*Peter Crouch:* “Liverpool have won everything over the past two years, and I would expect them to retain the Premier League, too, given the form they have hit. But don’t kid yourself that a competition isn’t going on between Salah and Mane.
“Every forward player is selfish, and these two will want to score as many goals as they possibly can — Salah, in particular, looks obsessed with his numbers right now.
*Crouch:* Salah came here as a winger, but he has developed into one of Europe’s most prolific forwards; a goal machine. He was in the right place for his first at Crystal Palace and his second, to complete the 7-0 rout was absolutely beautiful
*Crouch:* “Mane’s face, having been substituted, was a picture. He was furious and rightly so because when you smell blood as a striker, the last thing you want is to be taken off.
“Is he and Salah the best of friends? I doubt it. But it doesn’t matter. I had strike partners who I knew never liked me. It never prevented me (from) getting on with my job.
When Jurgen Klopp gave Liverpool’s fans an early Christmas present 12 months ago, extending his contract until June 2024, he said something about how the nature of his job would begin to change.
“We will see what we can achieve together in that time, but there will probably be a moment where we have to change things,” he said. “We are ready to win whatever we can, but (also) to make sure — because there is always a time after me, after another manager — that the club is in the best possible position to carry on in the best possible way.”
Better that, he said, than “another manager coming and having to do this kind of not-really-thankful job and, like, rebuild or whatever”. It might look like the most enviable of jobs right now, in charge of a group of players he has described as “mentality monsters”. But rebuilding that squad over the coming years, deciding when and how to replace players who have been so integral to Liverpool’s resurgence, is indeed a tall order — particularly when you consider how hard Klopp and his players found it to say goodbye to Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana, who were peripheral, albeit highly popular, squad members over their final two seasons at Anfield.
The difficulty of the rebuilding question has crystallised with the case of Georginio Wijnaldum. The midfielder is about to enter the final six months of his contract, which means that, unless a new deal is agreed before January 1, he is only nine days from being able to sign a pre-contract agreement to join Barcelona, Inter Milan or another overseas club on a free transfer at the end of the season.
Wijnaldum, not unreasonably, is looking for a salary in keeping with his status as one of the Premier League’s most influential midfielders, a considerable improvement on the deal he signed upon joining Liverpool from relegated Newcastle United in the summer of 2016. He wants a contract that brings long-term security — again, not unreasonably, given that this will probably be the last deal he signs before his earning power starts to recede.
Klopp and Liverpool want to keep him, but there is unease — again, understandable — at the idea of offering a long-term contract, on increased terms, to a player who has just turned 30 and is unlikely to be quite such an integral part of their team in three or four years’ time. And for the first time in a long, long time, a Liverpool manager can tell his star players that, if they want to compete for the game’s biggest prizes, they are better off staying on Merseyside than moving to Barcelona or Milan (and if they really want to know whether the grass is greener elsewhere, they could ask Philippe Coutinho or Emre Can).
So many decisions like this lie ahead for Liverpool. It is far from an old team, but one consequence of getting their recruitment so right, investing in a core of players who have improved together under Klopp, coming to a collective peak together without the need for significant reinforcement over the past two seasons, is that this same core of key players are now in their late twenties or moving just beyond. While James Milner (34) is very much the old man of the squad, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson are 30, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri are 29, and Alisson, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are 28.
Handing out big, long-term contracts left, right and centre isn’t going to be an option, particularly given the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the club’s revenues. Neither, generally, is it advisable. And so Wijnaldum is, in some ways, a test case for Liverpool, one that will be watched with interest by several of his team-mates and their agents.
So many times we see big clubs misjudge these situations. In February 2018, Arsenal, amid great fanfare, handed a 29-year-old Mesut Ozil a £350,000-a-week, three-and-a-half-year deal to stop him leaving on a free transfer a few months later. They have been counting the cost almost ever since.
Ozil rarely played better for Arsenal than in the winter of 2017-18, scoring four goals and registering eight assists in 13 Premier League appearances before signing his contract. In just under three years since then, he has made just 48 Premier League appearances, scoring six goals and registering five assists. They tried and failed to offload him in each of the past four transfer windows. This season Mikel Arteta did not even register him in Arsenal’s Premier League or Europa League squad.
In September, again from a position of weakness, Arsenal re-signed a 31-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on a three-year contract worth an initial £250,000 a week. Again what seemed like a huge statement of intent from the club has been followed by a loss of form from a player who is no longer negotiating the most significant contract of his career.
