It is no longer the Liverpool way, any more, to have last-minute drama in the transfer window. Not in the summer, most certainly, not in January.
Under the current regime and their sporting director Michael Edwards, such unseemly panic was seen as a sign of bad management, of a failure to plan properly. They were happiest when no business was done in January at all, because that showed their long term planning was working.
Even when signings were made, like the arrival of Virgil van Dijk three years ago, they were the result of long careful pursuit, and never dragged out until the last desperate hours of the window. So what changed this time around? What provoked such a dramatic departure from emphatic policy?
The seeds can be found way back in early October, when the summer window closed. Liverpool allowed two centre backs, Dejan Lovren and Ki Jana Hoever to leave, both sacrificed to raise funds – more than £20m – to offset the signings of Diogo Jota, Thiago and Kostas Tsimikas in a difficult financial climate.
It was a gamble, and they knew it, even if Hoever was never tall enough for Klopp’s idea of a centre half. All Premier League clubs have lost into the hundreds of millions with the impact of Covid, and the financial people at the club realised they had to be pragmatic in the market.
So those sales, along with Rhian Brewster and Ovie Ejaria raised almost £50m to offset signings that could eventually cost around £70m.
In an ideal world, they would have sold other players, but the market was badly affected, and they were the only deals available. It left Jurgen Klopp with only three senior centre-halves, but the manager was not overly unhappy.
Van Dijk barely missed a game, and over the previous two seasons, Matip and Gomez had competed to be his partner.
And then there was Fabinho, who given Liverpool’s midfield strength, could be utilised as a centre half. So it was considered a gamble worth taking, especially if one of the younger players stepped up. Klapp particularly liked the promise of 18-year-old Billy Koumetio as a long term fourth centre back.
Barely 10 days later though, one fateful grey Merseyside afternoon changed all that, and made the gamble seem almost reckless. Against Everton, in the heat of the Merseyside derby, van Dijk was a high profile casualty, Jordan Pickford’s challenge effectively ending his season.
But not spotted in the furore that followed, was that Matip was also injured in that game…and that caused a ripple effect on his fitness, which eventually saw him succumb to the ankle damage which has now also ended his season.
As Klopp said this week: “In the Everton game something started and our situation with Virgil out and Joe out, we always had to try to find the first moment when he is able to play again. Now he is out for the season.”
Soon after, Gomez was injured and again effectively ruled out for the season. In that moment, Liverpool knew they could not manage without a fit senior centre half for the rest of the campaign, given Matip’s ongoing situation.
Where they had been content to monitor the January market and only move for a fourth centre half if conditions allowed, now their need was greater, imperative. One problem. The financial impact of Covid made things much, much worse.
As Klopp has patiently explained, there is no chance Liverpool, with losses directly attributed to the worldwide pandemic of around £200m in one year, could go out and splash £80m on a defender. And even if they could, no clubs were prepared to sell a player of that quality.
So the search had to be around the margins. Edwards has close relations with RB Leipzig and spoke quietly to them about both their centre-halves, Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate. But the German club were in no rush to sell, had no need to sell, making their valuations eye-watering in the current climate.
Even worse, Liverpool then drew them in the Champions League knock out, making any deal virtually impossible. Both remain on the radar, but a January deal was a fantasy.
They looked at other long term targets too, to see if they could be accelerated. Edwards and his team had been looking at potential replacements for Lovren, and eventually Matip too, when his contract is up at the end of next season, so were looking in the younger age profile.
Sven Botman at Lille was a candidate, so too the Turkey international Ozan Kabak, who at 20 years old, came with some impressive recommendations from Klopp’s trusted and closest friends in Germany. Neither though, were seen as instant fixes.
So when the asking prices were – in Klopp’s own words – “crazy”, Liverpool continued their search elsewhere, with names such as Marseille’s Duje Caleta-Car entering the picture.
The pressure to find a defender was great, but results in the immediate aftermath of van Dijk’s injury eased it, Liverpool going on an eight-game unbeaten run following the disastrous Everton fixture.
Yet the clouds were gathering. Gomez was injured in early November, and ruled out for the season. And it was also becoming increasingly clear Matip was suffering knock-on problems from his original problem that was exacerbated at Goodison.
