Last season ended on a relatively optimistic note. Liverpool finished fourth, securing a place in the Champions League playoff round. The squad looked happy together. Names of multiple top-level targets were emerging. Fast forward to the first day of the new campaign, and the picture is much less pretty. Mohamed Salah is roundly acknowledged as a good addition, and the left-back deficiency of last season has been partially addressed through the signing of Andrew Robertson, but the same old flaws were undeniably present as Liverpool limped to a 3-3 draw with Watford. Two set piece goals only reiterated the desperate need for an aerially dominant central defender, and yet no progress has been made on bringing Virgil Van Dijk to Anfield. FSG told Klopp that the funds would be made available for his key targets, and yet blunders in the approach have seen Southampton stubbornly double down on their stance not to sell to us. Similarly, RB Leipzig have remained unmoved in the face of the club’s attempts to get priority target Naby Keita. This issue is only exacerbated by Coutinho’s desire to leave – despite their statement to the contrary, some emerging reports suggest that FSG are preparing to sell the Brazilian talisman. Klopp’s post-game comments could be seen to echo this sentiment. Coupled with Lallana’s absence through injury, the loss of Coutinho equates to a horrendous dearth of creativity in the middle of the park – this was clear for all to see at Vicarage Road. I have been a staunch backer of the owners for some time, but anything short of keeping Coutinho and bringing in at least one of Klopp’s two preferred players would be a clear indication that they do not have the requisite ambition to take this club forward.
A common argument in favour of FSG is that it is not lack of funds that is leading to transfer failures. This is probably true to an extent; it would be naïve to assume that the situation is black and white. However, in the vast majority of cases, there will come a point where an offer is simply too big to be turned down. Particularly in the case of Keita, it appears as though FSG have been unprepared to find that point – they made funds available up to what they considered reasonable, but not beyond that. Had Klopp identified a variety of targets, this would be fair enough. As it is, only a few quality targets have been lined up: given this, FSG can reasonably be expected to spend as much as it takes to get the manager the personnel he seeks. Furthermore, it would be wrong to assume that FSG are only responsible for finances – they cannot escape all criticism that does not relate to the availability of funds. As such, even though the Van Dijk move has been jeopardised more by tapping-up blunders than by costings, FSG cannot come out of it with no blame attached. By and large, they decide the club staffing structure – they have consistently decided against a dedicated Director of Football, and the lack of specialisation with regard to player acquisition has repeatedly led to big names slipping through the club’s fingers. In this instance, it has led to the shambolic apology purporting to end all interest in Van Dijk in order to avoid investigation by the Premier League. Fans cannot be expected to watch two set-piece goals fly in against them on the opening day of a new campaign and still unquestioningly cheer the team on: they have a right to demand that the obvious deficiencies are rectified, and at the moment it looks as though FSG’s ownership is jeopardising that rectification process.
The situation with Coutinho raises just as many questions about what is going on behind the scenes. Again, it would be wrong to place all of the blame at FSG’s door – Coutinho himself has clearly made things difficult with the timing of his transfer request, and Barcelona are probably also guilty of a bit of tapping-up. Nonetheless, there is clearly something odd going on: FSG’s definitive statement that Coutinho is not for sale actually preceded his formal transfer request. The natural inference is that there was a horrible breakdown in communication between owners, club and player: it seems likely that the hard stance was not adequately relayed to Coutinho himself, who duly took matters into his own hands following the release of the statement. Now there is the question of whether the request changes that stance; it would be a significant climbdown from FSG if the Brazilian was sold, but some reports are suggesting that this is exactly what they intend to do. Klopp’s cryptic comments about certain things being beyond his control reinforced this idea. There is no point attacking FSG for something they may not be guilty of, but if Coutinho does end up leaving then their position as owners becomes untenable. He is the best player at the club, and the lethal front line that has been assembled is crying out for creative service from deep: Coutinho is the man to provide that service, and if he leaves now it will undo all the good work that has gone into the front three.
It would be grossly unfair not to acknowledge this good work – Salah, Firmino and Mane are a trio all signed under FSG’s tenure, and they are up there with the best in the league. As the latest addition, Salah is the biggest pro-FSG argument out there at the moment: they parted with a fair amount of money to bring him in, and he fits the profile of what the club needed. For this, they deserve credit. That said, it is worth noting that Salah represented something of a bargain in the current inflated market – his goal and assist returns in one of Europe’s top leagues could easily have warranted a price tag far beyond the £35 million paid. This is obviously a good thing, and the club should of course look to be prudent, but the reality is that sometimes an astronomical sum has to be spent to bring in what is needed. It would be a cruel irony if FSG’s failures to strengthen the defence and midfield rendered the excellent attacking recruitment pointless. They have three weeks to ensure that this does not happen.
It is clear what needs to be done. Good as they are, the front three can only carve out so many chances for themselves – they need a creative midfielder behind them, and it is therefore of paramount importance that FSG do not sanction the sale of Coutinho. Equally, the defensive record of the last few seasons, particularly on set pieces, is not acceptable: Virgil Van Dijk must be signed, or we will keep on shipping stupid amounts of goals to teams such as Watford. Finally, as Klopp’s number one target, Naby Keita must be pursued with even greater determination – if it is what the manager wants, FSG effectively need to go to Leipzig with a blank cheque. Achieving two of these three things would be enough to stave off my growing concerns about the owners; anything less, and I can no longer view their time in charge as acceptable.
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