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By Paul Tomkins.
Before going any further, if Luis Suarez wants to leave Liverpool FC, then the only issue is one of acquiring the best possible transfer fee. Various quotes are appearing in the media, with the player’s words being analysed and different meanings construed. As I write, the latest is that he’s quoted as saying that he definitely wants to leave.
Above all else, I don’t think he’s the kind of player, both in terms of ability and personality, to keep hanging about if he’s unhappy. He’s someone that needs to be smiling. He’s been at Liverpool for two and a half seasons, and although the club and its fans have stood by him through difficult times, he hasn’t got to play Champions League football. He joined without it being on the table, but presumably the plan was to be in it by now. He turns 27 next season, and by conventional standards that will mean he’ll be at his peak.
I’ve no doubt that Suarez has been his own worst enemy. However, I do agree with him that he’s been badly treated by the media and the FA. His bans have been longer than English players, for example. For alleged racism and biting, John Terry and Jermain Defoe received a four game ban and a yellow card. Suarez got 18 games. And the whole Evra affair remains based on anecdotal evidence rather than hard facts. He may have been guilty, but the case against him would have been thrown out by a court of law, as word of mouth is not true evidence.
Suarez, as an individual, is sensational. And he works hard for the team. But perhaps the team has to work too hard to accommodate him. I’ve been saying for months, ever since the infamous bite on Branislav Ivanovic, that Liverpool fans should not fear the departure of the mercurial talent. If football was a game of one vs one, he’d be up there with Lionel Messi as my pick. But it’s not.
At that time of the bite I made the point that Arsenal, without Robin van Persie, were doing just as well as they did with him the year before (when he scored at an incredible rate), even though the received wisdom was that they were totally reliant on him. Take away his goals, people said, and Arsenal would be mid-table. Well, yes, but so would any team who omitted their best player and took the field with ten men every week.
In reality, Arsenal ended the season with three more points than in 2011/12. Had they kept van Persie, and still added the players that replaced him, then they might have been better still. But the wage bill would not have stood that strain. And the player would have left for free this summer.
The “mistake” – although Arsenal didn’t have a lot of choice due to van Persie’s contract expiring in 2013 – was to sell to a rival. Arsenal were no worse without him, once they reinvested the money and those players settled. United, of course, were stronger with him.
Another problem Arsenal had was that the player, at 29 and with one year left on his contract, was only worth £24m. They lost a £50m player, based on his performances, for half that due to circumstances. Liverpool don’t have to sell Suarez, and they don’t have to sell him on the cheap – although his disciplinary issues might take a toll. To me, he’s another £50m player, but his disciplinary record could take that down to £40m. He is, after all, a risk.
Sell To Improve
Liverpool want to be in the Champions League. But who has broken into that elite group in recent seasons? Since Liverpool won the trophy in 2005, it’s been just two teams: Spurs and Manchester City.
City did it by spending outrageous sums of money courtesy of Arabian riches and a manager who had won three Serie A titles. But Spurs? They broke into the top four with a journeyman manager (more relegations than trophies), who while not as hapless as his harshest critics make out, is also far from as talented as his many allies in the press would have you believe. I mean, Harry Redknapp’s no genius, is he?
So how did Spurs do it? Well, to this outsider, it seems that it was by selling their best players. The key was that they held out for the best possible fees (Daniel Levy is a master), and they reinvested wisely in younger players who would go on to prove even better. This may be easier said than done, but that’s why clubs need to get their transfer dealings right.
By my detailed calculations (based on analysing over 3,000 transfers, which I’ve just done again with new data), just a third of all transfers are undeniably successful. This is when factoring in the purchase price, the amount of games started and the transfer fee recouped. About 10% are very successful, and just 1% are überdeals.
One such überdeal was Kolo Toure’s move to Arsenal. He cost a few hundred thousand pounds, played over 200 league games and was sold for about 80 times what was paid. Liverpool may be picking him up at the (wide) arse-end of his career, but he’s a sensible free transfer. Arsenal getting him over a decade ago was a masterstroke. It’s not easy to be that clever, but Liverpool have to try.
Spurs picked up Dimitar Berbatov for about £10m, and sold him for three times that amount. They made the same kind of mark-up on Robbie Keane. They sold Michael Carrick for about ten times what they paid. And Luka Modric generated a £15m profit.
Selling such players signals a lack of ambition to some. But it led to Spurs reaching the top four, and seasons in excess of 70 points. Modric was a bargain when purchased, but Moussa Dembele is a great replacement. Gareth Bale was also a bargain, and if he is sold this summer for up to six times what was paid, then Andre Villas-Boas could buy three excellent players with the money. Spurs would suddenly be less reliant on their best player, and may end up with a more even spread of talent throughout the XI.
