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05th Sep 2016

The inside story of Liverpool’s transfer window: How Jurgen Klopp’s influence took hold

Tony Barrett

Having spent much of the previous 25 years acquiring left backs of various levels of inadequacy, in the most recent transfer window Liverpool came up with a radical approach to dealing with their problem position for a generation by signing none.

The concern caused by a weakness going unaddressed was as predictable as it was understandable but no one should be under any illusions that the business that was done, for good and bad, was wholly in keeping with the principles and vision of their manager.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14: Sadio Mane (2ndL) of Liverpool and team mates celebrate his goal with Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on August 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

This, in itself, is progress. Jurgen Klopp did not get everything he wanted in the 88 days between the window opening in early June and closing in the penultimate hour of August, but in the ways they bought and sold and the ways they did neither, Liverpool’s behaviour in the market carried all of the hallmarks of a manager who knows what he wants but isn’t always prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. While many managers view price tags as a concern for their employers, Klopp’s approach to transfer fees is much closer to Arsene Wenger’s than it is to Jose Mourinho’s.

In that respect, valuations were crucial to everything that Liverpool did over the course of the summer. Those attached to players already at the club had to be met if they were to be allowed to leave, while those of their targets would not be stretched if deals were to be struck.

BURTON UPON TRENT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23: Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool looks on prior to the EFL Cup second round match between Burton Albion and Liverpool at Pirelli Stadium on August 23, 2016 in Burton upon Trent, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

At a time when Steve Parish, the Crystal Palace chairman was stating that “everyone (in Premier League circles) thinks that money is almost a bottomless pit and everyone can get a piece of it,” Klopp refused to play the money game unless he believed it to be in his favour.

The end result was a negative net spend and a squad which has been strengthened in some positions but not in all. Concern that Liverpool have not done enough might be easy to find but it is not shared by Klopp.

“We have bought enough and if I am convinced, I am convinced. It’s for the good of the club, not for the good of me,” Klopp said in an informative interview with Martin Samuel in the Mail on Saturday.  The message is clear: even if it means using James Milner in a position he does not like playing in because Alberto Moreno is either not good enough or needs his glaring shortcomings to be addressed out of the spotlight, Klopp is prepared to do that if he feels the option of buying a left back is not in Liverpool’s best interests.

Inevitably, that will provoke debate and criticism. Liverpool is not a club where weaknesses are overlooked by their supporters, it is one which is subjected to forensic scrutiny on a minute by minute basis.

Even those who do not pore over every minute detail of their playing squad know enough to recognise that Liverpool would benefit from a competent left back, but in a frenzied market which, regardless of Premier League clubs spending more than £1 billion on players in the space of three months, provided little value and questionable quality, Klopp was willing to make do and mend. At a time when quick fixes are all the rage, it was a brave decision and one which he will inevitably be judged upon in the coming months until Jim White’s circus comes to town again in January.

Had Klopp been otherwise inclined, Liverpool would already have a new left back in their ranks but the £10 million fee that Leicester City were seeking for Ben Chilwell, a 19-year-old who is still to make his Premier League debut, went beyond what Klopp thought reasonable and the deal was not done.

Given Liverpool had sold Jordon Ibe and Brad Smith for a combined total of almost double that amount, Leicester’s asking price for Chilwell might not seem excessive, but Klopp’s logic is that the minute you start paying over the odds you make yourself a hostage to fortune and that is something he remains reluctant to do.

That much was clear on his first day as manager when he used his opening meeting with Liverpool’s recruitment department to establish the themes that would underpin their future transfer activity. As well as identifying immediate targets – Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan and Loris Karius among them – Klopp also underlined his own philosophy and methodology with the key to both being finding value and prioritising team spirit.

Players not only had to want to sign for Liverpool, they had to buy fully into his vision. If they didn’t, if they prevaricated in any way, tried to hedge their bets or seek unreasonable rewards, deals would not take place.

