The defeats to Real Madrid and Manchester City were the most demoralizing of the season for Liverpool. Until now.
By stepping aside to allow others to fight for Jude Bellingham, Liverpool have been forced to make a humiliating statement about their current position. Unable to compete against their Premier League and Champions League rivals on the pitch in 2023, they have been forced to admit how far behind they are off the pitch as well.
Liverpool have pulled out of what was in danger of becoming a Bellingham saga for several reasons.
Firstly, they are not sure if the England midfielder will leave Borussia Dortmund this summer.
Secondly, they are even less sure Anfield would be his preferred option given the spending power of those who want it. Jurgen Klopp had no inclination to wait for the outcome of a bidding war when alternatives could be secured more cheaply and quickly.
Third – and most pertinent of all – Liverpool currently cannot afford to buy Bellingham and fund the rest of their summer spending even if they call Klopp and start singing ‘You Never Walk Alone’ on the phone.
There is awareness at Anfield of how negatively this revelation will be received. Indeed, Klopp hinted at it last week when he suggested some people “won’t be happy” with what the club does over the summer, although at the time, few expected him to step away from Bellingham.
It is understood that when the Liverpool manager is asked about the decision – which he will surely make before his side’s next Premier League match at Leeds United – he will stress how practical he is and how well he is with the club’s transfer strategy. Obviously he has no control over how much there is to spend, but no one is more influential when it comes to determining how to spend what there is.
Klopp has been forced to reassess what the team needs after a dismal campaign. Last summer, he may have envisioned a scenario in which Bellingham would be the perfect addition to a perfectly functioning, title-chasing, Champions League-ready team. Instead, he needs to refurbish with at least four first-class and expensive additions. This is impossible if its entire budget is allocated to one player.
Targeting Bellingham was always going to be tricky for Liverpool’s principal owner, John W. Henry, once supporter hopes were raised to such an extent that it was rather as if the club had their sights set on another title than player signature.
The more impressively Bellingham performed in a Dortmund and England shirt, the more his valuation went up and the more incompatible a summer deal seemed with Fenway Sports Group’s ownership model.
The clues were there all season that Liverpool were worried about what the teenager would cost. It was written in black and white when FSG announced the start of the investment search. But even if a minority partner is imminent, the methodology won’t change.
The club’s success under Klopp is based on the idea of identifying and recruiting young players before they become expensive superstars. Indeed, Liverpool needed to buy Bellingham when it could have cost £10m from Birmingham, no more than £100m from Dortmund.
The anomalies, of course, are the deals for Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, who set world records for halfback and goalkeeper at the time. You can make a long list of other expensive signings, but in any case also the shares recovered from the exits, from Phillipe Coutinho in 2017 to Sadio Mane in 2022. Liverpool sold as well as bought with Klopp.
Those hoping for a summer splurge on Bellingham believed the money had been set aside for the expensive ready-made midfielder Liverpool have needed since last summer. Indeed, when Klopp spent over £35million on Cody Gakpo in January, it seemed incomprehensible that he was doing so at the expense of missing out on his favorite summer target.
Klopp also spoke so enthusiastically about Bellingham, it’s hard to believe he gave up the idea of coaching him without deep thought and significant regrets. If there’s a glimmer of hope for those still hoping he ends up at Anfield, it could be that Bellingham opts to stay in the Bundesliga for another season, opening up the possibility for him to be more affordable at a later date. However, given the resources of his other admirers, that seems doubtful.
For Klopp and Liverpool, pressure to sign top-class alternatives will intensify. Chelsea duo Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher are definitely targets. Brighton’s Moises Caicedo is too. Ryan Gravenberch from Bayern Munich also fits the FSG template.
Wait for Klopp to announce that there is more than one midfielder in the world.
The counterargument is that this was the case last summer as well. Instead Liverpool made what now looks like a disastrous transfer error in waiting for what they really wanted but could never be sure of getting.