Losing Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah would test even Liverpool’s squad-building prowess - bdsthanhhoavn.com

Losing Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah would test even Liverpool’s squad-building prowess

In the weeks that followed their Champions League triumph in 2019, Liverpool waved a fond farewell to three players who had played a part in the club’s resurgence under Jurgen Klopp.

Klopp hailed Daniel Sturridge as “a modern-day Liverpool great”, Alberto Moreno as “world-class” and Simon Mignolet as “an outstanding person” as well as an “international-class goalkeeper”.

Twelve months on, Liverpool were champions of England for the first time in 30 years but Klopp admitted to a lump in his throat as he said goodbye to Adam Lallana (“a legend here”, “I’m already missing everything about him”) and Dejan Lovren (“another Liverpool legend — a very, very important part of this team from the first day I was in”). He meant it, too.

Last year, it was Georginio Wijnaldum and, although disappointed by the midfielder’s failure to agree a new contract, Klopp was not going to allow that or anything else to cloud his deep affection. “We have built this Liverpool on his legs, lungs, brain and his huge, beautiful heart,” the manager said. “I love him and he will always be family.”

Breaking up is hard to do, particularly for a manager who is as emotionally invested in his players as Klopp.

It pained him to part with players like Nuri Sahin, Lucas Barrios and Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund — and that’s before it came to the shock of Mario Gotze’s defection to Bayern Munich, which Klopp likened to a “heart attack”, and Robert Lewandowski’s move to the Allianz Arena a year later.

But has he ever lost a player who has given him so much over such a sustained period as Sadio Mane?

From the moment Klopp extended his contract at Liverpool to 2026, he knew the next phase of the club’s evolution would involve some difficult, painful departures. Saying goodbye to Joe Gomez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Divock Origi would be hard enough. Waving off Mane? And potentially Mohamed Salah in a year’s time? That seems almost unthinkable.

It emerged after last weekend’s Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid that Mane, after six years on Merseyside, feels ready to embrace a new challenge.

Given the opportunity to quell the speculation when he faced the media while on international duty on Friday evening, he preferred to cite an online poll that said, “60 to 70 per cent of Senegalese (…) want me to leave Liverpool”, adding “I will do what they want. We will see soon.”

Mane made clear the following day that his comments were playful rather than entirely sincere and that, “Liverpool is a club I respect a lot. Regarding the future, we will see.”

But nobody at Anfield is in a state of denial. Mane’s head has been turned by interest from Bayern and, with only a year left on his contract, his club must decide whether to cash in now, make him an offer he can’t refuse, or allow him to leave on a free transfer next summer.

It was reported last night that the Bundesliga champions have already made their first move, offering Liverpool an initial £21 million with a further £4 million in potential add-ons. Liverpool have indicated an unwillingness to sell, but Bayern are firmly expected to return with an improved offer.

Sadio Mane, Liverpool

A supporter holds up a cardboard cut-out of Mane urging him not to leave Liverpool during the club’s trophy parade in May (Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Salah? The same uncomfortable dilemma exists even if, unlike Mane, he intends to stay at Liverpool next season regardless of the uncertainty surrounding his contract, which also has just over a year to run.

The uneasiness over Salah and Mane’s futures hung over Liverpool throughout the final months of their season. There was a hope within Anfield that they would join Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in signing new long-term contracts last year. But the summer came and went without a breakthrough. In both cases, negotiations have proved problematic.

In Mane’s case, any tensions were kept private as he and his team spent the season challenging on four fronts with no let-up. Only since the Champions League final has news of his restlessness emerged.

Salah’s agent Ramy Abbas has been rather less diplomatic. When Klopp said in March that Liverpool “cannot do much more in the talks” and that “I think the club did what the club can do”, Abbas responded by tweeting seven laughter emojis, as if to say the club needs to do a damn sight more or their star player will leave.

It is not known precisely what Salah and Abbas have asked of Liverpool. Salah has repeatedly said “it’s not all about the money” and, while his agent’s frequent interjections tend to reinforce the reverse, it is to the club’s credit that there have so far been no leaks or briefings about what the two players might be looking for or what they have turned down.

Klopp would be entitled to feel frustrated, though. He has restored Liverpool to a level where they can hold their own among Europe’s finest once more — not just to the level he took Dortmund to in the early 2010s but beyond that, and for a longer period. But when it comes to financial muscle, there are certain clubs they cannot overcome.

With a wage bill of £314 million in their most recently published accounts (for the 2020-21 season) Liverpool are hardly paupers, but that was less than Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premier League — and less than Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Real and Bayern among their European competitors.

