Sunday, April 15, 2012

What's Wrong with Liverpool?

Sure, it might seem odd to write a post about the demise of Liverpool FC after they booked their place in the FA Cup final, but the win at Wembley and their Carling Cup victory mask how far the once mighty club from Merseyside has fallen.

Currently 8th in the table, one point behind cross-town rivals Everton and 13 points adrift of 4th place Tottenham, Liverpool are staring at their third consecutive season without the lifeblood of modern European soccer clubs - the Champions League.  Once perennial contenders for the Premier League title (though they still haven't won one) and a place in Europe, the past three seasons have been calamitous for scarlet wearing Liverpudlians.  Anything remotely qualifying as success in the league last came in 2008-2009 when Liverpool finished 4 points behind Manchester United and qualified directly for the group stages of the Champions League. Each season since has seen the Reds finish further from the title.  So what has gone wrong for a team that has 18 League titles, 7 FA Cups, 8 Carling Cups and 5 European/Champions League titles in its trophy case?  

Liverpool's problems can be traced to three related areas: 1) Transfer strategy, 2) Management; and 3) Ownership.

1) Transfer strategy - Liverpool haven't done much right in this department for the past several seasons.  Sure there have been some shrewd pieces of business.  Luis Suarez was brought in from Ajax for £22.8 million.  Jose Enrique was purchased from Newcastle for around £6 million. Fernando Torres was sold, right around the time he forgot how to score, to Chelsea for £50 million.  However, there have been more misses than hits.

Liverpool's transfer strategy in recent seasons can be summed up simply - overpay for English talent. Andy Carroll cost £35 million, Jordan Henderson nearly £16 million, and Stewart Downing moved from Aston Villa for roughly £20 million.  That's a combined £71 million for 126 appearances, but just 12 goals. By comparison, Carroll's former club - Newcastle - spent £10 million on Papiss Demba Cissé who has already scored the same number of goals (10 in 9 appearances) this season than Carroll has in his entire time at Liverpool (10 in 50 appearances).  Throw in Demba Ba, who moved to the Sports Direct Arena on a free transfer from West Ham, and Newcastle have more than replaced Carroll's scoring for less than 1/3 of the price paid by Liverpool.

Beyond overpaying for English talent Liverpool's recent transfer strategy lacks coherence.  The Reds splashed out £19.3 million for Robbie Keane in the summer of 2008 only to send him back to Tottenham during the winter transfer window at a £7 million loss.  Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani has cost roughly £800,000 per appearance in a Liverpool kit (£22.1 million fee, 28 games), and spent the last two seasons in Italy on loan. Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky were both brought in for relatively small amounts of money, but neither had the quality Liverpool needed and both were given just one season at Anfield.

Jamie Carragher's poor defense allowed Robin van Persie
to score his first in Arsenal's 2-1 win at Anfield.  Clive Mason/Getty Images   
Why is it so important to have a good transfer strategy for Liverpool? Their core talent is aging and needs to be supplemented or replaced.  Steven Gerrard is 31 and oft injured. Jamie Carragher is 34 and has seemingly forgotten how to defend, and though still continuously running, Dirk Kuyt is on the wrong side of 30.  Quality needs to be added if the team wants to compete for a Champions League spot.

2) Management - Liverpool will never be able to keep up with the free-spending ways of the Premier League's nouveau riche, but the great equalizer will always be a top-class talent in the dugout.  Teams like Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton put competitive teams on the pitch thanks to gaffers that have mastered blending smart transfers with the talent at hand (to be fair, Arsenal and Tottenham spend a good amount).  Manchester United is blessed by a genius on the touchline and the cash to supplement their squad. 

King Kenny hasn't been the answer at Anfield
The past three seasons have seen three different managers in charge of the Reds.  Despite a rather successful tenure with the club (including winning the Champions League in 2005), Rafael Benítez left by mutual consent at the end 09-10 season.  The Spaniard was replaced by Roy Hodgson, who never seemed comfortable at Liverpool, the team floundered and he was sacked after just 31 games.  Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish was promoted from youth coach to replace Hodgson but has fared little better. Sure Dalglish had previously led the Reds during one the most successful periods in club history; however, the honeymoon is over. Liverpool look certain to finish no better than 7th, which would tie their second worst performance since the inception of the Premier League.

It remains to be seen who will be stalking the touchline next season, though one thing is certain if Liverpool wants to remain part of the 'Big Four" (or the emerging "Big Six" - throwing in Spurs and City) they need a top-class boss.

3) Ownership - Ownership is a sore subject for Liverpool fans.  The demise of the club can be traced to 2007, the year George Gillett and Tom Hicks, both owners of American sports teams, purchased the Reds. Gillett and Hicks seemed out of their depth from the beginning.  Neither had the financial clout to run a club with European dreams.  Consequently, large debts were run up, though there was little to show for it on the pitch.  Things were so bad for Gillett and Hicks that the duo nearly sold the club to Dubai International Capital just a year after their takeover.  Following the failed takeover, Liverpool sank deeper into debt and came just 20 minutes from being placed into administration.  It's pretty difficult to succeed with a financial cloud hanging over a club.

It won't take much for the new owners, New England Sports Ventures, to be better than Gillett and Hicks.  NESV purchased the club for around £300 million in 2010, erasing the club's debt and promising to invest in Liverpool's future.  NESV have been successful at turning around ailing sports teams in the past. Prior to their purchase of the Red Sox, the venerable Boston baseball club hadn't won a title in over 80 years.  They've won 2 in the 10 years NESV has owned the team. Time will tell if NESV can work the same magic on Merseyside.