The January transfer window is half way through, and, after the past two windows saw Liverpool one of the most active participants, it's been surprisingly quiet for a side lacking both midfield steel and finishing touch who before the season began set a return to Champions League action as the minimum requirement. Six months after a summer spending spree that was meant to ensure that success, then, the question is how well the results have matched up to hopes of the time—and if they haven't, should it be considered a surprise or were the signs clear from the beginning? With that in mind, join us as we look back at what we said here on the Liverpool Offside about Liverpool's biggest signings of the past summer before, during, and immediately following their arrivals at the club in June and July.
Henderson has rather split opinion from the beginning. On one hand he seemed clearly a signing for the future, yet it was inescapable that his price-tag suggested a player who would need to make an immediate contribution. He was a tidy player who could pick a pass and wouldn't lose a game, but as an attacking midfielder there were doubts that he had the drive to regularly win them. There were conflicting comparisons to Lucas and to Gerrard, and there were those who thought that no matter how well he developed, spending £16M on a player far from the the finished product when the club was struggling to get back into Champions League contention was at best a misguided luxury purchase. Price aside, however, we were generally positive about the young player's arrival:
A versatile attacking midfielder, a more highly regarded Jonjo Shelvey with a fair bit of Premier League experience for his age and a player who created the fifth most scoring chances in the entire league over the 2010-11 season. Amongst the many players linked to Liverpool early on in the transfer window, amongst the likes of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam, it would have been hard to argue that it wasn’t Henderson who appeared the most promising English name being churned out by the rumour mills.
We were also given the chance to watch both him and fellow Liverpool transfer target—and Manchester United signee—Phil Jones when England's U21 side took on Spain a few days later, with the early returns only adding to our belief that he was a solid name for the future despite that fans of guts and glory football were already wondering why he couldn't regularly power past six defenders like a proper £16M English midfielder should:
The signs were at least promising from a Liverpool perspective. Henderson did a good job of ticking things over in midfield, looking to move the team up the pitch with one and two touch passes, handing the ball sideways or backwards to allow himself to move a few yards further upfield while avoiding pressure: Be patient, maintain possession, move up the pitch as a group, and wait for holes. And on those rare occasions when he was allowed to help England into fairly advanced areas of the pitch through exchanging possession with teammates in the middle of the park, he indeed did provide a number of dangerous through balls that on another day might have been converted. Of all the England players, in fact, he’s the one who would have looked least out of place in the fluid and technical Spanish midfield.
Far from the finished product, certainly, but from the beginning he seemed a tidy player with a high level of footballing intelligence and the potential to grow into a role as key distributor at the base of Liverpool's midfield—just as long as one could get past the high transfer fee to give him the time to grow. All of which six months later seems a fair reflection on the player Liverpool bought, even if to our surprise it has seemed that the Liverpool coaching staff are amongst those who looked at his transfer fee as a sign that Henderson would need to make an instant contribution immediately instead of being a supplementary player in the present who wouldn't develop into the locked-on starter his fee implied for at least a season or two.
Many liked the thought of signing Charlie Adam. They liked his raking Hollywood balls; they liked his ability from set-pieces; and they liked the thirty seconds of flash and flair they saw every week in the highlight packages. Some of them were simply willing to let their faith in Kenny Dalglish or the chance creation statistics Damien Comolli was said to be placing a priority on take precedent over what they could see with their own eyes. Certainly any Liverpool fan would have hoped that Adam could arrive and make an immediate positive impact, but the reality was that the facts at the time simply didn't suggest that was especially likely to happen—at least not consistently. And those facts were there for anyone who cared to look at them:
It’s the Adam who dragged first St. Mirren and then Blackpool into the Scottish and English top flights respectively as the centerpiece of both sides that everybody wants. Not the Adam who imploded when given his first big chance at Rangers or who became increasingly inconsistent with Blackpool in the Premier League once opponents began to focus on him. Even the good Adam might not be a world class savior, but at least he could become a quality contributor for a club looking to move back into the top four and maybe even take an unlikely run at the title. Or so the general wisdom goes. The other Adam, however, the Adam who has been on display for much of his professional career, is hardly likely to do more than block the development of younger players or potentially lead to the departure of better senior squad members as room is cleared for the new arrival…
Even the good Adam, though, isn’t a player without flaws and question marks. He was the focal point at Blackpool, the player the team was built around, and that meant that he received an endless series of chances with which to make a difference. When opponents gave him time to convert those opportunities he could certainly pick a pass. But when—as happened increasingly often over the second half of the season—he was put under pressure he became wildly inconsistent, at times ending up with completion rates below 50%. At best he was inconsistent. At worst he was a player who needed a bucket of chances to create a handful of successfully telling passes and who wilted under pressure.
If the Charlie Adam transfer saga can be said to have done one unquestionably good thing, it was to for five minutes remind everybody that despite his eventual arrival the overwhelming majority of glory hunting In the Knows were quite completely full of shit. It may have been a reminder that has turned out to have been largely forgotten as the rumour mills chug to life once again, but at least for a couple of weeks it added a touch of perspective to the insane gossip of transfer season:
Now that he finally has signed, we’re likely to be exposed to a number of folks pronouncing their rightness and proclaiming that “deals take time.” I’d preach caution in falling back into the trap, though, as by the time this deal actually did become a reality, there wasn’t a football-following person who didn’t know something was coming. Thinking Liverpool were in for Charlie Adam and that a deal was possible didn’t mean you were in the know, it meant you had a pulse.
