Are free transfers hurting Liverpool?

Players running down their contracts has become a common theme amongst the Liverpool squad as of late.

While the freeing up of the wage budget is undoubtedly a good thing, is Jurgen Klopp’s lack of saleable assets becoming a problem?

One thing that has been made abundantly clear across the entirety of FSG's reign over Liverpool Football Club is, despite the club's colossal status on the stage of global football, its financial might simply doesn't compare to that of some of their biggest rivals.

Therefore, Liverpool has developed a reputation for an incredibly shrewd transfer policy of spending smart rather than spending big. But in order to spend, you have to bring in money first.

In Jurgen Klopp's tenure, this hasn't just been a guideline to loosely follow, but a mantra underpinning every decision he makes about his squad.

In 2020, the well-known policy was confirmed by the man himself. "The only thing which is always true with us is what we earn on football, we spend on football," Klopp said. "That is the short summary of the philosophy of the club — one of the key points."

While Liverpool have clearly moved on from being a traditional "selling club" who need to let their biggest stars go at the peak of their saleability, so much of Liverpool's squad building has been influenced by the club selling the right player, at the right time, for the right price, and then pumping the money into other areas of the squad. Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker could only arrive in 2018 for the high fees they commanded because of the sale — impending sale in Van Dijk's case — of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for an astronomical £142m.

Like it or not, this is how FSG operate and they have been successful. Liverpool, particularly under the reign of sporting director Michael Edwards, built a reputation for getting inflated fees for surplus to requirements players (Kevin Stewart, Harry Wilson, Dany Ward, Dominc Solanke, Rhian Brewster) and then using that money to buy smart in the market on players who could actually make a difference to the first team.

However, in recent years the club seems to be struggling to recoup money through sales in the same way.

© Proshots - Sadio Mane

Case in point: Sadio Mane. A player on the top of his game, Mane ended his final season at Anfield in 2021/22 with 27 goal contributions in 51 games across all competitions. Along the way, the winger picked up an FA Cup, a League Cup and a major international trophy with Senegal. He was named Ballon d'Or runner up and might have ranked higher but for a Thibaut Courtois masterclass in the Champions League final.

So how much did Bayern Munich pay Liverpool for his services? A cool £27.5m. While I recognise that ordinarily, that is not a bad figure for a 30-year-old with one year left on his contract, you can't help but feel the club might have held out for higher for a player with the reputation, stature and ability of Mane — especially when you compare the deal to the those touted for Mason Mount and Harry Kane a year later.

The former has just completed a near £60m deal to Manchester United, and while still young, has never been on the level of influence of Liverpool's former forward. Then the latter, a player within a similar age bracket, had a reported bid of nearly £60m plus add-ons, again from Bayern Munich, swiftly rejected by Tottenham.

While it is evident that various factors — not least Kane and Mount's English passports — alter the value of a potential deal, the fact that the two players are valued at over double that of Mane, despite having one year left on their respective deals, does start to paint the picture that Liverpool's selling power isn't as strong as it once was.

The situation is more concerning when taking into account players who have left on a free transfer.

The first high-profile case in recent seasons was Georginio Wijnaldum, who joined the Reds for £25m but left for free in 2021. One year later, Divock Origi left for nothing, while the summer of 2023 saw the departures of Roberto Firmino, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Naby Keita. The quartet cost the club a total of £119m and recuperated a grand total of £0.

Of the 2019 Champions League final matchday squad, 13 players have since left Liverpool — eight on free transfers and only two of the remaining five commanded fees north of £10m (Mane and Dejan Lovren).

© Proshots - Jurgen Klopp

A plethora of reasons explain why players saw their contracts run down at Liverpool, but one of the most discussed amongst fans is the loyalty, and perhaps sentimentality, shown to players by Jurgen Klopp and the decision makers.

In a more ruthless world, all of the aforementioned players could, and perhaps should, have been sold before being allowed to leave for free. While Liverpool legends in their own right with not insubstantial dressing room influence, even the most hardcore Firmino and Milner fans would admit that the duo were past their best going into last season. Similarly, the club would have known about the availability records and impending contract dilemmas of Chamberlain and Keita — so why not act one year earlier and secure at least some sort of return on your investment to help balance the books?

The figures may not have been groundbreaking, but they certainly would have helped Liverpool's finances with an impending midfield rebuild on the horizon. Maybe it would have even made the £87m fee for Jude Bellingham seem more plausible.

Perhaps the most worrying part is that the club seems to be continuing in the same direction. Both Joel Matip and Thiago Alcantara are out of contract next summer, with neither showing any signs of departing this summer or signing new terms. Beyond that, it's hard to imagine a world where Jordan Henderson and Fabinho don't also leave the club for nothing.

Surely, in an incredibly inflated market, a club like Liverpool — whose prerogative has always been to live within their means — should be making the absolute maximum out of player sales before it's too late?

Instead, many of Jurgen Klopp's most high-profile players are getting to leave as legends, but the club isn't doing enough to make sure they can fund the next generation.

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