This Is What Will Happen This Summer!

This Is What Will Happen This Summer!
April 30, 2015 Paul Tomkins

By Paul Tomkins.

Based on the law of averages, you will find that certain things happen more or less every summer, both in terms of transfers and squad evolution. And not all of them are good. While certain elements remain unpredictable, this very unpredictability is, in many ways, totally predictable.

Mass clear-outs always seem like a necessity at times like these, but you then usually need to make mass purchases to compensate. And while that can sometimes work, it often doesn’t. The whole summer process is complicated, as I will now show, in what is a fairly long piece (think of it as a book chapter, if you’re allergic to long internet articles).

There will be some natural age/contract-related wastage. This summer it’s Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Kolo Toure: three once-superb players whose legs have gone (if only each was still 25, eh?). Aside from the increasingly negative impact of Gerrard – who has become a hindrance*, possibly due the narrative that surrounds him (the go-to man has gone, and yet the pressure to play him, and play through him, remains) – you can argue that keeping them on wouldn’t be the worst idea, simply because it’s two players you otherwise need to replace.

(*Liverpool’s points per game is alarmingly worse with Gerrard in the team this season than it is without him; and while such analysis has to be heavily caveated in terms of the difficulty of games played versus those missed, it can never be good news. Liverpool’s only good run this season came without him, and have been poor since he returned to the side.)

Liverpool also have a pretty young squad, with, at this rate, only Martin Skrtel in his 30s next season. (Assuming that Rickie Lambert is sold/released into the wild.) It’s rare for a team with an average age of below 25 to be successful. The average age of all Premier League champions is 26.8, and even United’s famous 1996 ‘kids’ averaged 25.5 on account of half a dozen older players, with the youngest since 1992 Chelsea’s 2005 side, at 25.2.

But with natural age wastage comes…

The emergence of a couple of young players.

Yes, most summers the squad will be bolstered by an academy graduate or two. But will their rawness mean that they are the kind of liabilities that many fans already see in Johnson and Toure? (Think of the stick Jon Flanagan used to get.)

In the short-term, that means no improvement, and, potentially, a period of regression; for all their faults, Johnson and Toure can still have strong games, if not frequently enough to be regular starters. Equally, you don’t want a glut of ageing squad players on excessive wages, and unlike a couple of academy graduates, Johnson and Toure aren’t going to get better. And let’s not forget that quite a few promising starlets start life with man-of-the-match games and then disappear without trace. (Stephen Wright, Gregory Vignal and Jack Robinson to name just three full-backs.)

Let’s also remember that really great young players emerge quite rarely. Some, like Carragher and Owen, may be once in a generation; others, like Gerrard, once in a lifetime. Most of the time, in terms of youth graduates, we’ll be talking about the Martin Kellys and John O’Sheas of this world: the do-a-jobbers. To me, providing that their attitude and injury records are good, and they’re happy to be squad players, these are important players to have.

Players will return from loan.

Some will be ready after gaining vital experience, others will not (and never will be).

The good news is that £10m Divock Origi arrives, after his “loan” at Lille. While he shouldn’t be lauded as a saviour, his goalscoring record and international experience are actually very good for a player who has only just turned 20. (See this prize-winning TTT piece on how very few goalscorers are prolific at 20.)

And while I usually balk at such statements, it will be virtually impossible for Origi to offer less than Fabio Borini or Rickie Lambert. (I actually think that Mario Balotelli has offered something, but his league goalscoring return is virtually non-existent. He does some good things in games, but rarely plays good games. And like Gerrard now that he’s melted, he seems to be a distraction.)

In theory, Andre Wisdom should seamlessly replace Glen Johnson, although the youngster’s form fell away badly at West Brom this season, after a promising start. He’s also about to turn 22, which is still young for a defensive full-back/centre-back, but he’s not a kid anymore. He lacks Johnson’s technique and experience, but would bring more enthusiasm and aggression. (And, let’s not forget, Jon Flanagan should be back from injury; another bonus, if he can recapture the form of last season.) Wisdom has a winning mentality, and like Flanagan could develop into a new Carragher, in that he’s not the best technically, nor the quickest, but is a leader who doesn’t give up. Every team needs a few of these types.

Joao Teixeira, once he recovers from a broken leg, will be a good addition to the squad, as someone who has done very well in the Championship. Like Wisdom and Jordon Ibe, he’s done well for his age at such a level, although at 22 he needs to kick on again.

