Fear of slipping out of Europe's elite led to 'Manic Monday'
Liverpool and Chelsea owners spent vast sums because they know the dangers of losing touch with the top four
Do not be deceived by all that talk about Moneyball and transfer market "sabermetrics". Liverpool's American owners have always been prepared to spill red ink when they take on new sports ventures. The Red Sox, the Reds... perhaps there's a clue in the name.
Billy Beane, the legendary baseball manager and "hero" of the book Moneyball predicted what has just occurred at Anfield. "There is a misperception that with sabermetrics you are not going to spend money," he told The Independent two months ago in a discussion about John W Henry, Liverpool's principal owner. "Metrics can help you see the potential in young players, who stay healthier and who you can pay less, leaving you more money to buy the great players." And so it came to pass that Henry splashed out big on a day that has entered the annals of transfer history as "Manic Monday" – just as he did on pitchers Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke in his first months at the Boston Red Sox in 2004. Henry would also have pulled off a breathtaking deal to bring Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez from Tom Hicks' Texas Rangers that close season, if the fates hadn't conspired against him.
There is a difference, though. When he was paying out big in New England, Henry was attempting to revive a baseball side who had not made it to the play-offs for three years and wondered how they would ever get back. The anxiety swirling around Liverpool is of a far more profound type. Put simply, it is a fear of being swept away from European competition of any kind at the end of this season. Put brutally, it is a fear of being no grander than Everton.
We know Liverpool feel this because their director of football strategy, Damien Comolli, said so 11 days ago. In a barely noticed extract from an interview he granted Canal Plus, he said that winning the Europa League was "the shortest and probably the only way for us to qualify for Europe next season". Liverpool were yet to receive the first of three Chelsea bids for Fernando Torres when Comolli spoke, though when a £28m bid was lodged a few days later, Comolli's dark prognosis seemed even more prescient. It is hard to overestimate the desperation of Liverpool's scramble to table their first bid for Andy Carroll on Sunday night.
It's not just the money that European qualification brings; it's your appeal when you head into the transfer market. "If you don't play in the Champions League it's as if you don't exist," Torres wrote in his autobiography El Niño a few years ago and if Liverpool are not even competing for what Steven Gerrard once described as the elite tournament's "ugly kid brother" next season, then their attempts to rebuild a side which Henry and Tom Werner felt from the start was horribly overloaded with overaged players would have been impossible this summer.
Ask Manchester City how it feels to be a club no elite stars want to join. It's why they feel they owe a huge debt to Gareth Barry for becoming the first player to join them in the summer of 2009, leading others to follow. But also ask Leeds United and Newcastle United how it feels to be a club slipping away from the European platform. In 2001, Leeds were playing a European Cup semi-final; three years later they were relegated. In 2002, Newcastle were playing in the second group stage of the Champions League; seven years later they were relegated. Fear drives spending and the reason why a mere £23.6m was spent in Spain this month reflects the fact. Real Madrid are seven points behind Barcelona but their European pedigree is firmly intact. Malaga, bottom of La Liga and the ones with worries, were biggest spenders.
Fear, in its own way, has also driven Roman Abramovich's decision to spend more in one day than he had in three years. Chelsea are rallying but they know, standing three points above fifth-placed Tottenham, that Champions League qualification is not their divine right this season. There was a time, not so long ago, when Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool did not need outright financial muscle to compete for the best players in the transfer market because they could offer them the supreme platform and know they would come. Manchester City and Spurs are sharing the platform now and City are offering considerably more money. There has been no interest in Torres at Eastlands this month but Chelsea knew that if it transpired that City could offer Champions League football next season and they could not, then Torres would not have needed that helicopter.
Manchester United have not been immune from this pattern either, even though the £3.5m they have spent on goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard bears out Sir Alex Ferguson's professed distaste for the January window. Ferguson wasn't so sniffy five winters back when, with his side stung by their early Champions League exit, he spent £10m for Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic. The reasons Wayne Rooney gave for considering a move elsewhere in October are entirely consistent with Liverpool's angst now: that the club might soon be struggling "to attract the top players in the world". Would Ferguson have been so abstemious had Rooney left and his generally unconvincing side struggled for results? Probably not.
Arsenal are a slightly different case, with Arsène Wenger unwilling to join the madness, though when the dust settled yesterday, some Arsenal and United fans may have asked themselves if their clubs would be the winners or losers by keeping out of it all. Privately, several Premier League managers believe that £35m for Carroll is not as ridiculous as it sounds, given the lack of young strikers coming through who can add to the home-grown quota, deliver five years' service and also cut it in the Premier League. United's £8m for 22-year-old Javier Hernandez looks like great business but they will need to spend in the summer, with Gary Neville, Wes Brown, Michael Owen, Owen Hargreaves and Edwin van der Sar to replace, and who is out there now? Who can Arsenal find if this is Cesc Fabregas's last season? There is a view within the game, incidentally, that City's £27m on Edin Dzeko will prove to be good value.
The Carroll deal should also be viewed through the lens of his £70,000-a-week salary. The Independent understands Torres commanded £130,000 so, like-for-like, the Englishman represents a saving of £15.6m over five years. The strike partnership Carroll is expected to form with Luis Suarez is resonant of the Alan Shearer/Chris Sutton combination which Dalglish put together to make Blackburn league champions in 1995. The £3.3m Dalglish paid out for a 22-year-old Shearer equates to £22m in today's money when run through the Current Transfer Purchase Price Index (CTPP) model created by Paul Tomkins, author of Pay as You Play. Tomkins' excellent analysis of the Carroll deal on tomkinstimes.com uses CTPP to calculate the most expensive transfers in real terms. It shows that Chelsea paid £38.3m for Shaun Wright-Phillips in 2005 and Juan Sebastian Veron cost Manchester United £36.8m in 2001. The price Shearer commanded when sold to Newcastle a year after Dalglish stepped down was £39m in today's money. The Liverpool manager certainly has pedigree in buying strikers.
Furthermore, Liverpool's sale of Torres and Ryan Babel means their net transfer spend after buying Carroll and Suarez is £1.8m. Uefa said yesterday that Financial Fair Play rules, requiring clubs to break even by 2013, would be implemented "with rigour" and on this score, at least, Liverpool have far less to fear than Chelsea. Now comes the truly imponderable bit. Was all that spilt ink worth it?
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