Transfers are not part of Peter Moore’s remit as Liverpool’s new chief executive and the club’s alleged tapping up of Virgil van Dijk predated his official start date in the job, but his first Premier League meeting in Harrogate on Thursday will have been awkward regardless. Southampton are not the only member club to regard an emissary of Fenway Sports Group with skepticism and suspicion.
Liverpool’s owners, including John W Henry and the chairman, Tom Werner, were heavily involved in the damaging decision to withdraw interest publicly in Van Dijk on Wednesday, 24 hours after Southampton complained to the Premier League of a clandestine approach and 48 hours after it emerged the Holland defender favoured a move to Anfield over Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
In a statement Liverpool claimed that “recent media speculation” was the source of “our regret”, which raises the question of why the plug was pulled on this summer’s transfer priority when countless targets who have been mentioned in the media have ended up at Anfield in the past. The evidence that Southampton allegedly have against Liverpool – Van Dijk meeting Jürgen Klopp in Blackpool, text messages from the manager to the player – suggests FSG would be justified in fearing an investigation into its club’s conduct should the Premier League take the complaint further. That could still happen, with the Premier League having written to both clubs to request their version of events. It is also worth noting that Liverpool withdrew their interest in a £60m-rated transfer, one that was months in the planning, following communication with Southampton earlier in the day.
Liverpool are under a transfer embargo at academy level for the next two years – the second year suspended – having been found guilty of tapping up a 12-year-old schoolboy from Stoke City and offering him and his family inducements.
Five years ago it was Fulham who received an apology from Liverpool after they reported the Anfield club to the Premier League for making an illegal approach to Clint Dempsey. Fulham were particularly aggrieved by a report on FSG’s website that claimed the USA international had joined Brendan Rodgers’ squad. It took a personal apology from Werner to Fulham’s then owner, Mohamed al-Fayed, followed by a letter from Liverpool’s then managing director Ian Ayre that stated: “Our club can do better and we pledge that it will,” before officials at Craven Cottage withdrew the complaint.
FSG is said to be concerned at the impact of the Van Dijk approach on Liverpool’s reputation, hence the sudden U-turn. Its dubious record in dealing with other clubs – whether on transfers or seeking to end the collective sale of overseas broadcasting rights – suggests an inability to learn from mistakes is the bigger problem.
It would be breathtakingly hypocritical of other Premier League clubs, or any professional club for that matter, to condemn Liverpool for sounding out a potential recruit. Equally, it is fair to accuse FSG or those who run the club on its behalf in England – the president, Mike Gordon, the sporting director, Michael Edwards, and Klopp – of turning what should have been a major statement of intent in the transfer market into a shambles. The warning signs did not emerge on Monday. It was 20 April when the Liverpool manager, discussing how Anfield is a more attractive proposition for recruits this summer, said: “The talks we’ve had so far are very positive. That doesn’t mean it will all work out but they are really positive and they all see the progress. That’s good.”
Klopp has missed out on a key defensive target before Liverpool had approached Southampton with a bid. Van Dijk may now question Liverpool’s commitment to a deal that always appeared problematic given he is under contract at Southampton for another five years. Liverpool have alternative central defensive targets having been conscious that Van Dijk would look elsewhere if Champions League football were not on offer – Burnley’s Michael Keane, Hull’s Harry Maguire and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly are among them – but can ill-afford further blunders as they strive to build on last season’s progress. Efforts to sign Mohamed Salah have also stalled in recent days with Liverpool reluctant to meet Roma’s asking price.
It was only last week that Moore, on his first day as Ian Ayre’s successor, stated that Liverpool “won’t be spending £100m just because Manchester City has spent £100m”. But Liverpool, and FSG recognize as much, do need to invest £100m-plus in a squad that will be competing, Klopp hopes, for the Champions League and Premier League title next season. Considering Liverpool were offering £28m for Salah at the time and had treated a £60m target to a day out in Blackpool, Moore’s attempted contrast with City’s expenditure was somewhat inaccurate. City’s ability to get two signings worth £78.3m over the line with a minimum of fuss – Bernardo Silva and Ederson – is another contrast that reflects poorly on Liverpool.
There remains plenty of time and money for Klopp to enhance his squad of course but, without another dramatic turn of events in the Van Dijk saga, the rebuilding will continue without the player he wanted for the cornerstone of Liverpool’s defense. A severe and avoidable setback.