You’d worry more about players loaned to League One and League Two clubs in terms of their future at Liverpool, but again, it depends on age; it’s not too worrying that Lloyd Jones, at 19, is only at Accrington Stanley, because centre-backs take much longer to mature (particularly gigantic ones). Jones’ issue will be if he’s not on loan at a better level next season. But if players aged 20/21 aren’t being loaned to Premier League, Championship or the top divisions of European leagues, then they’re probably never going to be good enough (or if they do eventually prove to be good enough, as some do every now and then, it will be when they’re 27/28, and precisely because they’ve spent years playing regularly for a club they belong to, rather than being loaned out year after year or spending season upon season in the Reds’ reserves.)

Tiago Ilori would be a logical replacement for Kolo Toure. Now 22, Ilori – tall and very quick (but not that strong) – has by all accounts done fairly well in two loans, to the Spanish and French top divisions, and was only ever bought for his potential – he was never bought to walk into the XI.

And Sebastián Coates may be worth keeping as 4th choice, if Ilori isn’t quite ready. Coates is now 24, and it’s around this age that totemic centre-backs  – the Slow Giants – start to show that they’ve gained enough experience to read the game to compensate for their lack of pace. (See Sami Hyypia and Gabriel Paletta as two LFC-related examples; Hyypia was rejected by Oldham in his early 20s, and Paletta has gone on to have a great career in Italy, and recently joined AC Milan.)

Of course, it may be that Coates simply isn’t good enough – and his contract is almost certainly nearly up. But I never conclusively judge a centre-back under the age of 25, especially if they don’t have the kind of recovery pace that gets them out of trouble, and he showed in Uruguay that he has talent.

–– Liverpool will be linked to about 200 players

… And Liverpool aren’t going to buy 200 players. Many will be linked by hit-hungry bullshit websites and “newspapers”, or desperate agents and fake ITKs on Twitter. Sometimes good sources will suggest a genuine interest that doesn’t transpire, not least because Liverpool may be interested in three players for one position when they know they will only end up buying one. And sometimes deals fall through.

–– Players will reject Liverpool because they are not in the Champions League, and the club can’t afford to break their wage structure.

Liverpool aren’t in the Champions League. They weren’t when FSG arrived, nor when Rodgers arrived. They were in it briefly this season, but the challenge of being in it, whilst trying to maintain league form, was tough after half a decade out of it.

Liverpool are not in the top four in the league, nor in the top four in terms of English club wealth. It’s harder to attract elite talent if you’re not in the competition (though a chance was missed last summer – although it didn’t help that Alexis Sanchez chose Arsenal due to location). And if you break a wage structure that is already at the limit of what FFP allows (based on the club’s income), you run serious risks of punishment.

Also, if you pay your best players £100k-150k a week, and then sign someone new and shiny on £250k a week, and that player flops, you will get the other players asking for “more than what he earns”. Pay structures at clubs are hugely complex things, not least because most footballers are incredibly vain and competitive, and it’s all a kind of dick-swinging contest. Footballers can live massively wealthy lives on £30,000 a week (they’d be millionaires within a year), but if someone else is on £150,000, and they think they’re as good as them, they’ll want £150,000. (Or their agents will, on their behalf.) Players who get paid £100,000-a-week and play shit for the whole time never offer to take a pay cut.

In 2011 Liverpool managed to find a world-class gem in Luis Suarez, who came to play for relatively low wages; possibly because he’d just bitten someone. He worked like a demon in every game, and earned a rise to the top of the club’s pay chart. No one begrudged him a penny, and you sensed that Suarez would play for free (but of course, he’s not stupid, and nor is his agent; for him the temptation was to be at the best possible club). However, had Liverpool spent north of £260,000-a-week on Radamel Falcao last summer, to make him the clear top earner (which he isn’t at United), and he strolled through games, team spirit would be affected. As it was, Liverpool did something similar with Mario Balotelli, although he arrived because other targets preferred other clubs, and is on “only” roughly £90k-a-week.

While they may make some exceptions, Liverpool are trying to avoid paying massive wages to newcomers. It seems that they want to reward great performances in a red shirt with the big money; new signings need to prove their worth to Liverpool, then take the bigger wage deal. It’s a logical, incentivised plan. But of course, Liverpool still can’t pay what the über-rich clubs can pay, and it’s a risk to avoid signing those whose fully-established reputation means they merit massive wages. Equally, it’s a risk to sign those players, too (because yes, lots of those flop too).