Such fundamentalism put paid to a proposed move for Mario Gotze when the German international asked to wait until after Euro 2016 before deciding on whether to commit to Liverpool. Seeing that move for what it was, Klopp duly pulled the plug. He was not about to build his transfer strategy around a player who could easily be tempted elsewhere in the event of him having a good tournament.

Other targets were missed due to timing rather than ideology. Like Karius, Klavan and Matip, Mahmoud Dahoud had won Klopp’s admiration as a result of his performances in the Bundesliga and the Liverpool manager had wanted to add him to his midfield options at Anfield. His interest, though, was thwarted by Borussia Monchengladbach who refused to countenance Dahoud’s sale during a summer in which they had already lost Granit Xhaka to Arsenal. But all that has done is delay the 20-year-old’s departure, particularly as he has now entered the final the final two years of his contract. Given they have spent much of this summer in talks with his agent, Reza Fazeli, over a new contract for Emre Can, whom he also represents, Liverpool remain in the box seat to sign Dahoud in the future.

Similarly, an unsuccessful late move for Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic does not signal the end of Liverpool’s interest. Under Klopp there is a willingness to play the long game for the right targets and there is also a refusal to pad the squad out with short term alternatives except in extreme circumstances. Klopp would rather wait for the players he most wants to become available and make do with what he has than sign ones from the lower reaches of his priority list. Again, as with the left back situation, this approach requires a patience that is not always available in a game driven by instant gratification but it is Klopp’s way and he is fully prepared to stand or fall by it.

Another element of Liverpool’s transfer activity that has been largely overlooked was how content Klopp was with a number of of players who were already at his disposal.

That came across in his earliest meetings with Liverpool’s hierarchy when he openly admitted to having taken a previous interest in the likes of Divock Origi, Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino. The more he worked with the squad that he had inherited from Brendan Rodgers, the more his initial sense grew that this was a group of players that was ripe for improvement . This was a message that he relayed continuously during transfer planning meetings and one which informed all of the business that Liverpool did – and didn’t – do in recent months.

He was also – and this is crucial to everything that followed – happy to work within the club’s existing scouting model. While key changes were made to Liverpool’s fitness and physiotherapy departments, the way they go about identifying potential targets and recruiting players remains unchanged with the only real difference being driven by Klopp’s knowledge of the Bundesliga and ability to access that particular market.

Upon his appointment as manager the previous October, Klopp had insisted he was happy to operate as one cog in a collegiate machine when it came to transfers and at no stage has he deviated from that commitment.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 06: Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool looks on during the International Champions Cup match between Liverpool and Barcelona at Wembley Stadium on August 6, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

What is now abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, is that Klopp knows his own mind and knows how he wants to work and who he wants to work with. Christian Benteke didn’t fit in with any of his manager’s ideas and so was sold with Liverpool achieving their £30 million valuation of the forward who had rejected the opportunity to move to China six months earlier when a Super League club had offered £45 million for his services. Equally, Danny Ings fits in with Klopp’s vision and as a result Liverpool were empowered to reject approaches that valued the former Burnley player at £20 million.

But even when a player was earmarked for departure, Liverpool were unwavering in their desire to sell for the best possible price. Benteke, eventually sold for almost twice the amount offered initially by Crystal Palace, is a totemic example but at the other end of the scale, Liverpool, armed with the knowledge that Deportivo La Coruna were about to sell Lucas Perez to Arsenal, refused to sell Luis Alberto to the La Liga club for €3 million and their resistance was rewarded when the midfielder joined Lazio in a €5 million deal.

It is that combination of a newly found ability to make the most of a sellers’ market, Klopp’s unwavering commitment to achieving full market value, his belief in player improvement through coaching and a willingness to be patient which mean Liverpool ended the transfer window with the squad that they have.

Time will tell if it is good enough to compete but, regardless of the clamour for a new left back going unheeded, Klopp is happy with the business Liverpool have done and how it was done. Now he has to demonstrate that progress has been made by proving it on the pitch.     

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