I started this blog post as a thought experiment about what you’d do if you were hired as the Manchester United Director of Football (assuming you placed job over whatever club loyalty you might have and decided not to burn the whole place to the ground).
But then I got interested by what Liverpool did. So let’s look at that.
I assumed, when you became the MUFC DoF, that the business side of things would be running fine (thanks Ed — genuinely!), and that it’s just the football side you need to worry about. Also, because that’s the way football is set up, that you’d focus on the men’s side and leave the women’s team as is (maybe you’d increase their funding radically by, like, docking two week’s wages from any random member of the first team).
United have already tried to get their team back on track by buying big stars, of course (Pogba, Di Maria, Alexis Sanchez-ish). Not quite full Galactico, but moreso than other teams. The fanbase are unlikely to give you time to go the Chelsea youth team route, buying all the kids you legally can to find one Tammy Abraham. So we’re at the Liverpool method.
What is the Liverpool method? Let’s start by looking at Sadio Mane: at the time, it was reported that he cost Liverpool ‘around £30m’. £30m in 2016 feels like, what, £40m-£50m today? That’s kind of still what Liverpool are buying their first-team options for. Alisson and Naby Keita were both just over £50m, and Fabinho was just over £40m. Virgil van Dijk is an exception, partly because of the whole tapping-up scandal, and partly because that delay gave time for Van Dijk’s star to rise.
If they’d managed to sign him when planned, the rumoured fee was around £60m — still a record for a centre-back, sure, but noticeably less than the around-£75m he eventually went for.
The price isn’t the only thing, though. All these major signings for Liverpool in recent years have been around 23-27 years of age when they’ve moved. Old enough that you’re not buying at-present-not-yet-fulfilled potential; young enough that you’ll get pretty much the entirety of their peak years.
Lemme break into my workplace and use Twenty3’s Content Toolbox *eye emojis* to do the most basic search for the 23-27 year-olds performing well on expected goals and expected goals assisted in Europe’s top leagues*.
*sidenote: this is another thing with Liverpool’s signings — it’s not as if they’ve had to look far. Hoffenheim (Firmino), Southampton (everyone), Roma (Salah and Alisson), Leipzig (Keita), Arsenal (Oxlade-Chamberlain), Monaco (Fabinho), Newcastle (Wijnaldum): barely any of Liverpool’s players have been gems unearthed in some far-flung league.
Mauro Icardi (PSG, loan from Inter; possible, but baggage); Serge Gnabry (at Bayern); Timo Werner (Leipzig; interesting…, we’ll come back to him later*); Neymar (PSG; nope, for many reasons); Morata (Atleti; interesting). Along with Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah himself, those are the big hitters. Let’s throw in Coutinho too, even if his rep and/or stats isn’t quite as big as the other players mentioned here, as he’s at the upper end of the age range and at a major club already.
*I originally forgot to come back to Werner. I’d aimed to point out that Liverpool had been rumoured to be interested in him but potentially put off by the price. LFC know their market.
So then you have a string of recognisable-ish names: Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli), Paco Alcacer (Dortmund), Kevin Volland (Leverkusen), Alassane Plea (‘Gladbach), Angel Correa (Atleti), Andre Silva (AC Milan).
And some names you might not know(/that I didn’t): Karl Toko Ekambi (Villarreal), Sargis Adamyan (Hoffenheim), Lucas Alario (Leverkusen), Adrien Hunou (Rennes), Goncalo Paciencia (Frankfurt).
Those lists are just from this season, and you’d want to check whether they had a decent track record of course, but it’s these two latter lists that you’d be working from to follow ‘the Liverpool method’, I think. People might be getting excited about your Christopher Nkunku or Marcus Thuram, but if they leave their respective clubs (both German ones, interestingly, and both recently bought) then the transfers be materially different types of risk.
With this in mind, let’s look back at Manchester United’s transfer history since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson (using rough fees and ages as I’m taking from transfermarkt without checking actual at-the-time figures. this is a newsletter after all).
2013/14: Marouane Fellaini (26, £30m); Juan Mata (25, £40m). In age and fee, for 2013, Fellaini probably fits the ‘Liverpool signing’ mould. Mata… similar, but more expensive.
Here is a good time to mention something else that’s very particular about Liverpool, though: they always seem to have a very good idea of where they want their signings to play, typified by Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain. If United had bought them for those fees, I feel sure they’d have been underwhelming, played in roles that didn’t suit them. Current-day Liverpool wouldn’t sign a 26-year-old Fellaini of course, because he wouldn’t fit well in the system (never mind the Everton connection), and that’s kind of the point.
