Firmino, Sterling and Transfer Strategies

Firmino, Sterling and Transfer Strategies
June 24, 2015 Paul Tomkins

By Paul Tomkins.

Roberto Firmino, currently shining for Brazil at the Copa America, becomes the first “wow” signing of Liverpool’s summer, although his arrival completes a hand of five highly disparate June deals.

He joins James Milner in arriving as an established international, but obviously cost a fairly high fee, whereas Milner was a free (who, paradoxically, will probably be on a higher wage). Adam Bogdan is also a full international, but another free transfer – albeit one who hopefully never has to play a league game for the club (because the first-choice keeper, if that remains Mignolet or if he’s replaced, stays fit and in form). Danny Ings is a very promising young(ish) and mobile striker on the up, as he approaches 23. Like Milner and Bogdan he has Premier League experience (not that I believe this is as important as people seem to think), although only Milner has played for a big club and won major honours.

Then there’s Joe Gomez, a quite outstanding prospect for his age, who, having just turned 18, may get a chance at right-back in the first team, but probably wouldn’t get to play centrally for many years (as central mistakes are costlier than those made on the flanks). I think that any club has to try and pick up outstanding talent in different age ranks whenever it has the chance, particularly if these players already have senior football under their belt.

And of course, let’s not forget that Divock Origi arrives this summer, with his record in France better than Thierry Henry’s at the same stage (in other words, don’t judge strikers on their goal returns until they are 21/22, and also, take into account the type of clubs they play for). Origi spent most of last season still only in his teens, only turning 20 towards the very end of the campaign. There was some nasty L’Equipe award as the flop of the season, which seems pathetic given his age, the nature of the team he was playing in, and that he scored at a good rate compared to some much bigger names – making it look like the French football magazine was having a dig at someone who had already “left” their country, but was forced to spend one more year there.

It can’t have been easy to have landed his dream move, only to be forced by Lille to spend one more season with them (nothing endures like the temporary), with the fans slightly resentful of his continued presence given his desire to get away. But in a way it may help the young Belgian, as he arrives at Liverpool with the task of replacing Mario Balotelli, and not Luis Suarez. And he’ll arrive without the fanfare and attention that will be reserved for Firmino.

It’s hard not to get excited about a signing like Firmino, not least because he is someone who already has an understanding with the increasingly special Philippe Coutinho; his compatriot can help him settle both on the pitch and off it (as can Lucas if he’s retained, and I sincerely hope that he is).

By my reckoning the best age to sign a player is 22/23, so he fits the bill nicely (although if you can get them between the age of 15 and 20 on the cheap, better still). Like Suarez, he left South America in his teens, so he has both the experience of European football and also the massive upheaval that comes with moving country, so that bodes well.

Strategy

Upon reflection, I don’t think Liverpool’s transfer strategy is different enough from other clubs to merit the scorn it receives – the committee has made a wide variety of ‘types’ of signing since the start of 2013 – but also not unique enough to appear like borderline genius. A club like Midtjylland in Denmark fit into the latter description, on the way to winning the national title, but they were a small unfashionable club when their experiment began. Such dealings are easier when there’s not a global fanbase ready to explode.

Liverpool don’t have the mega-bucks to really dominate the market (with FFP having further limited the net spend), but many fans and ex-players seem to think they should still be shopping in Harrods all the time.

I’m not sure that Liverpool’s approach is safe, but it certainly doesn’t appear overtly risky. It makes total sense to me, and yet in some instances it doesn’t make enough sense.

The approach isn’t actually all that different to Southampton’s, who use technology and analytics to scout players, but are offering signings a lower-pressure environment in which to settle. To date, Southampton seem to have had a lot more success finding players to meet their needs than Liverpool, but they’ve also been happy to sell their players to try and reinvest it wisely; and unless you’re at the top of the food chain you have to be open to doing so.

And if there’s one thing Liverpool have improved at it’s getting good money for players they’re selling. The next step is to successfully reinvest that money, but it can take time for all of the purchases (if buying potential) to make the grade. Liverpool sold Torres at just the right time, and even though £35m on Andy Carroll was a big mistake, the £23m on Luis Suarez more than compensated for that. The initial impact of the reinvestment of the £75m for Suarez was poor, but it’s not like those signings ceased to exist at the end of 2014/15.