–– Half of your new signings will fail to succeed (proving to be total flops, or just average), and maybe only one, at best, will be an instant success.

This is based on my study of thousands of transfers, and how only 40% can be regarded as resembling a success, with the other 60% either neutral (they were merely okay) or failures. For every good player you sell or release you’ll probably have to buy two to replace them, as only one of them, on average, will be good enough.

The aim, of course, is to beat these odds by being smarter than everyone else. But that’s not easy, especially if rival clubs are smart and rich.

–– Deadwood will be offloaded, and replaced with more deadwood. This is the nature of transfers. No one sets out to sign deadwood, but it always happens. There has to be some deadwood in the squad, because in a squad of 24+ players, only 18 will fit into the match-day party. If everyone stays fit, then some will rarely get a game.

–– TWO big hits as new signings will be unlikely.

Think about it, how many summers have seen Liverpool make more than one (if indeed any) great signings?

The last truly amazing summer was 1987, although that was before the advent of the transfer window; as well as John Barnes and Peter Beardsley in the close season (what would now qualify as the window), there was John Aldridge and Ray Houghton a few months either side of it. Good players have been signed most summers, of course, but extremely good players who proved to be amongst the best in their positions in the league are much rarer. And two at once is very rare indeed.

Otherwise, there’s 2007, with Torres and Mascherano (if we’re generous and take the calendar year as a whole; or if we go to 2006/07 and include Mascherano and Dirk Kuyt, but they were in different windows); 2004, with Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia (who, like Kuyt, could be a mixed bag, but whose goals helped rewrite Liverpool FC’s history); 1999, with Hamann and Hyypia; 2000, at a push, with Markus Babbel and Gary McAllister (both very short-term successes, for different reasons); and of course, Sturridge and Coutinho in the winter window of 2013, although Coutinho’s impact, while still there, was more hit-and-miss until 2014/15.

And that’s about it in 25 years of not winning the league. I’d also be generous and say that in 2011 the Reds signed Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson, but they were in different windows, and Henderson was seen as a flop for the first 12 months.

Of course, squads are bigger than they were in the 1990s, so there’s a greater turnover of players, and as such, more risk of deadwood. And I’m not really including kids like Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe, who arrived as 15-year-olds and obviously took a few years to make the first team.

And as with all transfer analysis, perceptions change. (Last week some twat of an Arsenal fan dug up an old tweet where I noted that Markovic, who was playing really well at the time, was looking like a better signing than Ozil, who was playing like a very expensive passenger. Shock, horror, etc., but football is a one big constantly shifting sandstorm of perceptions. For proof see Martin Skrtel over the years: good, shaky, exceptional, terrible, wonky, sturdy, and now very reliable.)

There have been plenty of successful signings in the past 25 years – the ones that fall into the 40% category in my transfer law – such as Arbeloa, Aurelio, Benayoun, Lucas, Henchoz, Skrtel, Finnan, Murphy, Berger, Can (who looks likely to prove an excellent signing in time), Agger, Mignolet (a mix of awful and exceptional makes for ‘good’ on balance), plus players like Sakho, who I expect to become clearly defined success, but who wasn’t cheap and isn’t there yet.

And there have been some great players signed in one single season, window or calendar year, like Rob Jones in 1991, and Pepe Reina in 2005, but where it was they alone who stood out as the clear star buy.

And if we limit it to any given window where two ‘greats’ were signed, then in the Premier League era we’re talking about 1999, 2004 and 2013 at Liverpool. That’s just three times in 23 years that two genuinely excellent additions were signed in the same window; and if you extend it back past 1992, it’s three times in 28 years.
Perhaps it shows that Liverpool haven’t bought very well, on the whole, in the past three decades. But maybe it also shows how hard it is to bring in top-class players, and how clubs with slightly lesser resources are always going to look two or three players short.

Very few great sides over the years have seen a high number of players arrive in a very short space of time; it’s often more organic, with pre-existing players improving, youth graduates coming into the frame, and mixing with players signed over the past two or three years. Even Chelsea, who added two clear successes in Costa and Fabregas in 2014, has seen the former injured a lot and the latter has faded in the second half of the season. Both City and Chelsea sped up the process, in 2003-2006, and 2009-2012 respectively, but they spend absolute fortunes in that time and had tons of expensive flops. They succeeded because they could afford to write off the expensive flops, and keep the ones that worked out.