Arsenal signed Willian, 32, this summer after offering him the kind of three-year deal that Chelsea had sensibly ruled out. That one isn’t going well either. (Remember when Arsenal, in the late 2000s, used to be criticised for offering only one-year extensions to players once they reached a certain age? In the post-Wenger era, they have gone to the other extreme.)
There are always other factors, of course — in Aubameyang’s case, Arsenal just aren’t creating chances like they were towards the end of last season — but the post-contract comfort zone is a well-known phenomenon in football. With older players, it is a risk that needs to be weighed up with extreme care, albeit not as dogmatically as Arsenal did in the late 2000s. There is a balance to be found, each case on its own merits and all that.
Ozil is an extreme case, though, and Wijnaldum seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum as a physically durable player who barely misses a game and often appears immune to the usual fluctuations of fitness, form and motivation.
In that understated way of his, Wijnaldum is performing so well right now. You will not see it in the goals or assists columns — or even in the more nuanced category of goal-creating actions per 90 minutes, where so far this season he ranks alongside goalkeepers Emiliano Martinez and Karl Darlow — but the recent wins over Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace featured superb performances from the midfielder. They showcased his consistency, his intelligence and his ability to receive and recycle the ball in the tight areas in which opponents try to force Liverpool to operate.
In a team that has lost Van Dijk to injury, causing Fabinho to drop back into defence, Wijnaldum has played a hugely important part in helping them retain that all-important drive and intensity in midfield and helping the wonderfully talented Curtis Jones, 19, make such impressive progress alongside him. Jones’s emergence could be said to have strengthened the case against a new contract for his team-mate, but the teenager does not underestimate how much Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum have done to help him on and off the pitch.
Wijnaldum has without question been one of Liverpool’s key players this season. Not because he’s “playing out for a new contract” but simply because that’s the way he plays, a top-class player at the peak of his powers in a top-class team. The challenge for Klopp and for Michael Edwards, the sporting director, is to try to work out how long that peak will last and to establish whether common ground can be found with the player’s (and his agent’s) expectations.
That is a calculation they found themselves making in relation to Thiago Alcantara last summer. The Spain midfielder, 29, arrived from Bayern Munich in September on a four-year contract which made him one of Liverpool’s best-paid players. So far, with a positive COVID-19 test followed by a wild challenge from Richarlison in the Merseyside derby, he has played just 135 minutes for Klopp’s team. (The impression he made during those 135 minutes can be gleaned from the excitement with which Liverpool supporters have greeted his return to full training.)
Bayern were faced with a dilemma over Thiago last summer when he entered the final year of his contract. They made the tough decision to sell him while they still could. By contrast, Liverpool, amid interest from Barcelona in Wijnaldum, avoided the temptation to cash in, a calculation based on his continuing importance to the team even if it involved the risk of losing him on a free transfer next summer.
At this point in time, it seems pretty reasonable to suggest that keeping Wijnaldum was the right decision even if they end up losing him on a free transfer (in which case the mistake, arguably, was allowing that contract to run down so far in the first place). Whether they made the right decision to pay £27 million for Thiago, even with just £5 million up front, when he would have been available on a free transfer at the end of this season, can only be judged over the course of time.
What is certain, though, is that Liverpool will face a series of dilemmas like this over the next couple of years. Van Dijk, Fabinho, Henderson, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Salah, Firmino and Mane are all under contract until June 2023. That is enough time to give the club some breathing space, but it will mean there are some tough decisions ahead. To have Salah, Firmino and Mane all roughly the same age, at the same stage of their contracts, is not ideal. Keeping hold of them all until they are in their early thirties, with fast-declining resale value, would seem unlikely given how proactively they have played the transfer market under Fenway Sports Group’s ownership.
Manchester City have had this with several of their key players over the past decade. Yaya Toure, such a giant of their team under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, ended up staying longer than he would have wished before departing on a free transfer at the age of 35. Vincent Kompany left for Anderlecht a year later at the age of 33, David Silva another year later at 34 and Sergio Aguero might do so next summer at 33. It is hard to appreciate the added value that Kompany and Silva in particular have brought to the dressing room even as their game time reduced, but keeping key players into their thirties has not necessarily helped the transition from one great team to another, as conventional thinking suggests it should.
Those situations remain a long way off for Liverpool, but in the meantime they certainly won’t want many players entering the final year of their contracts as Wijnaldum has. Whether that ultimately means losing him on a free transfer or offering a bigger, longer contract than they would otherwise have wished, it is the type of situation that clubs wish to avoid wherever possible.
The one certainty with Wijnaldum, as Klopp has said, is that his application and his consistency will not waver even if his contract runs down to the final weeks. It is one of the qualities which has made him such an integral part of their success story under Klopp — and which might just suggest he is worth making an exception for.