In their quest to find ever more creative ways to lose out on transfer targets, Liverpool recently released a statement apologising to Southampton and withdrawing all interest in Virgil Van Dijk. This is widely reported as a result of threats by Southampton to prompt a Premier League probe into the club’s approach for the player: he was allegedly ‘tapped up’. This is the commonplace but banned practice of approaching a player before receiving permission from their club – personal terms were reportedly fully agreed with the Dutch centre-back, but the Saints had not even given Liverpool permission to open talks. This is undoubtedly farcical and hugely embarrassing; fans have been left outraged, and to an extent rightly so. However, the anger can be roughly grouped into two categories: that directed at the individual failure of this deal, and that directed at the systematic failures within the club’s transfer policy of which this incident is endemic. The latter category is the more justified, although needs to be qualified. In the former category, the response has been excessive – losing out on this particular deal is not significantly damaging to anything except the club’s pride.
Let’s start with the incident as a self-contained problem. In this respect, frustration and a little wry amusement are the extent of the emotions that seem justified on the facts. Virgil Van Dijk is undoubtedly an excellent central defender, and having been identified as a top target most fans were very eager to see him come to Anfield. However, the prices being thrown around were steep – a bit of overpayment would probably have been reasonable in order to secure such a high priority target, but this will be discussed later. There are other centre-backs available – who one has to imagine the club have been keeping tabs on – who would likely represent better value for money. Koulibaly is a name regularly mentioned. He comes free of the ‘Premier League proven’ tag that seems to add millions on to any deal, and is just one of many viable alternatives. If the Van Dijk deal would really have set the club back sixty million pounds, which seems quite substantially in excess of his objective value, being forced by our own incompetence to look elsewhere is hardly the end of the world. The impact it will have on the club’s next campaign should be negligible: provided the vast sum we didn’t spend here is invested in another identified centre-back, which seems inevitable, there shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Indeed, some recent reports have suggested that the money could still be used on Van Dijk – this would only add to the farce, but the fact that the deal could still be on the cards demonstrates that the only genuine cost to the club is fairly substantial embarrassment.
However, as an indicator of wider systemic problems within the club, there are legitimate concerns about this failed deal. As mentioned earlier, Liverpool exhibit great reluctance to pay above their perceived value of a player: this is admirable in principle, but in practice sometimes makes it hard for the squad to be strengthened as it needs to be. The policy is not completely wrong, as many have been compelled to suggest in the wake of the Van Dijk saga, but it needs some flexibility. For young talent, it is very sensible; there is a large unknown factor in such purchases, namely development potential. If the club consistently paid over the odds for these younger players, the net loss would be staggering – for every Coutinho there are five Samed Yesils. Instead, the risks are kept limited and the potential rewards are substantial: one need only look at the fact that Coutinho was acquired for £7 million to see the truth in this. However, when looking to buy established players, there needs to be some wiggle room in the FSG policy. To their credit, they have placed a world class manager at the helm who has guided us back into the Champions League. Having done that, investment in the squad is needed – they are in principle prepared to provide it, but the strict rule about not paying over their valuation for a player is ironically at risk of making their money go to waste. If they won’t bite the bullet and pay the asking price for established players who are all but guaranteed to make an impact, less good players will be pursued in the search for ‘value’. This leaves the club at risk of regressing: it would be disastrous for the club to fail to build on their return to the European elite once again. Established stars inevitably come at a premium: this needs to be more effectively factored into Liverpool’s transfer model for the club to really kick on.
In this respect, the outrage over the failed Van Dijk deal is therefore understandable. It has brought to the fore the problems that we all suspected were there with Liverpool’s approach to transfers, and it has highlighted the need for adjustment. Hopefully FSG, and those in charge of transfer policy on a more day-to-day basis, heed this warning sign: if they do so, and do so rapidly, then it may well have been a good thing that Southampton embarrassed us over Van Dijk. In any case, the individual failure to capture him is far from the end of the world – I do still want him at the club, but there could well be cheaper alternatives that represent better value for money. In this sense, one can really sympathise with FSG: the quest for value for money is at least theoretically in the club’s best interests. However, it is by definition hard to find; sometimes the club needs to look past individual bad value and look to the value of bringing a big asset to the football club. The squad is two or three big signings away from being title challengers, or even major players in the Champions League: if we overpay a little bit now for a Van Dijk, a Salah or possibly even a Lacazette, significant rewards will be reaped.