Go back to Manchester United last summer, who signed no fewer than four players who cost (or were valued) between £27m and £60m. To date, only one of them – Ander Herrera – is an unqualified success, and even he had a fairly poor start to life in England, before looking like a real gem. Perceptions may change on this quartet over time, but it means that only one has had the kind of impact United were hoping for (with, weirdly – or maybe not – some older signings like Carrick, Fellaini and Smalling becoming more important; a bit like Liverpool with Henderson and Sakho improving dramatically on their first season). That’s a 25% immediate clear success rate on just the players who cost c.£30m or more, and not including others who cost less. And Herrera is the second-youngest of the quartet, and the only one who isn’t a full international.

None of this is to say that Liverpool have bought particularly well in the past two seasons; just that the buying hasn’t been unusually bad. But obviously to improve they need to be better than merely average, or par for the course.

–– A ‘flop’ or two will come good, and other players will improve.

See Jordan Henderson, or Lucas Leiva, and various other players who you didn’t rate (and may still not rate, but that may be your problem). See the aforementioned Fellaini at United. And no one has improved more remarkably this season than Harry Kane at Spurs; a player shunted out on various loans, none of which were at the top level, and who, at almost 22, is not a mere kid.

Also see the difference between Luis Suarez’s goal output between his first and last season, or the improvement in Philippe Coutinho. Hell, look at Simon Mignolet lately, compared with six months ago. Someone you don’t rate will suddenly look good. You can almost bank on it, even if you may not admit it. And someone who is already quite good will get better.

Hopefully Liverpool fans will suddenly stop seeing someone like £1m Samed Yesil as as a total irrelevance and realise that, after years of injury hell, the 20-year-old German (who scored 20 in 21 games for his country’s U17 side, and eight in seven for the U19s) still has a part to play. Or it may be someone else.

–– One or two of the best players will suddenly be offering next-to-nothing.

The injury to Daniel Sturridge highlights how someone fairly exceptional one season can be a virtual passenger the next. Look at how the world-class Markus Babbel became a physical wreck due to unexpected illness. Look at how Gary McAllister, already old, suddenly ‘lost’ his legs at 37. Look at how brilliantly effective Steven Gerrard was in the second half of last season to how painfully mediocre (at best) he’s been this time around.

… All of which can lead to dramatic swings

This is perhaps why a club’s form can switch so dramatically from season to season. Injuries, in particular, mean that up to four or five players may be vital one season and poor or totally absent the next.

Add the turnover of players – the best wanting to leave to play for a Champions League/richer club; the new needing time to settle/adjust/adapt; along with the tactical or stylistic evolutions that every manager has to try to develop to combat how the opposition have learned to counter them, and you can see that it’s a virtual crapshoot from one campaign to the next.

If you start adding in the change of managers, and how they’ll want even more new players, then it only adds further variables that can either improve or destabilise things.

One single season is actually a kind of contained ecosystem. Between the end of August, when the summer window closes, and the end of May, only one or two players usually get signed; quite often it’s none. There’s no period where all of the players, in unison, get unfit and go to the beach, and then have to rebuild their conditioning. There’s no point where a dozen or more players go off to the other side of the world for a month (or two weeks in England’s case).

Just as half-time can break the spell of a first half of a match, then the summer can break the spell of a season. People switch off, and need to switch on again (and if they don’t switch off, either at half-time – when they recharge their physical batteries – or in the summer, when they recharge everything, then they can burn out.) To bring the metaphor of what changes between May and August down to one game, it’s like going in at half-time with one team and coming out with six or seven changes, and maybe a new manager and totally different tactics, to play against a totally new opponent. To expect seamless improvement in such circumstances would be crazy.

As I’ve mentioned before, studies have shown that humans are poor predictors of change; we think things will be more constant than they turn out to be. If our relationship is going well, we assume it will be the same in ten years. If our parents are alive and well, we assume they will be alive and well in ten years. If we’re not interested in having kids, we assume we will feel the same in ten years. And then, in the next tens years, there’s divorce, childbirth and death, with maybe a change of career thrown in.

