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Liverpool’s complex relationship with their owners closed another chapter as the calendar turned to September. Despite the Transfer Window ending in relative disappointment, the club made several astute deals again this summer on the acquisitions they did complete as well as on selling end. The problem for most supporters is that they didn’t make enough deals on the incoming side to satisfy the entire fanbase. The Reds do so well in fact on the selling side that it often hurts their cause from a PR standpoint.
Net-spend advocates make the justifiable argument that overall spending isn’t high enough, but it isn’t high enough because Liverpool often end up getting top dollar for their players. In the end the club puts out sparkling financial statements to grumbling fans. On some level, hidden in a spreadsheet somewhere many suspect that The Fenway Group are amortizing the cost of major development projects like the Main Stand and a new training facility into their transfer budgets.
Something went wrong with the recruitment of Van Dijk, though you can bet it isn’t anything that you’ve read thus far. It’s likely far, far worse for the club to have to back down the way that they did. How much that can be tagged to FSG we can’t know yet. It depends on who is responsible for whatever it was and where you draw the line between FSG and the club itself. In the end Liverpool upgraded the talent at the club and the depth of the squad, but it’s the moves they didn’t make that could leave supporters wondering what if? come May.
Two things happened this summer that I believe will cause FSG and owners across Europe to seriously reconsider their recruitment and player development strategy going forward. The cost of top-end players exploded, and RB Leipzig was allowed to be in the Champions League along with Red Bull Salzburg. Leipzig are able to move talent around in the same way that a Major League Baseball team can with their minor league satellite franchises. That is a huge advantage from a financial standpoint that Chelsea have in a way with Vitesse, Barça have with Barcelona B and Real Madrid with their Castilla reserve club.
Those clubs are able to develop youth, running them out against senior competition without any risk for the parent franchise. Supporters often joke that Liverpool might as well have just bought Southampton. The thing is they aren’t far off, and you can bet that this hasn’t been lost on our owners in Boston who are used to overseeing the RedSox along with their satellite minor-league clubs.
French side Sochaux went for $8 million. That’s the cost of the whole franchise, not one player. Nice was recently bought by a Chinese/US conglomerate and then an interesting thing happened, the same group bought Barnsley as well. You don’t have to be a financial genius to come up with a scheme where Liverpool’s youngsters could be developing faster across the Channel rather than in the U23’s. The Chinese are certainly recognizing that a network of clubs is better than just one. Players like Allan would be able to get the required experience for a work permit quickly and it would be more lucrative to FSG in general. If just one player developed into a first teamer that wouldn’t have otherwise it would have paid for itself many times over. Don’t be surprised if the coming months see a race between the top English clubs to buy up feeder teams on the continent.
The recent vote by Premier League clubs to close the Transfer Window before the start of the season is sure to lead to changes in the market but the exact impact is unclear. Opponents fear that clubs in the other top leagues will be able to gain an advantage through negotiating past the closure of the English window. Another possibility is that the lure of big money contracts will make agents push their players to England as a first option and only send the leftovers to Europe after the English window shuts.
The Fenway Group ultimately need performances on the pitch to lead to silverware for supporters to truly believe in them. Ticket prices are a constant talking point, but a recent move to follow Manchester United in compensating traveling supporters for their Spartak Moscow Visa costs is a step in the right direction.
Down the road one wonders if there are other ways for the club to monetize genuine, passionate supporters in return for lower ticket prices. The owners will never voluntarily take money for the club off of the table. However, the emergence of VR could lead to premium access packages paid by millions of Liverpool supporters if the experience were worth it. The All-Blacks already have experimented with this type of program for some rugby matches where you can virtually stand in the players’ tunnel, and view the stadium and the live match from any angle you choose. A tech savvy CEO could surely make Liverpool the forerunner for paid VR access to matches at Anfield, filled with local supporters paying affordable ticket prices, waving gigantic flags and burning pyro from safe-standing seats.
The club does seem to slowly be learning from it’s past PR disasters and the product on the field is probably the most entertaining in Europe. The goal now has to be to make the leap from competitive and entertaining to dominant and trophy winning. As has been the case a few times before under The Fenway Group, the club seem within touching distance of a new European resurgence. Will this be another false dawn, or will FSG finally assert themselves as the dedicated, long-term, supporter-focused owners that Liverpool fans deserve?