Of those clubs, Liverpool ranked seventh-highest for revenue. They were fifth-highest the previous year, when they earned more prize money and much more match-day revenue prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the general point is that, among the game’s super-rich elite, other clubs pay more. Either they generate more money than Liverpool — in some cases through commercial contracts that appear to owe more to the club’s ownership model than to the strength of its brand — or they spend a greater proportion of what they earn. Or both.

That, generally speaking, is why players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, David de Gea and Raphael Varane at Manchester United, Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish at Manchester City, and Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea earn far more than Salah, Mane and Van Dijk (and indeed Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane).

And those deals were signed before leading players’ wage expectations soared even higher with the enormous deals that Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have agreed over recent weeks with Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland respectively.

Liverpool chairman Tom Werner has repeatedly expressed his hope that financial regulations can be more rigorously enforced, keeping wage inflation under control, but it hasn’t happened.

So what are Liverpool to do? Bite the bullet and pay whatever players ask for? That seems unlikely. As Werner told The Athletic last month when asked about the difficulty of retaining elite talent: “Football is in a tricky period. We’re competing against some very successful clubs. We have to be strategic in our decision-making.”

Or as Klopp put it last August, when supporters were growing anxious about the lack of transfer activity compared to some of their rivals: “We can’t spend money we don’t have. You cannot compare to other clubs. They obviously don’t have limits but we have limits.”

The subsequent nine months offered a few useful reminders that it can be foolish to underestimate Klopp and his players. They might have fallen narrowly short of reaching their two main objectives, finishing one point behind Manchester City in the Premier League and being beaten 1-0 by Real in the Champions League final, but their performance in both competitions was outstanding, even before you consider that they won the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup.

But the challenge ahead is similar to the one Arsenal faced in the mid-2000s with the break-up of their “Invincibles” team as, gradually, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry made way for younger players. One significant difference is that Arsenal tended to make these decisions from a position of relative strength, selling Vieira and Henry at the age of 29 before their transfer value began to drop. That was seen as short-term pain for long-term gain but, as Arsenal’s fans will wearily recall, that long-term benefit never really materialised.

Liverpool are far from penniless but, like Arsenal in the post-Invincibles era, they have less money and less margin for error than some of their immediate rivals. They have to be smart.

During the Klopp years, with Michael Edwards as sporting director, their strategic decision-making has been enormously impressive, but if there is a nagging concern that has grown over the past two years, it is that this group of players, having reached a wonderful peak of performance together in their mid-to-late 20s, are growing old together too.

James Milner is 36, Henderson and Thiago Alcantara are 31 and Joel Matip, Van Dijk, Roberto Firmino and Mane are 30 — a milestone Salah will reach next week. Alisson is 29 while Fabinho and Robertson are 28.

There are some extremely gifted youngsters in Klopp’s squad — Alexander-Arnold, Ibrahima Konate, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott, soon to be joined by Fabio Carvalho — but there is undoubtedly a heavy reliance on a core of players who are now in their late 20s and early 30s. On average, only Burnley, West Ham United and Watford fielded older starting line-ups in the Premier League this season.

When Liverpool played Real in the Champions League final in 2018, their starting line-up (with an average age 26 years, 170 days) was the youngest of any finalist since Klopp’s Dortmund lost to Bayern in 2013. Four years on, even with Konate and Luis Diaz integrated into the starting line-up over recent months, their average age in this season’s final was 28 years and 150 days.

It is worth pointing out that Real’s line-up was older still, with Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric aged 32, 34 and 36 respectively, but the Spanish club have the financial strength to operate differently — retaining their superstars well into their 30s and paying them accordingly until they are perceived to have served their purpose, at which point either another A-list star or one of the most coveted youngsters in world football (an Eder Militao, an Eduardo Camavinga, a Vinicius Junior, a Rodrygo and perhaps imminently, an Aurelien Tchouameni) will usually emerge to replace them.

In an ideal world, Liverpool would do something similar with Salah and Mane, just as Manchester City did with Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero — and as they will surely do with De Bruyne.

But the reality is that the Merseyside club are more restricted. Not dramatically so, but restricted enough for Salah, Mane and their agents to know there is more to be earned elsewhere, and that presents a problem not just when it comes to retaining talent but also when it comes to competing for the signings that might fill the footsteps of today’s heroes.

As both Klopp and Werner have pointed out, Liverpool’s record in the transfer market is excellent. It offers some hope that they can handle the transition that is required over the next few seasons. Their successes in the years building up to their Premier League title triumph have been well documented, but the subsequent additions of Diogo Jota, Thiago, Konate and Diaz have all looked inspired, too.

