcelona paid £34M for Spanish hot-shot David Villa, Liverpool themselves paid £22M for Luis Suarez – and a similar fee for Torres himself – and Man City paid around £38M for Sergio Aguero! With the exception of Rooney, all those strikers were established forces at their respective clubs, with international recognition and huge reputations to match. Negotiating a straight-£35M fee for Carroll rather than a deal incorporating add-ons based on achievement, was a criminally naive decision from the Anfield paymasters. Sir Alex Ferguson ruthlessly stated that there was no way he would’ve spent £35M on Andy Carroll; and that comes as some statement from a man who spunked £8M on Bebe!
With Carroll floundering under King Kenny’s inspired tactical system that included no wingers whatsoever, thus immediately negating his principle strength of dominating a defender with headers in the box, Dalglish and then-Director of Football Damien Comolli (himself responsible for signing gems such as Heurelho Gomes for £8M and £17M David Bentley during his time at Spurs) decided to engage the MoneyBall recruitment strategy made famous by Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics baseball team…a policy focusing on detailed playing statistics to uncover hidden talents in order to compensate for their disadvantaged financial position. And so, at a hideous expense skilfully avoided by the Moneyball pioneers, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson were enthusiastically added to the squad on the basis that their respective goal assists and all-round contributions would form the basis of Liverpool’s resurgence as an EPL force.
Stewart Downing had just enjoyed arguably the most productive season of his decade-long career at Aston Villa and, as an established England international squad player, rumours of Liverpool’s interest at a reported £12M was generally regarded to be a positive move to reinvigorate a somewhat one-dimensional attack. Villa had just sold Ashley Young to Man Utd for £16M so a fee of £12M seemed about right for the ‘lesser-light’ of mid-table Villa’s attacking midfield. Quite where £20M came from remains a scandal?!? Downing’s EPL debut saw him rattle a 25yrd rocket of a shot against the Sunderland crossbar, but few fans believed that would be the highlight of a truly dismal season at Anfield. Zero EPL goals and zero EPL assists from thirty-six EPL appearances saw Downing’s fragile confidence disintegrate with each passing week, despite his featuring so regularly in a tactical 4-4-2 formation that ought to have been tailor-made for his attributes. Okay, Liverpool’s wasteful strikers did little to aid his self-belief with their appalling conversion rate of the fifty-plus chances he carved out, nor did the inflated transfer fee help ease the crowd expectations of a naturally reserved player, nor did the impression that Downing was the second choice behind Spanish superstar Juan Mata particularly help his cause. But the end result was a £20M player whose confidence was shot to pieces! Downing is a relatively simple player; an orthodox winger – ideally on the left-side despite Dalglish’s insistence on playing him on the right to further diminish the impact of his naturally left-footed crosses into Carroll – who hogs the touchline and whips in the crosses. In Brendan Rodgers’ flexible 4-3-3 system Downing could not be less suited; the short, sharp possession-orientated and positionally flexible system encourages the front-three to be brave, inventive and creative as they rotate their positions. Downing is an out-and-out winger. Nothing more, nothing less. And he’s definitely not a full-back! Hence this one-time England international has been usurped by the fearless youth of Raheem Sterling and Suso….and surely a speedy exit from Anfield for a fraction of the purchase layout beckons….
Quite what Jordan Henderson did at Sunderland to earn his £14M move to Anfield remains, to many observers, shrouded in mystery. He did show some promise at the Stadium of Light, chipping in with some assists and the odd goal, but enough to warrant a substantial fee that could, if reports are to be believed, climb to £20M in the unlikely event that Henderson triggers the add-on clauses?!? Of course his debut season at Anfield was hindered by Liverpool’s now trademark insistence on playing people out of position (see strikers Djibril Cisse and Dirk Kuyt being utilised as right wingers, right-back Glen Johnson playing as a left-back along with the occasional stint for fish-out-of-water Daniel Agger, Maxi Rodriguez asked to attack from the left when his natural position is as a right-sided player and the diabolical tactical liberty of using Paul Konchesky as a professional footballer). Henderson is a central midfield player! Not a right winger and no more of a full-back than Stewart Downing! This positional uncertainty together with Dalglish’s routine substitution of Henderson almost regardless of his performance dented the youngster’s confidence to the extent that he now resembles a little boy lost…even when featuring in supposedly his favoured central role. And being touted out to Fulham as part-exchange for Clint Dempsey – a deal that presumably valued young Jordan at around £10M less than the fee shrewdly negotiated by Liverpool – was hardly the most resounding endorsement of his long-term future at Anfield.