(As an aside, I don’t think that Liverpool signing Christian Benteke – if happened – would be repeating the mistake of Andy Carroll, because they are different players: the Belgian has already successfully left his homeland, whereas Carroll struggled to move away even from Newcastle, and the beer or three he liked to have there. Benteke, who crucially can offer pace through the middle as well as the option of crossing to his head or playing into his chest/feet, is roughly twice as prolific as Carroll was before the Geordie was signed, and has more international experience. And £35m – £44m after inflation – was a club record, whereas £32.5m wouldn’t bring quite so much pressure. That said, I’m not saying that at that price Benteke would be a great idea; just that he’s not Andy Carroll. The “mistake”, if it happened, would only be if the manager clearly didn’t want the player – but only Brendan Rodgers knows that. I’d just emphasise that Benteke’s pace makes him more than just a Plan B player, whereas Carroll and, more recently, Rickie Lambert, couldn’t get in behind defences – thus limiting their effectiveness.)

People say that Liverpool shouldn’t buy players from clubs like Southampton; or that if they wanted these players they should have got to them before Southampton did. Which is a fair point to a degree, but it’s harder establishing yourself at a club like Liverpool, with the far greater pressure and, usually, stiffer competition for places. I certainly rarely object to Liverpool signing younger players from “smaller” clubs, but obviously if the player is in his late 20s or early 30s, you might have to ask why he was still at such a club. And yet players develop at different rates, so you have to keep a fairly open mind.

When Liverpool did what Southampton are now feted for – shopping for rough diamonds like Origi, Markovic, Ilori and Can – fans moaned that they weren’t “ready made”, or moaned if they arrived and weren’t getting a game – or worse still, were sent out on loan (“what’s the point of that, yada yada”). Can did very well last season, but he may have had a bad year at Bayer Leverkusen had he stayed, or he may have been their star player who saw his value rise to £25m. Liverpool were ahead of the game on that one, if not on every deal last year.

If Markovic had gone somewhere else and settled quickly, people would be asking why Liverpool hadn’t gone in for him. And Origi, with really exceptional talent for his age, was bought at the ideal time to buy him: before the club were competing with Barcelona and Real Madrid for his signature. (If he proves to be good enough for Barcelona and Real Madrid to start vying for his signature, then it’s better to have him under contract and face losing him for £40m, which would come after a lot of goals, than never having had him to start with.)

This is a bit like the Sterling issue. Liverpool’s policy of buying young players has been held against the club because … one of its young signings is likely to leave for £50m.

Now, part of the problem is that some of the other younger players didn’t settle quickly enough to establish Liverpool in the top four, so the best of its young players is jumping ship; but it wasn’t the really young players who struggled most for the Reds in 2014/15.

At the same time, Coutinho, who was still only 22 throughout last season, hit one of those swift developmental upward curves, and Jordon Ibe, after several loan periods, emerged as the club’s most exciting prospect halfway through last season (with two or three other youngsters moving closer to the first-team picture).

A confluence of such players in the first team is probably the only way for Liverpool to beat the odds of being only the 5th-richest club in a race for four places, but there’s no escaping the inevitable risk that one or two will want out before that group of players matures together. Even so, it’s pretty rare for a 20-year-old to pull the kind of tricks that Sterling (aided by his agent) is pulling, but it’s not worth panicking over. After all, if Firmino can match or even better the English winger’s output whilst costing less than the £50m* Sterling will probably leave for (and on a lower wage than the Englishman was demanding), then the only worry Liverpool fans should have is about how much Sterling improves one of their rivals.

(*Liverpool would only get £40m of the Sterling money at that price, with QPR deservedly picking up the rest. So Liverpool could replace Sterling and even if Firmino cost as much as £29m, that’s a potential upgrade for less money and lower wages. And it’s always better to have players who want to be at your club than those who think they’re being hard done by.)

According to Who Scored, Fimino “created more chances from open play (138) than any other player in the Bundesliga in the last 2 seasons” – and that’s whilst not playing in an elite side. He also scored a total of 32 goals in the last two seasons, which is significantly better than Sterling’s record of 21 (although Sterling was still a teen for 18 of those 24 months, and Firmino provides yet another example that shows the typical trajectory of a player becoming more prolific between the ages of 21 and 23; see this TTT article for more on this, which can also be used to show how many top strikers were fairly barren before their early 20s, to compare with someone like Origi).

But for what proved to be a big mistake with Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson would have been the poster boy for Liverpool’s poor 2011 transfer business; and yet, as I anticipated, has become such an important player – because he was doing great things for a 20-year-old at Sunderland. Not all players will mature as expected, and I’ve been stung on other predictions; but players like Markovic and Ilori must not be written off simply because they haven’t established themselves yet.