2014/15: Angel di Maria (26, £70m); Luke Shaw (19, £30m); Ander Herrera (25, £30m); Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind (both around 24 and £15m). Herrera fits the mid-range mould, and I think United fans would all agree he proved to be a valuable signing. Di Maria’s the big bet, although I’m sure his stats were good at the time — but Liverpool’s only signing that big has been Van Dijk, a defender (who age better than forwards) who cost so much for unusual circumstances. Rojo and Blind: squad players. Shaw cost far more than Liverpool have bet on a youngster in a long time, interestingly.
2015/16: Anthony Martial (20, *googles, for once* around £35m that had an incredible amount of add-on clauses that were reported at the time as ‘up to £58m’). Morgan Schneiderlin (26, £30m); Memphis (21, £30m); Matteo Darmian (26, £15m); Bastian Schweinsteiger (yeah, we all know how this went, he was old and cheap).
Martial and Memphis — way more expensive than Liverpool have paid for a youngster in a while. United lost money on Memphis (caveat: Louis van Gaal) and it may only be thanks to inflationary fees that they’d make money on Martial above the roughly £50m they’ve probably paid for him in add-ons by now. Schneiderlin’s a ‘get what you see’ buy; Darmian and Schweini squad player profiles.
2016/17: Paul Pogba (23, Mino Raiola); Henrikh Mkhitaryan (27, £30m); Eric Bailly (22, £30m). Hmm. Pogba transfer has been discussed to death and is, for various reasons, enough of an outlier not to discuss again. Mkhitaryan is at the top of the age range, but feels like one of those ‘if he’d been in the right role he could have worked’. Bailly seemed a decent buy, but has been very unlucky with injuries.
2017/18: Romelu Lukaku (24, £75m); Nemanja Matic (29, £40m); Victor Lindelof (23, £30m); Alexis Sanchez (29, Henrikh Mkhitaryan). Their age and fee profiles, in order: bit pricey; wtf; decent; I guess he was better suited to the role United had open than Mkhitaryan so if we count it as a free it’s ok…?
2018/19: Fred (25, £50m); Diogo Dalot (19, £15m). Interestingly, neither from Top 5 leagues. Dalot is probably pricier than Liverpool would go on a teenager; Fred is at the pricier end of the profile, but came from Ukraine, which is a far harder comparison to the English Premier League than the major European leagues, where you have much more cross-country info to go on.
And now 2019/20: Harry Maguire (26, £80m); Aaron Wan-Bissaka (21, £50m); Daniel James (21, £15m). In order: United’s Van Dijk (in transfer profile, I mean…); faaaar more than Liverpool would spend on a young full-back; maybe a reasonable punt on a youngster, albeit from the Championship.
A few things strike me:
- Luck/’luck’. Although some of the profiles aren’t exactly what a ‘Liverpool method’ might go for, Di Maria, Mata, and Mkhitaryan are all players I feel could have worked out if things had gone slightly differently (on and off the pitch, to varying degrees). Maybe you can add Schneiderlin and Fellaini to this: with a flip of a coin and/or a slightly different role, could they have been another Herrera? (well, Fellaini kind of was, in how often he was used, just not appreciated anywhere near as much by fans). Think about the reverse too: what would we think of Liverpool if Salah and Wijnaldum, to pick a semi-random pair, had had as slow starts at Anfield as Keita has.
- Big-ticket youngsters. Having looked at the two recent transfer histories side-by-side, it’s striking the difference here. There are other factors at play (United’s continued financial muscle; Liverpool starting their process at depths United still haven’t quite reached), but even so. There’s always a higher chance that youngsters won’t pan out as planned than with older players; and United have consistently paid relatively big money for young and/or relatively unestablished players.
- Plan? Not only did United spend big on youngsters, but they did so at the same time, which feels like a lot of your annual budget to spend on risk. Also, the amount of full-backs points to a real problem. Shaw was terribly unlucky with his leg break, but that aside a teenager is still a gamble (and one United have repeated), Darmian shrug, Dalot is just an indication of what had gone wrong previously.
All of this isn’t even taking into account quality of the players when they moved, or the shape of the squad David Moyes inherited, or the ageing of the squad as the years have gone by. But it’s interesting how so little of United’s transfers in the past 7 years have been that mid-range, early-peak age profile that Liverpool seem to have perfected.
I want to stress that Liverpool’s method shouldn’t be copied religiously, and that there are still interesting questions to answer about what they’ll do in two or three years when those stars start to leave their peak age range. But when all is said and done, the £45m-25-year-old-from-a-Top-5-league is a profile that United should perhaps look more closely at.
Postscript: I have no idea how this profile scales across leagues. Does a similar principle apply lower down the Premier League, for clubs like Southampton and Newcastle, that the likes of Liverpool then buy off? Is it the £20m-25-year-old they want? Or does the financial landscape mean they need a different age range as well as price point? Ditto for leagues lower down the pyramid across Europe. Some clubs definitely seem to have worked it out though.