These three signings beg the question, were they always hugely overrated players in an over-hyped EPL….their values inflated to ridiculous levels by the £50M from Torres’ sale burning a hole in Liverpool’s pocket and the obligatory premium added due to their English nationality? Can it really be the case that the pressure of being at Liverpool is so great that so many professional players lack the character and determination to succeed and instead buckle under the weight of expectation? Or is it a case of perhaps the most inept, misguided and incompetent example of supposed man-management from an embarrassingly out-of-touch Kenny Dalglish? His persistence with the mis-firing Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson – 36 and 37 EPL appearances respectively from a possible maximum of 38 – seemed in direct contrast to his treatment of Andy Carroll who, on the rare occasions he appeared to gain some momentum with a goal or even a half-decent performance, found himself rewarded with relegation back to the substitutes bench?!? Downing in particular was bought with the specific task in mind to supply the bullets for Carroll….why then did Dalglish insist on playing one without the other on so many occasions, particularly when considering his substitutions?!? While Dalglish cannot be held solely to blame for the extortionate fees agreed to acquire those three he would have had more than a passing influence on the club’s determination to snare his targets. Why then does it seem that he identified those targets with absolutely no idea how he was ever going to best utilise them in his system?!? The end result of this ludicrous folly is that a decent, if unspectacular player in Stewart Downing is reaching his peak at 28yrs old with his career in near-total limbo while two supposedly promising youngsters in Carroll and Henderson have seen their progress grind to an undignified halt, their confidence irreparably shredded with their every move subject to the most stringent scrutiny and the very mention of their names triggering a flood of ridicule and mirth.
The history books of the English Premier League are littered with big-money flops, with even the very best falling foul of the occasional transfer faux-pas. Sir Alex Ferguson must still shudder at the painful memory of his £30M capture of Juan Sebastian Veron….even though he somehow persuaded Chelsea to shell-out a barely believable £15M to take the Argentine misfit to Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho thought Shaun Wright-Phillips merited a £21M fee and Carlo Ancelotti continues to passionately absolve himself of all responsibility in the £50M deal to secure the services of Fernando Torres; his quest ably assisted by Roman Abramovich’s continued head-in-the-sand ostrich approach to the shot-shy Spaniard. Even the wily Arsene Wenger has found his fingers burned; Jose Reyes dismal Arsenal career saved Wenger from forking out a fee that, with top-ups would’ve soared to £17M but there was no small print safety net to escape his £15M purchase of Andrei Arshavin while Man City’s £18M swoop for Roque Santa Cruz ought to have permanently consigned then-Head Coach and all-round managerial God, Mark Hughes, to the scrapheap.
But few clubs have sanctioned quite such a succession of costly transfer disasters like Liverpool and, with current boss Brendan Rodgers scratching around for loan signings and hopeful punts – although the £11M purchase of Fabio Borini would suggest that Anfield’s transfer radar still requires a little adjustment – there can be few clubs who have hamstrung themselves quite so effectively with their recent transfer prowess as Liverpool. And when you add to the mix such shrewd acquisitions as £12M Ryan Babel, £17M Alberto Aquilani, £20M Robbie Keane and consider Rafael Benitez’s sale of the ‘limited’ Xabi Alonso to pursue the ‘infinitely superior’ Gareth Barry, there can be little surprise at Liverpool’s current status as a team deservedly languishing in mid-table mediocrity….