While owner John Henry talks of the club's goal of building success by developing youth, Liverpool's lack of activity on the final day of the transfer window could damage the development of Raheem Sterling, their most promising prospect.
A year after he was forced on them by circumstance, Fenway Sports Group fired Kenny Dalglish in order to instal their own handpicked manager, one who they felt could better embrace and deliver on their desire to find success through developing youth. And on paper, at least, especially given the difficulty of competing financially with the likes of wealthy Chelsea and Manchester City, there was and is a case to be made for their preferred approach. The problem, though, is that their failure to back their man on the final day of the transfer market three months after they hired him could, in the end, end up the undoing of what looked set to be the shining jewel of their hoped-for youth movement.
Fans and supporters were quick to complain about the club's owners appearing to undermine their new manager after he made it clear he believed he would be given the backing to sign two or three new players so long as he shipped out some of the deadwood that was weighing down the squad. This was soon followed by the club's principal owner taking the unusual step of writing an open letter to the fans where he admitted mistakes had been made but argued that, on the whole, the club was now headed in the right direction after a recent history of blunders.
"Our emphasis will be on developing our own players using the skills of an increasingly impressive coaching team," stated John Henry, outlining the core of FSG's approach to building success by developing it from within. "Much thought and investment already have gone into developing a self-sustaining pool of youngsters imbued in the club's traditions. That ethos is to win. We will invest to succeed. But we will not mortgage the future with risky spending."
However, one unintended consequence of the unwillingness to spend on an attacking option or two on the final day of the window could deal a significant blow to those long term plans—in short, it could hinder or even permanently damage the development of Raheem Sterling. It may be natural to try and fall back on cliches, to say that the squad is what it is and that the club will have to work with what it's got, which is what Brendan Rodgers has done since Friday's failures. And it's certainly appealing to give in to the cries to stop being so divisive, to stop casting blame for what cannot be undone and get behind the club as many fans have begun to do.
It cannot go unrecorded, though, that in order to save a million or two pounds on the final day of the transfer window it could severely damage the career development of what is likely the best young player in England and most certainly the best prospect Liverpool has had over a decade. If in the end it's about value and smart investments for FSG, then the stark reality is that there is a gulf in value to be found between Raheem Sterling as a superstar and a burnt out Raheem Sterling that never reaches his full potential. Nothing may ever be certain in youth development, but by not adding attacking depth on Friday, FSG have made the latter far more likely than it seemed even last Thursday.
Sterling has already played 180 of 270 possible minutes in the Premier League—two full matches out of three—as well as seeing time in three of the club's four games in the Europa League to the tune of 187 of 360 possible minutes in that competition. Across an entire season, playing time like Sterling has seen in the early going would mean at an absolute minimum he would play over thirty complete matches worth of first team football in the 2012-13 season. Any involvement in the domestic cups or the possibility of Liverpool advancing past the group stages of the Europa League would raise that further.
He may by the brightest young talent Liverpool has had in a decade, but if Brendan Rodgers can't resist the urge to cut back on his playing time despite that there appear few legitimate options aside from him, then there's a very real chance he might never entirely fulfill that talent—or that it will lead to increasing injury problems when he reaches his mid-twenties. On that front, rumours linking the club to Michael Owen before he signed for Stoke on Tuesday, a player whose career was effectively over by the time most would be hitting their prime due to Liverpool relying on him far too heavily when he was too young, served to perfectly highlight the danger of playing a seventeen-year-old kid as often as Liverpool now seem likely to play Sterling.
Fenway Sports Group talk a good game, and their desire to build Liverpool into a financially responsible side that can still challenge for honours through investing in youth has a certain contrary appeal—and perhaps in the end is necessary for a club like Liverpool—in a world where oil-rich clubs seek to buy trophies rather than earning them. Taken to an inflexible extreme as appears to have been the case this summer, however, could have hugely detrimental and longer term effects than whether Brendan Rodgers has attacking options waiting on the bench.
The problem is that if the goal is to build for the future by developing the club's youth, then there's no brighter prospect currently at the club—or likely to arrive any time soon—than Raheem Sterling. And so putting the manager in a position where he may feel he has no choice but to overuse the young talent in the hopes of some modicum of short-term success may only damage those longer term plans.
How much is Raheem Sterling worth if his talent is properly nurtured and he grows into one of the very best players in the world over the next five years? Conversely, how much is he worth if he plays the kind of minutes usually reserved for those five or ten years his senior and burns out before ever reaching that point? Perhaps, of course, Sterling will handle the pressure perfectly fine. Perhaps it won't damage his long term development as a footballer to play first team football every week before he's even finished developing physically. But that seems an awfully big gamble for a club that says its priority is building for the future rather than mortgaging it for the sake of the present.