Indeed, Chelsea have made a habit of buying players at that age and loaning them out to see how they progress (all the while recouping money in loan fees and saved wages). They then bring the best back to the Bridge – which is a minority – and the rest get sold off, often for profit. But even then they can find that players who don’t look good enough at 21/22 suddenly appear to be a solution for them at 24/25; hence the fairly expensive repurchase of Nemanja Matić. But it seems to be mostly “pure” defensive players where this late development occurs: centre-backs, goalkeepers and defensive midfielders.

Blueprints

I think the ideal transfer blueprints were set in the late ‘70s by two English clubs who won all five European Cups between 1976/77 and 1980/81; three for Liverpool, two for Nottingham Forest. Bob Paisley and Brian Clough were true geniuses, with the latter’s approach to transfers outlined in “Soccernomics”, and the great Paisley’s work analysed on these pages on several occasions.

Forest’s success was built on buying rejects, and players with ‘problems’ that were getting in the way of their brilliance. If the problem could be fixed, the brilliance could return.

In some ways this is what Liverpool did with Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho: players that Chelsea and Inter Milan didn’t particularly want, and whose brilliance was obscured (or not had not been fully developed). I’ve seen it said lately that maybe Chelsea had it right all along in offloading Sturridge, although if he never played another game for Liverpool then you’d have to say that £15m for 40 goals in 66 games remains insane value.

As I’ve discussed before, Paisley’s outfield signings averaged out at just 22 years of age. He went big and bold in the market only occasionally, with Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness the standouts, but the majority of his buys were fairly obscure younger talents, often from unfashionable and even tiny provincial clubs. It’s a different era, and the situations are very different; obviously Liverpool cannot rely on buys from Chester and Home Farm anymore, but the key was that these were very talented players for their age. They often just needed a year or two to get used to the way the club worked, the pressure and expectation, the style of play.

This was obviously experienced in the reserves, when reserve football meant something; Liverpool’s famed “secret” process, when other clubs lobbed all their signings straight into their XIs. Now this has to be done with loans, often with the player progressing up the divisions (or quality of leagues if overseas) year after year. If the player goes on a low-level loan, and then again the next year, he’s probably not going to make the grade. If he goes up a level every summer, he may stand a chance.

Jordon Ibe had a torrid start to life at Derby at the age of just 18, to the point where one fan labelled him a waste of a player, but then he found his feet. One of Paisley’s sayings was that you let your players lose their legs on someone else’s pitch (i.e. sell them before they “melt”), but the way it works now is that you let your youngsters find their legs – or in this case, their feet – on someone else’s pitch. And for young centre-backs, that often means making their rookie mistakes on someone else’s pitch, too. (I’ve said for many years that I wouldn’t trust a centre-back under the age of 25, but there are always a few exceptions to that rule; exceptions that almost always rely on blistering pace.)

Both Sterling and Ibe had time to get used to everything about Liverpool, having arrived as 15-year-olds. Both had at least two years at the club before getting near the first team.

Indeed, both benefited from what I see as the vital “easing in” process; a process which I outlined just under a decade ago as Shaun Wright-Phillips Syndrome: the way that that player gradually dipped his toe in the water at City, taking many years to establish himself as one of the country’s most exciting talents. Then, along with all the upheaval and pressure that comes with a transfer – especially the price tag – he was thrown in the deep end at Chelesa, with a fee that works out at £56m in today’s money (TPI). In his case, he sank.

Liverpool will also end up losing some really promising young players who never quite manage to cut it – Jonjo Shelvey being a prime recent example. But all clubs also lose plenty of older/big-money signings that arrive and never quite manage to cut it.

Clearly Shelvey was better than Jay Spearing, so it made sense to sign him back in 2010. Spearing has found his level, which is a bit below Shelvey’s – but at least the latter has proved he is a good Premier League player. He just wasn’t quite what Liverpool needed, perhaps due to mental shortcomings. But you have to label him as someone who, at 18, was well worth a punt all those years ago. Some youngsters, like Martin Kelly, will see injuries halt their progress, and have to move on having been given a fair amount of chances with the Reds, but fitness issues always got in the way.

Sebastian Coates is another example: it didn’t work out, but at 20 he was (literally) head and shoulders above many of his peers. As someone I’d describe as a Slow Giant I felt that he would probably never be trustworthy before the age of 25 (only quicker centre-backs tend to get established before that age), but he was worth a try. (Look at Slow Giant Gabriel Paletta, and how he matured later in his career, and Mikel San José who gained his first Spanish caps aged 25. Sami Hyypia, who was a virtual nobody in his early 20s, is the ultimate example of the Slow Giant.)