Borussia Dortmund reached the Champions League Final after selling Nuri Sahin in 2011 and Kagawa in 2012, two of their best players.
The worry for them is that Bayern Munich have just stolen away their current two best players, and, having little option but to sell to their strongest rivals (Mario Götze’s buy-out clause was met), Dortmund are compromised. But three years ago Robert Lewandowski was a little-known 21-year-old picked up for £4.5m. Sahin’s replacement, Ilkay Gündogan, was picked up for the same fee a year later, aged 20.
We seem incapable of sensing that players who are just as good, or even better, are out there, their potential as yet undiscovered. Many Liverpool fans think Suarez is the third-best player in the world. But no-one put him in the top 10 when he left Ajax. Similarly, when Fernando Torres joined in 2007 many questioned his ability.
Everyone would have rated Torres more highly in late 2010, and yet while the Spaniard has gone on to win trophies with Chelsea, and regain a modicum of form, he’s been far inferior to Suarez since the start of 2011. Liverpool came out of the potential disaster of losing their best striker to a rival by procuring an even better player for half the fee they received.
Of course, the problem was that £35m went on Andy Carroll. Liverpool sold Torres and Babel (original combined cost £34m) for £57m in January 2011, and spent £57m on Suarez and Carroll; and now, two and a half years on, they could sell Suarez and Carroll for … roughly £57m. In a sense, it would be a chance to try and reinvest it more wisely this time. Liverpool placed two huge bets in 2011, and can now walk out of the casino with the same amount of money as they entered with. It just depends if, as fans, you see it as two years enjoying what that £57m bought, or as time wasted.
The new transfer committee, which came into being after last summer’s mixed business, has had two sure-fire hits (based on performances so far, without access to a crystal ball), aged 20 and 23. Combined cost? £20m. With this in mind, it might be wise to trust them; certainly more so than Rodgers, whose own picks have been patchy. The club clearly see the manager as more of a coach than a trader.
To me, it’s clear that if you sell your best players overseas, as Liverpool did with Kevin Keegan in 1977 and Ian Rush a decade later, the team as a whole can be improved without its position in the English league compromised. Improvement happened on both occasions.
Liverpool lost Michael Owen to Real Madrid in 2004 and won the Champions League 12 months later, as they became a less one-dimensional. The Reds also won the European Cup the year after Keegan left, and the year after Rush moved to Italy was a record-breaker in terms of virtually wrapping the league up by March, as Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton and Aldridge made every Red forget about Ian Rush for 12 months. Liverpool never reached a cup final with Torres (although the Reds were an excellent side in his first three years), but reached two and won a trophy with Andy Carroll.
With Or Without You
Stats that compare the results of games players miss with those they play are always potentially misleading. All manner of factors are at play, and you may mistake coincidences for facts.
However, a 39% win rate when Suarez plays in the Premier League, compared with 62% when absent, suggests that Liverpool are the opposite of “reliant” on him. To put it into context, 39% is roughly Everton’s level, 62% is Manchester City’s.
Even allowing for the fact that Suarez may have missed easier games than he’s played, and he’s played a lot more than he’s missed, you’d expect to see some positive reinforcement of his importance in the stats; not the exact opposite.
On top of this, Opta Joe just Tweeted: “Without Luis Suarez’s goals this season, Liverpool would still have finished seventh in the Premier League table. Depth.”
There’s also the fact that he’ll have served 19 games of suspension in 18 months. In the eyes of many he has also damaged the reputation of the club, although Eric Cantona was a similar character at United, and their supporters still revere him.
The difference is that Cantona elevated United to new heights; by contrast, Suarez hasn’t improved Liverpool’s results. Maybe in a better Liverpool side Suarez could have proved the difference, but his style is so unique, so off the cuff, that an argument can be made for him being too unpredictable to be in synch with.
Still, there are clearly times when he links brilliantly with others, with his assist for Daniel Sturridge’s goal against Chelsea one of the passes of the season. But it is his wastefulness, when shooting from every possible angle, which is hard to quantify. He will score the occasional world-class goal with an impudent effort, but how many more might have been scored had he not so often tried to do the impossible? It’s like trying to score direct from a corner. You may do it once in 100 attempts, but you might have scored five by looking for a near-post flick-on.