We think that players will be as good as they were last season; indeed, we may predict slight improvement. We assume they will go from strength to strength, not from strength to weakness. And we assume that if we sign who we think to be good players, they will transfer their form and playing style perfectly into our team.

And if the team has just done brilliantly to overachieve, we never think they will slump back to 5th, 6th or 7th. We don’t anticipate ebb and flow. We don’t realise that some seasons you do better against the whipping boys, and in others you drop points against them, but get wins against the elite – and that sometimes it changes for no discernible reason. Some seasons you’ll score loads of goals and then suddenly you won’t be able to score any. Whatever you don’t do right is what you need to do right next season, when something else will go wrong.

Fans always say “if only that bad stuff that happened hadn’t happened”, and gladly keep all the good stuff that happened. But the probability is that you will get some good stuff and some bad stuff.

Problems

None of this article is designed to excuse unnecessary mistakes in the transfer market; just to point out that what are mistakes and what are acts of genius are often impossible to predict in advance. Harry Kane, Saido Berahino and Charlie Austin, three virtual unknowns a year ago to most casual observers, have 49 Premier League goals between them this season – more than the combined total from Falcao, Balotelli, Sturridge, Remy, van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck and Yaya Toure, whose transfer fees and wages are massive. While it’s often fairly predictable how teams will do in any given season, the form of players can fluctuate wildly. It’s often all over the place.

The problem that Brendan Rodgers has is that there seems to be some media confirmation that last summer’s three Southampton signings were his doing, as he was given some freedom to make his own decisions; the transfer committee making the rest. While this seems to ring true, there is also the fact that Rodgers went to watch Emre Can in Germany, for example, so it’s not like he wasn’t part of the process on a success like that.

But the three Southampton signings were the least imaginative, and the worst value; along with Mario Balotelli, who had also played in the Premier League before, but whose signing may not have been the manager’s doing. Rodgers talked about needing “here and now” players, and signed three internationals aged 24, 26 and 32, with lots of Premier League experience. Lovren has improved slightly of late, and Lallana has been good in flashes, but none has made much of a positive impact. Nor has the vastly experienced (for his age) Italian problem man-child. On the one hand I can see why Rodgers wanted more experienced players. But having bought some, he ended up with a young non-international who had barely played league football in Germany as the best buy. Liverpool cannot rely merely on younger purchases, but they do provide better value.

Rickie Lambert was low-risk, but still didn’t pay off. And as I’ve said all along, Lovren and Lallana were overpriced, showing the poor value from buying within the Premier League. That didn’t mean they’d therefore flop, or that buying from Southampton means you get Southampton-level players (otherwise Liverpool’s European Cup winning days were built on players only good enough for Chester, Home Farm, Ayr United, Patrick Thistle and Scunthorpe.) But as I’ve proved on these pages before, there is no better success rate from signings from within the Premier League than there is directly from overseas (if anything, it’s the other way round). I’m also not convinced that older players make better “here and now” signings than those aged 22 or 23, but more on that in a moment. 

And, of course, paying £20m for Lovren when the club had just paid £17m for a left-sided centre-back seems muddled at best. This is where the manager and the transfer committee appear at odds.

Add these to Rodgers’ 2012 signings, before the committee was in place, and you get Allen (neutral-to-good), Borini (flop) and Sahin (good player, but a flop during his loan spell). (Odd-man-out Assaidi was not Rodgers’ choice.) That’s zero successes out of six.

Now, I think that Joe Allen will move into the ‘success’ category, as he’s heading that way; if he plays 200 games for the Reds, then even if he’s not spectacular, he’ll be worth the money (in terms of the average number of games played in relation to the price paid; if you play 200 games for a top six club you are a good buy).

So in time I’d expect Allen to be labelled a qualified success, and Lallana, with his talent but lack of oomph, could go either way. It’s still not a great reflection on Rodgers’ buying, but then the transfer business of the summer of 2013 was not a big help in the title push of last season, and he presumably used that to get more say: “Imagine what we’d have done had we bought so-and-so and not Sakho, Alberto, Aspas, et al”.

However, nearly two years on you can see marked improvement in Mignolet and Sakho. As noted earlier, perceptions of who is a success and who is a failure can rapidly change. Often, the second season is when you start to see the real player. Arsene Wenger has often said as much.