Similarly, Tiago Ilori was never going to arrive and force his way past Skrtel and Sakho, with his slight frame a major handicap for the bullying centre-forwards of English football. That said, he has the searing pace and the technique to succeed, once he’s been on the weights and got some of his mistakes out of his system.

Indeed, Emre Can had some of the pace that Coates lacked, and was built like two Iloris, so he was a rare example of someone who could play at centre-back at the age of 20. The snarky comments some fans make about him not being used in his best position baffle me, because at 20 (now 21), getting a game in central defence is an achievement in itself; and, of course, vital experience as part of his development. At the same age Steven Gerrard had already played right-back, right-midfield and left-back for Liverpool. Rather than harm him, I feel it did him some good.

The young German was perhaps the least-known of last summer’s buys, and yet has proved the best (to date). Having said that, I expected more from Markovic, but again, he has to be given time. For his sake he probably needs to be played in his best position more than Can, as Can is more versatile and robust, but if Markovic wasn’t going to oust Coutinho and Sterling from the team, it wasn’t so bad that he played wing-back rather than being on the bench. But a lot depends on how these players train and prepare, and how they react to adversity; do they get angry and hungrier, or do they crumble? And a manager can’t be “fair” to 25 players all at once; some will be unhappy. But I still feel that buying Markovic was the right thing to do, although perhaps at the upper limit of what should be paid for a 20-year-old.

Whatever the state of the first team, signing young, promising players should always be a priority at the club; the more established they are for their age, the better (although those who are world-class in their teens will cost too much and aim for clubs at the very top of the food chain). Equally, this has to be balanced with the overall make-up of the squad – which is why I would keep players like Lucas and Skrtel, especially with Gerrard and Johnson gone, and maybe others like Lambert to follow. (Kolo Toure is being kept on, perhaps for the fun he provides in the showers.) If the team is below 25 years in its average age it’s unlikely to succeed, but they can start to form bonds and uncanny understandings.

People will criticise buying young players, but I’ve repeatedly shown through our Transfer Price Index work, there is no clear advantage in signing older “finished article” players.

Chelsea had excellent half-seasons from Costa and Fabregas, but Man United got a fairly pitiful return from Di Maria (who didn’t even want to be there, especially once he was burgled) and Falcao. United’s best buy for the season the uncapped Herrera, but like Can at Liverpool, he took a few months to force his way into the side. Liverpool got much more from Can, 20, than they did from Mario Balotelli, 24, with the latter having 33 caps for Italy and having played for AC Milan, Inter Milan and Manchester City. And as disappointing as he was, I’m not sure Lambert was any worse than Falcao.

With hindsight we can say that Chelsea were right with their approach, but the mega-deals of English football lead to flops as often as they lead to successes – so we must be careful about cherrypicking examples. We can say that Arsenal were right to go big on Alexis Sanchez, but over two years they haven’t got an awful lot out of Mesut Ozil for the money (great talent that he is), and actually ended up with fewer points with Sanchez than they’d got the season before without him (when they’d actually challenged for the title until Liverpool dismantled them at Anfield in February; and in both seasons they won the FA Cup).

Despite that, both players could end up proving to be long-term successes, as we look back in 2019 or 2020; and the same is true of Di Maria at United. If that proves to be the case, then hopefully the same is also true of Markovic, Origi, Ings, Ibe, Gomez and others.

The key for Liverpool to find a way to keep the promising collective together, for them to develop an understanding on and off the pitch, and to not lose too many of them as they start to want what’s on offer from the richer clubs. And you can’t tie them all down to big-money contracts at an early stage. A big problem can come when offering them big wages to stay before they’re being head-hunted by others, and some of that hunger can get lost. Who wants to see 18-year-olds sated from already owning too many Ferraris? Despite that, the club did seem too slow to up his wage from £35k-a-week, and perhaps there’s a lesson there.

Conclusions

All new signings need a bit of space to breathe; a chance to take stock. Not all of them can go straight into the XI, as it’s not an XVIII, so some will be labelled flops before they’ve even got a chance to play. But this time out of the firing line could be crucial for them.

Of the six to have arrived so far (including Origi), only two look like they’ll go straight into the side: Firmino and Milner. But the rest may get some early opportunities, due to injuries (particularly to Sturridge) and suspensions. And hopefully players like Markovic and Lallana will follow on from Henderson and Sakho as signings who settled in their second seasons, or Coutinho and Suarez, who moved from very good to sublime in their third season at the club. And after missing almost all of 2014/15, anything the club get from Sturridge will be a big bonus; the proverbial “new player”.

And then there’s the fact that the transfer window hasn’t even officially opened yet…

> at SAP Arena on December 26, 2014 in Mannheim, Germany.

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