In the excellent Mixed kNuts blog (its author is not a Liverpool fan but subscribes to TTT), Ted Knutson takes a detailed look at Suarez’s stats in order to assess his strengths and weaknesses. It seems that Suarez is a mix of the best and worst attributes in the Premier League, which, one could argue, cancel each other out.
“Let’s start with the good. 2nd in the Premier League in goals. 1st in Shots per Game. 3rd in Key Passes per game. 1st in successful dribbles per game. Suarez was a handful and then some.”
So far, the stats back up what Liverpool fans think. He’s exciting, great to watch.
“Now for the bad. 1st in the league for being dispossessed. 2nd for turning the ball over. 3rd in Offsides per game. Great key pass numbers, but only 5 assists on the season. A 76.6% pass rate. (For comparison, Mata and Hazard were both over 85%, RVP was 80.2%.) A 12.2% conversion rate on total shots.”
Therefore, the stats also back up what a lot of fans say: that Suarez can be incredibly wasteful and frustrating.
Based on those stats, Suarez hits the target far more rarely than Europe’s other elite strikers. As an example, Dortmund’s Lewandowski turns twice as many of his shots into goals.
Look at it like this. Player A takes 500 shots in a season and scores 50 goals. We marvel at the incredible tally – 50 goals! – but by taking 500 shots he’s denying team-mates chances. If, without Player A, the team has 400 shots, but scores a greater number of goals by sharing them around, then that’s clearly better. The key is to make sure that you can share them around; something Liverpool were not capable of doing in the first half of last season, but were after the January window.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a fine example. He averages almost seven shots a game. The reason Messi is a far better player is because he doesn’t spend the entire game shooting in order to break records. On the one hand you want players who take the responsibility to shoot when the chance is there. On the other, you can’t have egotists who think they are bigger than the team, having a pop from all over the pitch.
I don’t think Suarez is as egotistical as Ronaldo – he doesn’t strut about, correcting that one hair that’s out of place – but he does inadvertently make each game about himself. Perhaps the team suffers as a result.
A problem with selling Suarez is that he’s popular with the players and the fans. He’s the kind of player others want to play with, rather than against. He’s an attractive selling point, when it comes to signing other players. Come and play alongside one of the world’s best.
Without a manager with a worldwide repute, and also lacking the bait of Champions League football, it could be argued that the club needs all the selling points it can get right now.
The club’s name is still a gold standard, but aside from Gerrard, Suarez is the one big name. With Carragher retiring and Reina possibly moving back to Barcelona, Liverpool will have few household names. However, the club is full of potentially great young players, and a young manager whose best days should be ahead of him. This is indeed like the Dortmund way of doing things, with Rodgers fairly similar to Klopp when he took over at the Westfalenstadion; but of course this doesn’t mean he’ll go on to match the great German’s success. After all, after three games, Nigel Clough looked like the new Kenny Dalglish.
The Kop doesn’t rock to many songs these days, but Suarez can get the place buzzing. Of course, he also lifts the opposition fans wherever he goes, causing them to unite against him. He also winds up opposition players, and more than anything, he winds up himself.
If Suarez stays – as seems increasingly unlikely – I’d be happy. But I won’t be sad if he leaves, providing that it’s to an overseas side, for a good fee, and that the money is reinvested in the team. I just can’t attach myself to players anymore. They are all passing through, just at different speeds. I enjoy what they give us, and then we all move on.
For all Suarez’s brilliant dribbling, one Coutinho through-ball can just as easily get Liverpool in behind teams. As direct as Suarez is, Sturridge’s pace arguably makes him an even greater threat through the centre; based on goals per game, Sturridge wins out, albeit from a shorter period of time.
The pair of them seem to elevate Liverpool more than Suarez. If three other players can come in for the money recouped from a Suarez sale, then the XI can be a lot better than it has been. Some very exciting young talents have been heavily linked with the club, and as a replacement for Carragher, Kolo Toure brings some much-needed experience.
The biggest problem, however, is that what should have been a season spent moving forward could quickly become yet another transitional campaign. Carragher has gone. Reina might go (though I hope not). Downing and Skrtel will probably go. There’s talk that Johnson might be sold (though I’d also oppose that). And at least two or three others will be pruned from the squad. On top of that, Liverpool will need to beat the odds in terms of two-thirds of all transfers making very little mark; although the more each player costs, the greater the chances of him succeeding.
Swapping a £45m player for three £15m players should mean a better Liverpool squad. If done right, it can also improve the XI, but with this in mind I’d be wary of selling the rest of the club’s better players unless absolutely necessary.
Too many changes and Liverpool will become a team of strangers. But that’s probably better than having players who don’t even want to be there.
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(Independent on Sunday)
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