As for the player himself, when he finally did sign Ed's take mirrored that of most who hadn't become swept up by the Buy British movement:
I also don’t know that he automatically lands ahead of anyone in Liverpool’s current midfield—plenty have been quick to hand him a place in the starting eleven over more proven, more consistent squad members like Raul Meireles and Lucas, which makes no sense if you’re actually paying attention. In my mind neither the Adam or Jordan Henderson signings should displace any of Liverpool’s best midfield last season; they both add depth and something slightly different, but not necessarily much that’s an immediate upgrade.
Some will say that he can still improve, and he can. Some will say that he's decent value for money as a third or fourth choice in the middle, and that's probably fair. But he was brought in as a mature player with Premier League experience and in the end the player who many thought should have remained ahead of him on the depth chart was marginalised by his arrival and ended up heading to Chelsea. So while those arguments might be fair, there's every sign they didn't in any way reflect the thinking of Damien Comolli or Kenny Dalglish on the matter during the summer when they went out and signed Adam.
Liverpool needed a left-footed wide player. Aston Villa just happened to have a left-footed wide player. And while he might have been rather expensive, with Liverpool out of the Champions League and needing to overpay for talent that would be ready to come in and make an instant impact there seemed few better realistic targets than Downing. That he ended up being valued at over £20M with add-ons, making him Liverpool's fourth most expensive ever signing after Andy Carroll, Fernando Torres, and Luis Suarez, was always a stumbling block, but Liverpool's new owners were willing to spend to win and even if Downing wasn't a world class winger we fully believed that he at least guaranteed improvement:
When it comes to fees, too, it’s also worth remembering that while many will consider Downing’s excessive, it was Downing and not recent £16M Manchester United acquisition Ashley Young who was in fact Villa’s player of the season last term. Downing also had two years left on his contract compared to Young’s one, and many would consider Downing’s tendency to play a larger role in build-up play than United’s new and fairly direct winger another point in his favour given Liverpool’s stated desire to fully embrace a pass and move game. When it comes to hard returns, Liverpool’s newest player registered seven goals and seven assists for Aston Villa last season, a haul placing him second on the team in both categories behind Bent (9 goals) and Young (10 assists). It’s a return that would have seen him fourth in goals for Liverpool (Kuyt 13, Maxi 10, Torres 9) and tied for first in assists with Kuyt.
He’s a technically sound but simple player who possess a decent footballing brain. He has some pace but won’t burn past one defender after another all day long; he has a great first touch with his left foot and mostly sticks to knocking the ball one way and using a powerful short burst to buy room for a cross. He’ll track back and make the smart passes and, at times, be accused of simply not being flashy enough—or of not being the huffing, puffing, all action and no plot stereotypical English footballer...
Setting aside any reservations that come about almost entirely due to what seems a high fee, it’s hard to argue that based on Liverpool’s needs Downing isn’t the right man for the job—or at the very least a good option for it.
Of course, in the end, it's been nearly impossible to set aside his sky-high fee given how little he's produced at his new club. At the time, we were inclined to largely look past that fee to see a player who was coming off arguably the best season of his career and just hitting his peak, who played at a position of great need for Liverpool, and who would at the very least improve the starting eleven—if we had doubts about the likes of Henderson and Adam being locked-on starters over Jay Spearing, Raul Meireles, or Dirk Kuyt, we saw no such obstacles to Downing walking into the club's best side.
Here, then, it appears we got it wrong, as Downing certainly hasn't provided any more than recent makeshift options on Liverpool's left from Meireles to Yossi Benayoun to the less expensive Robbie Keane. Teammates haven't done him any favours by failing to convert what chances he has provided, but it's hard to imagine this season's side would have looked any worse had John Henry and co. simply kept that £20M in their pocket. Moreover, it has begun to look increasingly as though Downing has wilted under the spotlight at Anfield, an increasingly peripheral figure the tougher things are going and a player whose skill-set is perhaps better suited for playing on the counter against bigger sides instead of trying to unlock smaller ones.
Of course those three, the big midfield three, weren't Liverpool's only summer signings. There's Jose Enrique, who despite a slight dip in November has been the best left back in the Premier League this season and whose arrival for well under £10M seems an absolute steal—and perhaps the best bit of transfer business done by the current Liverpool brain-trust. And there's also Sebastian Coates, who similarly to Jordan Henderson seems a name for the future but who without the high price-tag and Premier League experience has actually been played as though he's largely a name for the future.
Adding the two of them to the equation certainly puts a more positive spin on a transfer window that would seem overwhelmingly bleak if one only considered the three British signings who received the majority of press clippings over the past summer. Regardless of that, however, given the heavy expenditure, the club's stated need to return immediately to the Champions League, and the expectation that paying a premium for a number of players with Premier League experience would allow the club to avoid long settling-in periods that would jeopardize that goal of returning to the Champions League, it seems a great deal of money spent for very little return so far.
After years of watching Liverpool scrape the bottom of the barrel for transfer bargains under Rafa Benitez, hands tied by the ownership duo of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, at the very least it's fair to say that six months on from the club's first opportunity to buy without having to sell first that increase in funds appears to have made very little difference on the pitch. With sixteen days left in the January window, one can only hope that Liverpool's owners are still willing to spend despite disappointing overall returns from previous windows and that, if they are, those doing the spending have learned from past mistakes.