Here-and-now rarely means here-and-now

Finally, some more on what seems to be a transfer myth.

As just stated, the Reds’ best summer signing, Emre Can, was the only non-international. Liverpool’s best signings over the past eleven years have been Alonso (22), Reina (22), Torres (23), Mascherano (22), Suarez (23), Coutinho (20), Sturridge (22) and Henderson (20). Meanwhile, Agger, Skrtel, Lucas, Sissoko were all between 20 and 23. And Sterling and Ibe were just 15.

Let me remind you of something I wrote for subscribers two years ago:

Going back to Bob Paisley, the legendary manager bought 20 players who played league football for the Reds. Of those 20, eighteen were 24 or under. The other two were 25 and 26. It also happens that Paisley broke the British transfer record for his oldest signing: 26-year-old Kenny Dalglish. (Note: 26, not 29.) We used to think it was wise when he said “let your players lose their legs on someone else’s pitch”, and sell them at 29 or 30. Has that really changed?

Paisley also spent fairly big money by the standards of the day on Graeme Souness, Alan Kennedy and Mark Lawrenson: all 24. Phil Neal, Bruce Grobbelaar and Terry McDermott were 23. Alan Hansen was 22. Steve Nicol and Jim Beglin were 21 (as was Kevin Sheedy, who went on to be some player at Everton). Joey Jones was 20. Ian Rush and Ronnie Whelan were still in their teens.

You could argue that these were simply superbly scouted players where age was irrelevant; but is it merely a coincidence that the average age of Paisley’s signings was a mere 22.3, and that the average age of those who went on to play over 300 games for the Reds was a virtually identical 22.5? (Those ten ultra-successful signings, with an average age of just 22.5, each played an average of 464 games for the Reds.)

Liverpool’s biggest “here and now” buys, aged 24 or older and bought to go into the first team since 1993 are: Paul Ince, Robbie Keane, Fernando Morientes, Didi Hamann, Sami Hyypia, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Jari Litmanen, Dirk Kuyt, Steve Finnan, Raul Meireles, Stephane Henchoz, Yossi Benayoun, Harry Kewell, Stan Collymore, Dejan Lovren, Abel Xavier, Simon Mignolet, Oyvind Leonhardsen, Nick Barmby, Vladimir Smicer, Andrea Dossena, Jean-Michel Ferri, Alberto Aquilani, Peter Crouch, Bolo Zenden, Markus Babbel, Craig Bellamy (27 in 2007), Luis Garcia, Albert Riera, Mario Balotelli, Stewart Downing, Adam Lallana, Neil Ruddock, Julian Dicks, Nigel Clough, Jason McAteer and John Scales. Some may have only been bought for a place on the bench, but I’m pretty sure most were signed with strengthening the XI in mind.

A few good signings in there, and a couple of great ones (Hyypia and Hamann, in particular, and even they were ‘only’ 25). But overall?

You can look back at the older, expensive flops and say that they were never going to be good enough (and one of the few mega-successes, Sami Hyypia, arrived with almost no hype). In some cases, even without the aid of hindsight, that’s fair comment. Then again, plenty of them sounded like good ideas at the time: European champions, World Cup winners, World Cup “stars”, lots of Premier League winners, tons of international caps, and so on. These were scouted by dozens of different people and signed by seven different managers, one Director of Football and a transfer committee – enough collective wisdom, you feel, to know something – and the very same people who signed the younger players who have been much better buys.

With this in mind I decided to ask subscribers to rate 120+ non-youth signings Liverpool have made since 1993, to see if their subjective voting evens out to provide us with the wisdom of crowds; and to compare it to the non-subjective measures I’ve been using to judge transfers for the past few years (TPIC, the Transfer Price Index Coefficient). Who have been our best buys, how much did they cost, and how old were they.

The problem with assessing current players is that perceptions are always changing, and can often swing quite markedly over the space of a few games (if Adam Lallana scores hat-tricks in consecutive games he will be regarded as a successful signing, at least until next season starts). Of course, this is a problem with judging transfers in general: until a player leaves the club, he is an ongoing project, who can both improve or regress.

First, the freebies.

