LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Martin Skrtel of Liverpool celebrates scoring his side's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers at Anfield on August 27, 2011 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
"There have been a number of offers," said Martin Skrtel when asked if any clubs have sought to acquire his services on the transfer market this summer, "but without Liverpool's permission nothing can move forward. At the moment I am a Liverpool player, and what happens in the future in football you can never foresee. Anything can happen, but for now I have a contract and what is to come will come."
And when it comes to the possibility of a new contract to keep him at Liverpool for the foreseeable future, the Slovak defender admitted that while there have been talks, there has been real no progress towards a deal getting done. Earlier in the summer there may have been rumours Manchester City was looking to acquire him, and there may have been rumours the player was seeking a new contract to stay at Liverpool on higher wages, but after talking openly with Slovakian newspaper Dennik Sport this week it appears clear the uncertainty over Skrtel's future at Liverpool Football Club has moved well past the rumour stage.
Today, Skrtel is on a salary of £60k a week, placing him fairly high within the new wage structure Fenway Sports Group are trying to implement at the club. Next to what Jamie Carragher takes home, however, and next to what any of the current top teams in the league would be willing to pay him, it's unquestionably low. Martin Skrtel is today a top four calibre defender; he is a defender sought by clubs already in England's top four who are looking to further strengthen their positions; and he is a defender paid less than what a top four defender on a top four side in the prime of his career could expect to be paid. None of these facts is up for discussion.
What is up for discussion is whether FSG will be willing, within the framework they are attempting to build, to pay Skrtel a wage that reflects that market value and brings his salary closer to those of the legacy contracts the club is already locked into for players such as Carragher and returning loanees Alberto Aquilani and Joe Cole—players no top four side would show interest in at any fee or salary. Because if they aren't, then Skrtel's eventual sale begins to seem certain. And if they aren't, it will tell the fans a lot about the club's realistic short term goals.
Whichever way the owners and management decide to go it's a case that will be a test of their short-term ambitions, and with frequent talk since they arrived of trimming the wage bill, of building through youth and looking for undervalued options, it's easy to imagine Skrtel being told any chance of a raise is off the table. Doing so would force him to either put up with his current salary—one below market value for a defender capable of starting for a Champions League and Premier League challenging side—or to put in a transfer request that would allow the club to ship him out for a substantial fee while framing the deal such that most fans would focus their displeasure on the greedy, disloyal player.
Trading Skrtel for a wad of cash, if it were to come to that, might even work out for the best in the long run. However, as Liverpool has discovered in recent seasons, when other clubs know you've received a large transfer fee they in turn demand fees above market value for their own players. In the simplest terms possible, if Liverpool sold Skrtel they would be gouged on any potential replacement. Beyond that, given that the club isn't currently in a position to bring in proven top four calibre talent—at least not without paying a salary well over the going rate to convince them to give up on the Champions League football they would get elsewhere—then from a footballing standpoint any replacement would represent a massive gamble for the coming season.
No matter how good now or promising going forward a new player might look on paper, every transfer is a gamble, no matter the fee or how many people believe it a sure thing. The difference between a side like City paying over the odds for a proven top four calibre defender like Skrtel and a side like Liverpool paying over the odds for what they see as an undervalued or high potential replacement is in the chance of that gamble panning out. At the end of the day, there's a reason why both Skrtel and Daniel Agger have been linked to some of the biggest spending—and, in the current environment, most likely to challenge for top honours—clubs in Europe this summer, and their acquisition by such clubs would be a gamble far more likely to come good than the gamble Liverpool would then have to make to find a replacement.
Selling a player like Skrtel to avoid giving him a £20-30k per week raise might work out for the club. Liverpool might come out of the exchange with a defender who performs next season just as well as Skrtel did last term, and with five or ten million extra pounds in the transfer kit and some extra space on the wage bill on top of it. The odds, though, are against that happening. The odds are on the player taking time to settle in or time to further develop or that he just won't ever be as good. And given the club's need to get back into the Champions League, and given the reality that with every year out of it an eventual return becomes far more difficult, that makes it a reckless gamble that would speak to a lack of ambition for the coming season; a lack of belief that the top four is a reasonable short-term goal.
The immediate financial gain is obvious and, for some, would be appealing, but the potential medium to long-term downside far outweigh it. At least if getting back into the top four quickly and challenging for English and European trophies is the club's goal. What happens with Skrtel will go a long way towards telling fans if it is, or if instead the goal is to be a financially sustainable second-tier Arsenal: A club that continually buys prospects and players a few years away from being top performers, looks to organically develop into a side capable of challenging for honours over a number of years, and in the meantime sells any player who does pan out for a profit when their wage demands and ambitions outreach the club's.
If Liverpool sell Skrtel rather than meeting his wage demands, it means the club see the top four as being an achievable target within two to four years rather than a realistic goal for the coming season. And if in two to four years the club hasn't returned to the top four, it will then be time to sell whatever salable assets have developed in the interim and start the cycle over again.