From Milner to Ings: Liverpool's sensible transfer approach

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Brendan Rodgers summer transfer business to date has been undeniably sensible.

The Premier League: a brilliant, entertaining competition, but not an operation that anyone would go as far as suggesting was without fault. Or mistakes. Or utterly bizarre pieces of logic.

A carousel of former-player managers float around espousing 1960s tactics and wearing shorts. Andy Carroll is the most expensive British player in history and Manchester United, the best team in the country at the time, went several years with a gap where a midfield should have been – and got away with it. Everyone has their own list.

It is this light under which Liverpool’s summer so far should be examined, because juxtaposed against long-standing Premier League tradition, Brendan Rodgers and the rest of the club’s transfer committee have performed what history will surely define as something miraculous. Their summer transfer business to date has all been absolutely, unashamedly and undeniably sensible. Mark the calendar.

Individually or collectively, the signings of James Milner, Danny Ings, Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Bogdan and Firmino represent a clear, coherent plan that balances ambition and risk, Premier League experience and youthful talent, sturdiness and style.

They all fit together neatly into something like a decent line-up. They’ve crucially all been brought into the club early enough to spend pre-season together and even the apparent weakness still left over (up front) looks likely to be addressed in the spare month the club still has lying around. This is what sensible thinking looks like.

Here, to demonstrate the point, is what most people will agree – give or take personal sensibilities around the periphery and the presence or absence or Raheem Sterling – will be something like Rodgers’ starting XI next season.

(4-3-2-1): Mignolet; Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno; Milner, Can, Henderson; Coutinho, Firmino; Sturridge or a new signing like Christian Benteke from Aston Villa.

There it is. That’s it. So rarely does this kind of clarity of thought (and precise implementation) exist in the Premier League that it’s actually slightly disconcerting to witness. 

But this outbreak of sense isn’t just a break from Premier League thinking. It’s also a substantial break from Liverpudlian past. The aforementioned British record Carroll transfer was Liverpool’s doing and last summer the same club, in what appeared to be some kind of in-joke, spent Dhs595 million (£105m) replacing Luis Suarez only to realise sometime in September that they had bought – in total – just eight years of Premier League experience, amongst a set of players that struck a completely lopsided balance between pure, open-ended potential on the one hand and almost certainly-not-going-to-fit-into-the-team on the other.

Liverpool flops: Andy Carroll (L) and Mario Balotelli (R).

The culmination of that approach was the signing of Mario Balotelli five days before the end of the window, with the season already started. Rodgers seemed to get the player and then immediately decided that he didn’t really want him, proceeding to spend the next few months publicly undermining him. In the end, as anyone with either a memory or the passive-aggressive inclination to fact-check can confirm, that Balotellian Liverpool side finished sixth, two points ahead of Southampton, the team they’d just bought Dhs227 million (£40m) worth of players from.  

The thinking since then has been adjusted accordingly and, on top of the luxury of having a decent team that’s not full of holes, the main advantage to the new, un-bizarre strategy is as straightforward as the strategy itself.

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By simplifying their recruitment drive through buying known-quantities (Firmino excepted) and getting so many decisions made early, Liverpool have done something that almost every rival almost always fails to do: they’ve set up the potential for a quick start to the season. 

It sounds absurdly obvious (because it is), but with the likes of the Milner-Henderson partnership given a month to work together in advance of the season actually beginning, or, say, Clyne being given the same month to come to terms with his new team’s defensive setup, Liverpool have given themselves the best chance of avoiding the ritual back and forth of trial and error that still haunts the opening of almost every other Premier League clubs’ season. 

It’s the Jose Mourinho school of transfers. You avoid over-ambition and get your work done early, because the start of a season isn’t a free-form experimentation period designed for managers to explore the outer-limits of their creative instincts, it’s a part of a 38-game league season where every win counts the same, regardless of where it turns up in the fixture list.

The formations should be in place, the relationships should be on the way there and the performances should follow the first whistle.

This isn’t a trivial tactic, a superficial advantage that is washed away as soon as the games start; it’s formed the base for each of Mourinho’s three Premier League title wins with Chelsea, including last season’s. Each time he’s started quickly and each time his team has been free and clear of the rest of the league by December.

By avoiding over-complicated, prolonged procrastination, Liverpool get the same potential benefits as Chelsea did. They also engage in the spirit of Moneyball: they’ve found an area of the sport that is undervalued by opponents and can exploit it for their own gain until everyone else catches up.

When they play Manchester United on September 12, we will know for sure which team has played together more often and that is one of the very few meaningful advantages anyone could conjure when playing the third richest team in the world.

It’s that rarest of treats: shrewd management.

Of course, the scale of the impact such shrewd management might have on Liverpool is unlikely to be as dramatic as it was on Chelsea, whose shrewdness came paired with piles of money, where much of Liverpool’s this summer has come in the form of buying lower-priced players.

Unfortunately, you don’t win the Premier League these days merely by being a bit clever. But as any realistic fan knows, the game is about maximising your potential – giving yourself the best chance of succeeding – and by pulling out a simple, clear, sensible summer, Liverpool has done that. Mark the calendar.

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