In fact, the combined impact of Jota through the middle and Diaz on the left wing has meant that Liverpool have already moved on from the classic Klopp-era forward line. Firmino is used more sparingly these days, like a vintage sports car that can do without too many more miles on the clock and, so far at least, he has appeared willing to accept a reduction in playing time.

But that is Firmino, who, for all his undoubted talent, has never commanded — or indeed craved — quite the same star billing as the other two.

Phasing out and replacing Salah and Mane has always looked far more daunting, which is why the Liverpool hierarchy have devoted so much effort to trying to retain them. (Not enough effort for Abbas’s liking, clearly, but they still hope a resolution can somehow be reached.)

Even with Jota and Diaz on board, the thought of losing even one of Salah and Mane must be an unsettling one for Klopp. The thought of losing both — and sooner rather than later — would surely fill him with dread.

How do you replace what Salah and Mane have brought to this team? It isn’t just a question of the goals (54 between them in all competitions this season) or indeed the assists. For so long, they have been so integral to the way Liverpool play both with the ball and without it. Then there is their durability; at an age when so many players begin to pick up injuries, they barely missed a game this season other than when they were away at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Of course, physical decline will set in at some stage, particularly with players who are renowned for their speed and power — and perhaps that is one part of Liverpool’s calculation. If we are talking about extending their contracts beyond next season — for example, a further three-year deal taking them from age 31 to 34 — then it becomes hard to justify the type of wages commanded by Mbappe and Haaland, who are so much younger.

Mohamed Salah, Liverpool

Salah has developed into one of the world’s best forwards since joining Liverpool from Roma in 2017 (Photo: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

Mane had a dip in form in the first half of last season. Salah had a dip in the second. But these things are relative. There is nothing about either of them that suggests they are yet in the grip of decline.

This is precisely why Liverpool have worked so hard to try to keep them, offering Salah more than any player in the club’s history, and that would probably be seen as enough were it not for the huge deals handed out elsewhere to Ronaldo, Varane, Grealish, Lukaku and Lionel Messi over the past 12 months — and to Mbappe and Haaland more recently.

In many ways, Liverpool’s willingness to adhere to a more conservative wage structure is sensible. Laudable, even. As well as making sense economically, it helps reduce tension within a dressing room.

But perhaps the harsh reality is that the figures they had in mind when thoughts initially turned to retaining Salah and Mane a year or two ago are no longer viable. At the top end at least, football is no longer in a pandemic-driven recession. Among elite players, wages continue to boom.

And that can mean that, even when a team is competing for the biggest prizes, a player’s mind can wander. It can certainly heighten the appetite for a new challenge elsewhere, even if the line emerging from the Mane camp is that he simply fancies a change of scenery and has made no financial demands of Liverpool.

New challenges tend to be more lucrative challenges. That was certainly the case for Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo when they left Real for PSG and Juventus respectively and, perhaps more pertinently, for Thiago when he left Bayern for Liverpool in the summer of 2020.

Transfer fee notwithstanding, few at Anfield would begrudge Mane a new challenge if that is what he desires. Nor indeed Salah, whether now or in a year’s time.

But surely this is not where Klopp would have imagined the story with Mane would end, at a time when he still has so much more to offer. His departure would leave an enormous gap, not just in terms of goals or technical ability but personality, intelligence and leadership too.

A Salah-Jota-Diaz forward line would still be strong, but it would be asking an awful lot of any player — whether it is Diaz, Jota, a youngster such as Elliott or Carvalho, or a hypothetical transfer target such as Christopher Nkunku (of RB Leipzig), Darwin Nunez (Benfica) and Martin Terrier (of Rennes) — to fill the Mane void. And it would be asking an awful lot of Julian Ward, Edwards’ successor, to pull a rabbit from the hat from such a pressurised position.

As for the possibility of losing Salah on a free transfer in a year’s time, that too is a scenario that Liverpool would desperately hope to avoid.

Business-wise, there is always a strong argument for selling a player before he enters the final year of his contract, but could Liverpool afford to lose both Salah and Mane in the same summer? If both departures end up feeling inevitable, then perhaps it is best to stagger them, even if that means losing one of them on a free transfer.

Either way, the excitement of the final months of the season has given way to discomfort for Liverpool’s supporters. They, like Klopp, will hope it is not too late to reach an agreement with Salah or Mane, or indeed both, but it feels increasingly like the break-up is beginning.

And while, in an ideal world, that transition would be conducted on the club’s terms, that doesn’t feel like the case right now.

On the pitch, Klopp has restored Liverpool to a position of great strength but when it comes to attracting and retaining A-list talent, they are still in a position of comparative weakness, which is why they find themselves having to contemplate the most painful of goodbyes.

(Top photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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