Once the signing of Mohamed Salah is complete, Liverpool Football Club can finally bury an albatross. The Egypt international’s expected £39 million fee surpasses the club’s previous record payout, the £35m paid out to Newcastle United in January 2011 for Andy Carroll.
Carroll, sold at a £20m loss to West Ham just 30 months later, became symbolic of the transfer-dealing naivety of owners FSG, who’d been in charge of the club for just a few weeks when doing that deal. They eventually made a £50m profit on Luis Suarez, whom they signed the same week as Carroll, and sold Raheem Sterling to Manchester City for £49m in the summer of 2015, among other deals, but the transfer market has been a cruel mistress throughout FSG’s stewardship.
Salah’s signing will take FSG’s outlay beyond £500m at a club still bearing the scars of the “transfer committee” era, when expensive deals for the likes of Mario Balotelli, Christian Benteke and Lazar Markovic went sour during Brendan Rodgers’ reign.
Last summer, with Jurgen Klopp given a far greater say than his predecessor, Liverpool largely got it right: Southampton’s Sadio Mane (his fee £1m short of that Carroll fee) was the biggest hit of a haul that also included Joel Matip on a free from Schalke and Georginio Wijnaldum, a £25m signing from Newcastle who scored the crucial first goal in the 3-0 final-day defeat of Middlesbrough that qualified the club for the Champions League.
A year on, and even though the window is not yet technically open, the market is proving rather more difficult. Before the lengthy process of landing Salah came the Virgil van Dijk affair, where Liverpool’s apology to Southampton over an inappropriate approach to the Dutch defender betrayed fears of serious censure from the authorities. The club is already seeing out an academy transfer ban imposed in April after an illegal approach to a 12-year-old Stoke City player.
Peter Moore, the former Electronic Arts exec who became Liverpool’s CEO on Jun. 1, has found it tough going so far at least in transfer terms. After last season’s objective of returning to the Champions League for the first time since 2014 was completed, this summer’s dealings need to be as good as those in the summer of 2016 in order to keep fans happy and continue the upward trajectory.
“The talks we’ve had so far are very positive,” said Klopp in April of prospective summer targets. “That doesn’t mean it will all work out, but they are really positive and they all see the progress. That’s good.”
The fruits of those preliminary discussions so far are Salah and the opportunistic addition of Chelsea contract rebel Dominic Solanke, still just 19. There have been links with Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang since the end of the season but both players are beyond Liverpool’s reach, while the talk has gone dead on a move for Barcelona midfielder Rafinha.
It’s clear that some squad refreshment and reinforcement is required given that Klopp’s team almost crawled over the line. The dynamism before 2016 turned to 2017 became a memory as Liverpool withdrew from competing for the title towards protecting their top-four place. Mane, first when playing at the African Cup of Nations for Senegal in January and then after a knee injury in April, was sorely missed whenever absent, to help explains the eagerness to pay that high price for Salah.
The winger’s speed off the flanks can add another dimension to an attack that laboured, especially at Anfield, where opponents eventually learned to sit sat deep, frustrating and preventing the counterattacks that are usually the prime weapon of a Klopp-led team.
Depth is badly required in other departments, too, judging by the substitutes’ bench in the closing weeks of the season. Ben Woodburn, Marko Grujic and Trent Alexander-Arnold are promising talents who may well be stars of the future but should Klopp’s squad negotiate a tricky playoff round in August, they’ll be fighting on the dual-priority fronts of Premier League and Champions League.
Greater experience is required. Their move for Van Dijk betrayed Klopp’s desire to land a centre-back of poise and top-level capability, but the rarity of such players means they often go to auction to the highest bidder. A willingness to paying heavy prices would take Liverpool into fresh territory, since FSG have previously proved reluctant to compete with the heavy spending of the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal, who now habitually breach the £35m-and-over bracket that Liverpool had not broken post-Carroll. Salah’s price appears high for a player who previously struggled in English football during an 18-month spell at Chelsea, but is now the going rate for Premier League elite clubs buying talent from the continent.
As transfer prices increase, there become fewer shortcuts. To follow last year’s smart, successful dealings, Liverpool’s owners must now dig deep.