Liverpool have been linked with both Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen and Shakhtar Donestk forward Henrik Mkhitaryan over the last couple of days, but is this a sign that the club are planning to make a statement or two of ambition in the summer, or a signal that contingency plans are being prepared for the departure of Luis Suarez?
The club recently announced that net debt increased by a third from £65.4m in July 2011 to £87.2m in May 2012, which has seen many concerned that this could have an impact on their ability to compete for the brightest talents in Europe when the campaign finishes in the transfer market.
Manging director Ian Ayre dismissed the £22m rise in debt as a sign that the club were simply getting their house in order behind the scenes: “The accounting period we are talking about followed on from the fact we did a refinancing of our (banking) facilities, which gave us £120m facility over three years. As part of that £120m there was around £40m of stadium debt; debt that has existed on various projects we have worked on to find a solution to improved capacity.” He went on to cite that the club were still making payments on several players including Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson, while they had to fork out £9.5m in the summer for manager Brendan Rodgers and his backroom staff.
With a top four slot slipping away this term, which was to be expected in a period of gradual transition under a new coach trying to implement a new style, despite the club’s wage bill being radically reduced, what is clear is that the longer the club remains out of the Champions League, the more it will impact on their ability to attract top players and keep hold of world-class talents like Suarez. Should the Uruguayan stay next season, he will be doing the Merseyside outfit a massive favour, because he could pretty much name his price to any club in the world after the outstanding year he’s had.
The future of Suarez looks likely to be one of those tiresome transfer sagas that will dominate the back pages all summer, that is until he inevitably signs a massive bumper pay deal and stays for one more season before swanning off to either Germany or Spain. It’s a predictable situation that will continue to happen as long as Liverpool fail to establish themselves in the top four, while the aforementioned debt rise will play a part.
Rodgers refused to believe that the club’s budget will be compromised too much, though, telling reporters: “If you look where the club was at four years ago and where it is now it is a different place. Of course there is still debt there but I think next year’s results will show further improvement on that. In terms of me building the squad I’ve already got the assurances it won’t affect anything.
“I think you have to give massive credit to the board and FSG because they took on an astronomical amount of debt – almost £400million – so where it is at now in their short period of time here is a huge credit to them while still supporting the investment of the team.
“They have made every promise and every commitment to me that every single penny they have will go into generating the squad and making it better. We won’t be able to do it like some clubs and throw out masses each year but that is something as a club we are looking to standardise here while still growing the club and bringing in quality players and that won’t stop in the summer.”
The club’s heavy business during the January transfer window also has to be considered, with both Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho costing approximately £20.5m and it would be surprising if Rodgers was given anything more than £15-20m to spend on new players before departures. Any deal for Eriksen would likely take up the vast majority of that budget just in the same way that Joe Allen did last summer.
The recruitment of former Manchester City scouting duo Dave Fallows and Barry Hunter in September has already seen a shift in policy from the summer and bodes well for the future and it seems that Liverpool are seriously targeting Eriksen, with Ajax director of football and former Arsenal winger Marc Overmars admitting to De Telegraaf on Friday: “We have the list of the scouts of foreign clubs who have been here recently and Liverpool has been a regular visitor.” Meanwhile, reports have emerged that a two-man delegation was sent to keep tabs on Mkhitaryan.
The main sticking point aside from budgets will be convincing either or both of Eriksen to trade guaranteed Champions League football with Ajax and Shakhtar Donetsk for what at the moment looks at best to be another year in the Europa League. Prestige is the most important currency going in football and Liverpool haven’t got the biggest line of credit around.
The 21-year-old Denmark international would be something of a transfer coup should they convince him to trade the Netherlands for Anfield and he could really excel in that role at the tip of a midfield three which Joe Allen has struggled at times in and Jordan Henderson, who has impressed since the turn of the year, has seemingly failed to earn the full faith of Rodgers. Jonjo Shelvey is still regarded as a raw talent and Steven Gerrard has been moved deeper, while Coutinho has been earmarked for one of the two wide roles, so it certainly fits from a positional perspective and the biggest single move the club can make to convince Suarez to stay is to bring in a better calibre of player.
When it comes to Mkhitaryan, the Armenian international is possibly the most like-for-like replacement that could be pursued should Suarez leave at the end of the season. He’s comfortable in both a deeper-lying role and as he has shown this year, playing as an out-and-out striker, which will be a versatility that appeals to Rodgers, but the club are unlikely to be able to afford both Eriksen and the Shakhtar man, so it’s a case of either or, but it could just as equally be a contingency plan for Suarez, which is a wise move to ensure they are not caught short.
Liverpool have progressed under Rodgers this season, but when it comes to spending, there is simply not a limitless tap that will be turned on as soon as the transfer window opens again, so the debt and the good business done in January will have a huge say on the budget he is handed.
The club look to be targeting the sort of players capable of playing in the Champions League and bridging that sizeable gap between the top four and the top eight where they currently find themselves stranded in, but a lot rests on the shoulders of Suarez and his future, whether that be in terms of the shape and quality of the side, or the nature of their summer business and the players they are able to sign.