Virgil van Dijk is the perfect symbol of Liverpool’s flawed transfer policy. The Southampton defender should be wearing red when the teams meet in front of the Kop on Saturday. That he is appearing for the away side is a serious indictment of Anfield’s summer window.
Throughout the past three years, Liverpool have had an unhealthy reliance on buying from Southampton. The Merseyside club have returned to St Mary’s again and again to pad their squad. It is a little surprising. The production line has hardly been an unqualified success.
Sadio Mane has probably been the best of the crop from the South Coast, but Adam Lallana’s impact has been impressive. Nathaniel Clyne was relatively inexpensive, but has not quite lived up to his potential. Rickie Lambert’s “dream move” ended with the 30-something striker sleepwalking through a single season on the periphery of the squad and Dejan Lovren’s career at Anfield is still unfolding in nightmarish fashion.
Even the latest acquisition, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, began his career at St Mary’s. Liverpool were interested enough in 2011 to ask to be kept informed about his status if Southampton were inclined to sell the 17-year-old. The South Coast club duly made the call when the teenager was available, but received no response from Anfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain then moved to Arsenal for £12 million. Liverpool finally got their man this summer, spending £40 million on the 24-year-old who was struggling to get into Arsene Wenger’s side. Oxlade-Chamberlain has started one Premier League match for his new club so far.
Much of this business took place before Klopp’s arrival in England. Only Mane has made the direct journey during the German’s time in charge. Van Dijk will probably join him soon. Even if the Dutchman does not make his way to Anfield, more than a quarter of the players for whom Liverpool have paid fees since 2014 have come directly from Southampton.
Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners, admire the way they do things at St Mary’s. FSG wanted to develop a similar system where they bought or developed young players, improved them and increased their sell-on value. Cashing in on players is not the primary ambition at Anfield. Trophies remain the target for the owners. Unfortunately they have been unable to win silverware or create a successful recruitment policy.
One of the biggest indictments against Michael Edwards, the sporting director who oversees Liverpool’s player acquisition, is his dependence on Southampton. This, coupled with the inability to build a coherent defence, throws up question marks about the way things are done on Merseyside.
Liverpool have the financial muscle to compete with all but Europe’s richest clubs. Going back to the same well repeatedly suggests a failure of scouting as well as a lack of imagination.
Klopp has the chance to change this. The 50-year-old is critical to Liverpool’s direction in the next five years — he is under contract until 2022 — and that makes his health scare this week extremely worrying. The club needs him fit and firing and able to shift the emphasis of the recruitment strategy to bring in players who suit his style.
So far, Klopp has been steadfastly supportive of the transfer dealings, but there are concerns in the German’s camp that progression on the pitch has not been fast enough. There is an awareness that the mood of the supporters is on a knife’s edge. A series of poor results would create an unhealthy mood in the stands.
When Liverpool’s attack is at their seductive best, some of the problems in midfield, defence and the goalkeeping position are easily overlooked. This happened at the beginning of last season and raised ambitions. When the forward line are not sparking, the deficiencies in other areas come under the spotlight. More than two years into Klopp’s tenure, fourth place in the Premier League and Champions League qualification remains the ceiling for expectations.
Edwards keeps an extremely low profile and the manager is the lightning rod for criticism about signings. Brendan Rodgers took flak for poor performance in the transfer market and some of the criticism was undeserved. There are times in Anfield’s recent history when the requirements of the manager have not been paramount when buying players. It is a trap Klopp needs to avoid.
Southampton’s system of buying cheap and then selling for a profit appears to be running out of steam. This season, under Mauricio Pellegrino — who was briefly a Liverpool centre-back himself — they have struggled to score goals. Their three league victories have come against sides in the bottom five. This could be a season in which they get sucked into the relegation fight.
Van Dijk will get to show how good he is in front of the Kop. The 26-year-old’s performances for Southampton this season have done little to suggest that he will be the man to solve Klopp’s defensive woes. Liverpool might have to get much more creative in the transfer market to solve their untrustworthy back line.
In the short term, Klopp will aim for the sort of straightforward victory over Southampton that will give him a boost after a difficult week. Further down the line, the German will look forward to a time when playing the South Coast club no longer throws up a multitude of questions about Liverpool’s recruitment policy. After each disappointing window, the pressure builds for everyone at Anfield.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.