They knew they needed a defender, but knowledge and action are two different things, and they could not be held to ransom, given the financial constraints. Even a cursory look at the way the club is run, details that Liverpool are no Manchester City, they will never burn cash to solve problems.
The 7-0 win at Crystal Palace again offered breathing space, but it was a temporary respite, Matip was injured in the next game against West Brom, and by then, Klopp was clear – he needed reinforcements, and quickly.
Again though, the conditions in the January market which previously persuaded Edwards and his team to avoid that window, made it extremely difficult to solve Liverpool’s problems. Klopp last week said “in an ideal world, the short term solution would also be the long term one”, but that was blue-sky thinking.
The reality is, only a handful of central defenders could fit easily in the Liverpool system within days of arriving, and they were simply not available. So even though it was imperative they acted as soon as possible after the window opened on January 1, there was not that player available, within Liverpool’s price range. Full stop.
So January dragged on and results suffered. Klopp got more and more agitated, his frustration at the lack of any arrivals finally persuading him to go public with some pressure on the financial people at the club.
“It is all clear. It is all on the table. We work on that, you can imagine. But it is not having the money exactly as you want, and I cannot spend the money. I don’t make these decisions,” he said, seemingly through gritted teeth.
“There are people who are responsible for the whole thing, and I cannot make their decisions.”
In Klopp’s world, where he has never gone public in his entire career against his owners, that was a barely concealed message. He needed action.
Things came to a head just four days before the window closed, in London, ahead of the Tottenham game. Fabinho was forced to sit out the final training session before that crucial match, and Matip limped off at half time, his season definitively over.
So where there was hope Liverpool could somehow make do and mend if they couldn’t find the right signing, then now there was no chance of that. Action was required, just to get the numbers.
Edwards went into action with a cheeky deal for Preston defender Ben Davies, whose stats look promising, a defender who can pass and also win challenges. Experience of unique English conditions too, albeit in the Championship. A punt. But then Andy Robertson was a punt.
Davies is not expected to come in and play instantly. He will be looked at, will be given a chance to prove he can outperform Phillips, who has impressed in the last two games. If he comes off, it will be a bonus, but there are no illusions.
He will be sold at a profit if it doesn’t come off. But at least he adds numbers, and competition to Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, the inexperienced players who were charged with filling the squad at the start of the season.
Kabak is a different situation. He was always viewed as a long term prospect, a signing possibly for next summer, when he could fit in as Liverpool’s fourth choice centre half, and Schalke’s stance on the fee – at more than £35m – made that more likely.
But as the window dragged on and it seemed apparent Liverpool were unlikely to do business, the German club began to panic themselves. Their financial situation is dire, with relegation from the Bundesliga looking almost certain already.
So they eventually came to the table at the last minute, to agree a loan without a commitment to buy, and a fee that will total around £20m, if Liverpool do decide to do business in the summer. They tried poker, and lost.
Again, at 20 he is unlikely to go straight into the team, but Klopp has had good reports on his aggression and leadership qualities, so if he settles quickly, could become an option sooner than anticipated. If not, then the deal will be shelved and the club can go back to their pursuit of Upamecano, Konate, or Caleta-Car. Or other targets.
While the late drama on February 1 provided excitement for fans, the coming weeks will show that neither signing is seen as an instant fix. Fabinho will be back against Manchester City, and is likely to be partnered by Henderson.
Two midfielders playing centre half, while the Reds have four centre-halves in reserve. But the logic is clear. They need at least one to step up over the next month or so, to free up at least one of their midfielders.
Ironically, Phillips has shown promise of doing that in his last two matches. If one of the two new signings can also do the same, then Liverpool could have enough cavalry until van Dijk and Gomez return, possibly right at the end of the season.
The two transfers on deadline day were inevitably hailed as another “Michael Edwards coup”…because that’s how fans like to see it. It is always a triumph. Until it isn’t. But It is far from that.
A coup would have been signing a player on January 1, to avert the free-fall that subsequently happened throughout the month. A coup would have been signing a defender who could go straight into the team. But it is shrewd business none the less, under the circumstances.
Liverpool have two defenders for virtually nothing in modern terms, and can offload both swiftly, probably making a big profit. And they at least have bodies, if hardly of elite level. Yet.