With deals to bring Daniel Sturridge and Tom Ince to Liverpool as soon as the transfer window opens all but official, the question now becomes whether they're signings that can help salvage the season or if it's a case of the club not learning from past mistakes.
Late on Tuesday, what had previously been serious rumours turned to something more solid as multiple reputable sources agreed that deals to bring Daniel Sturridge and Tom Ince to Liverpool as soon as the January transfer window opens weren't only all but sorted, but that the Chelsea striker at least could be headed to Liverpool to undergo his medical before Christmas. After a summer that saw Liverpool struggle to complete its moves before the end of August, the speed with which they appear to be securing their primary targets this time around at least is encouraging.
On the other hand, whether Sturridge and Ince are the right targets for the club to be going after early, late, or otherwise is a topic Liverpool fans are far more divided on—and with good reason. For starters, Ince left Liverpool in 2011 after failing to impress at the youth levels, and in Sturridge's case doubts are unavoidable given he hasn't played regularly over the past year and has only thirteen goals in 62 league appearances in his Chelsea career. Some will point to a twelve game loan spell for Bolton in 2011 when Sturridge scored eight times as a sign of his promise, but with Liverpool still struggling to find their feet under Brendan Rodgers the Reds are a side in desperate need of a player who can make an impact now rather than ones who might make an impact in a few years.
What's perhaps most worrisome about the prospect of Liverpool acquiring Sturridge is that most Chelsea fans appear to be quite happy to take the money and get his wages off the books, believing a £12M transfer fee and between £60-70k a week freed up by his departure are more than worth losing the player for. For all that there's an inevitably growing segment of Liverpool fans proclaiming Sutrridge—and to a lesser extent Ince—the answer to all Liverpool's attacking woes, it's telling that those who see him most often aren't bothered by the idea of his departure and generally feel the money heading in the other direction will pay for a superior replacement.
It's also worrying that after Liverpool went all summer waiting for their new scouting staff, ex- of Manchester City, to become available, the players being brought in to salvage the club's season are an occasional England international out of favour at his current club who was linked strongly to Liverpool over the summer and a player Liverpool let go when he didn't look likely to ever develop into a first team player. At best it seems barely to qualify as "scouting." At worst it's a continuation of the "English rejects and Championship world beaters" approach to the transfer market, an approach that under Fenway Sports Group has seen the club pay over the odds for the likes of Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, and Andy Carroll.
That isn't to say that Sturridge or Ince are terrible players—they aren't. They just come with an awful lot of question marks. Ince has pace and promise, but he's also only had one good season at the Championship level with Blackpool, scoring 19 times in 53 games since he moved there from Liverpool. Sturridge, meanwhile, has all the raw talent to be a star but at 23 he's become expendable because his development has stalled and concerns he's either problematically selfish or simply lacks the footballing intelligence to take the next step have risen, bringing along with that a willingness to sell him at a rate that a year ago would have been considered a bargain by many.
Both players do have promise, though. Both will get into the box from wide areas and are likely score a few goals, even if consistency in the attacking third has been a problem. However, neither Sturridge nor Ince is anything like the finished product, and that means that by the end of January Liverpool will have spent at least £30M on "far from the finished product" attackers under Brendan Rodger when one adds Fabio Borini into the equation.
Every transfer may be a gamble, but £30M directed at one world class player rather than three expensive youngsters buys a much smaller gamble. Moreover, if the club had been willing to invest that kind of money in one exceptional player rather than on three who each might one day end up a complete bust or world class or something in between, it's entirely reasonably to believe that Liverpool would today be much better placed to make it back into the top four this season given the struggles of many of the sides ahead of them in the table.
With all of that in mind, it isn't wrong that many Liverpool fans will feel far from excited about the prospect of picking up another piece or two of potential; young players with promise but who are also attached to laundry lists of uncertainty. Sturridge or Ince could well turn out in the end to make their fees appear bargains, but there's little in Sturridge's recent history to suggest he's ready to help Liverpool climb the table this season while Ince is being brought back as potential saviour after impressing at a lower level.
Certainly there's potential, but there's not a lot to get excited about in the present. Not for £18M for the pair, and not following on from the disaster that was the summer transfer window, when Ian Ayre and the money men packed it in and headed home from Melwood before the window closed and left the club with only one proven senior striker. It's also hard not to see in the transfers of Sturridge and Ince something of a continuation of the approach that got Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish fired, with the club set to pay an English premium to bring in one player who is unwanted by his current club and another who is unproven by any measure.
In the end, for all that Sturridge and Ince may hold promise, the real problem for many will be that Liverpool appear to be a club treading water—and a club incapable of learning from past mistakes under Fenway Sports Group. And that makes it very hard to be optimistic as the club moves forward into the second half of the 2012-13 season and beyond.