I make it that Liverpool have signed 16 Bosman transfers since the ruling was introduced in 1995, with an average age of 29. Some will have been on really big wages. The average mark given to these 16 by the TTT panel was 4.8 out of 10. On average they made just 22 starts in the Premier League for the Reds. Litmanen was great in patches, McAllister a legend for two great months in 2001, and Craig Bellamy, in his second spell at the club, was excellent for the first half of 2011/12 before he ran out of steam. Markus Babbel was unfortunately struck down with a rare illness while excelling, and Maxi was a reliable goalscorer for a couple of seasons. Fabio Aurelio made the greatest number of Premier League starts out of the 16 – just 58 – and was an excellent full-back; he was just injured too often.

Otherwise the remaining 52 “24-or-over” signings (average age 26.2) cost an average of £13.8m in 2014 money (using TPI inflation). They were ranked at just 5.1 out of 10 as signings by the TTT think tank. Only eight ranked better than 6.8 out of 10 (Hyypia, Kuyt, Hamann, Garcia, Arbeloa, Finnan, Crouch and Henchoz). That’s just 15% that were very good signings according to the panel.

In the same period of time Liverpool have signed 37 players aged 23 or below, at an average age of 21.2. (This is excluding 11 teenagers who went on to play for the first team, but many were mere hopeful punts at that age, like 16-year-old Jack Hobbs.) They cost an average of £17m in 2014 money, and averaged a score of 6.1 out of 10 (compared with the 5.1 of their elders), and on average made more starts than their older counterparts (perhaps this is logical, as they are younger and therefore had more time to do so).

By contrast, 14 of these 37 were rated as very good signings (above 6.8 out of 10), which is 38%, compared with the 15% of the older buys. And five (14%) were rated as outstanding (rated at 8.2 or higher), compared with just one (2%) of the 52 older buys. (Kuyt and Hamann were fractionally below 8 out of 10, perhaps a little harshly.)

Fans have mocked the concept of sell-on value, but after years of doing this kind of research I can see just how vital it is. Excluding those still at the club (obviously), the older players have recouped an average of £5.7m. The U23 signings to have been sold have recouped an average of £15.2m.

Or look at it like this: the 24-and-overs took an average loss, in 2014 money, of £8m per player on transfer fees, whereas the U23s took a hit of just £1.9m. That’s more than four times as much money lost on the older signings, who also happened to be rated considerably worse, on average. I’d also guess that the over-24s were on much higher average wages throughout their time at the club.

This is why I maintain that someone like Lucas Leiva is absolutely vital. He is now 28, on reasonable wages having cost a reasonable fee. He has been the club’s player of the season in the past, and scores what I think is a very fair 7.5 out of 10 from the TTT think tank; had he not had some bad injuries he may score higher. But he comes in and does a job. He’ll rarely get man-of-the-match, and looks a bit slower as injuries take their toll, but he knows what to do, and still puts in more tackles than anyone else. He’s experienced, but not too old. It would be hard to bring in a 25-30-year-old who can offer what he does; after all, Christian Poulsen, Charlie Adam, Raul Meireles and countless others bought for the same position in that age range have come and gone during the Brazilian’s time at the club. Lucas has had the chance to settle into life and expectations at Liverpool.

With all the 32-and-overs likely to head out the door this summer, Liverpool will have a ton of players aged 24 and under. If they want to spend their money wisely they may buy several more in this age bracket, as well as promoting from the academy and recalling the best ones from loans. Indeed, all of these things will almost certainly happen.

But how do you turn that into a successful team, given that it will be too young to hold things together without the experience and consistency required? To turn it into a successful team you need to buy older players too, to get the average age above 25. And yet these are usually expensive, and often where the money gets wasted.

Conclusions

Most of what I have outlined will happen, in a general kind of way. If Liverpool manage to make two big-impact signings in 2015 – a rare occurrence – then, unless other things go wrong (and they may), you’d expect to see it make a big difference. Sometimes it happens when they arrive, other times the season after.

After the unsustainable high of last season, and the turmoil of last summer (World Cup, Suarez leaving, Sturridge injured, Gerrard crushed with disappointment, eight new arrivals), you can see that this season had some tough challenges. My sense is that Liverpool will be better next season, with expectations a bit more realistic; but you never quite know, just as you never know how the new arrivals will do. One of the three richest clubs will probably win the league again, as they have done since 2005, but there’ll always be plenty of surprises.

Otherwise, if Liverpool are just par for the course on expectations, and none of the major clubs has a meltdown, the Reds will be 5th or thereabouts once again.

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Goners.

Goners.

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