Josh Hobbs kicks off a series about the ‘Transfer Gurus’ who have improved their clubs through smart business.
After a decade at the club in various roles, Michael Edwards will step down from his role as Sporting Director at Liverpool at the end of this season.
Edwards has been in his current role since 2016 and leaves having been a key part of restoring the Reds to the elite level of European football, having won the Premier League, Champions League, Club World Cup and League Cup during his tenure.
Liverpool will replace Edwards with his assistant Sporting Director, Julian Ward but Edwards’ shoes will be big ones to fill. The 42-year-old oversaw a renowned, data-led recruitment department that has had tremendous success in building a team who have come into their prime at Liverpool, rather than spending vast fees on global stars.
With players like Mohammed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota and Andrew Robertson brought in under his watch, the transfer successes are so numerous that it’s hard to come to a conclusion on who the best buy has been.
On top of that, Liverpool have sold very well under Edwards with the Phillipe Coutinho to Barcelona deal standing out. Although Ward has a difficult job ahead of him, it works in his favour that he has had years of experience already working within the system which has brought the Anfield side such success.
Over the next few months, we will be running a series on the Analytics FC site where we look at various ‘Transfer Gurus’ to assess how these directors of football or heads of recruitment have fared over the course of their careers. This series will look at patterns of incomings and outgoings and attempt to make observations about what has been successful and what hasn’t. Michael Edwards seems the perfect man to kick off the series.
Here are the headline figures for Edwards’ period in charge of Liverpool’s transfer dealings, according to Transfermarkt:
Liverpool have made 26 first-team signings and seen 35 players leave. They have accrued a total of £377.99 million from their sales but have spent £551.64 million on incoming players. This gives a net spend of £173.65 million.
We will be particularly interested in how those incomings and outgoings have been spread across age groups in this series as it gives a good idea of squad-building policies. The chart below will give the big picture of how Liverpool have split their transfers in terms of age range and we will zoom in on the details later on:
Before making observations, note that the peak age range is 24-29 years of age. The other age groups we will look at later are ‘potential’, ‘pre-peak’ & ‘diminishing returns’ but they are not highlighted on this particular graph.
The thing that stands out here is that Edwards clearly prioritised signing players just before they hit their peaks. Conversely, he barely signed anybody at 29 or over. The exceptions to this rule are Thiago – who was available for a low fee given his exceptional quality – and backup squad members, primarily goalkeepers.
When it comes to outgoings, there are two things to say. Firstly, Liverpool have sold a number of players just before or as they’ve hit their peak. It appears that Edwards (and Jurgen Klopp) have been ruthless with players they don’t think will be able to contribute in the long term and have moved them on when they can get a good fee in for them. There is also a good percentage of outgoings just after players exit their peak years. Again, there is a ruthlessness here as those players are replaced with new players who can replace their output and grow with the team, whilst those outgoing players can still recoup a fee.
With that in mind, let’s look deeper at the strategy.
Primary focus on buying pre-peak and early-peak players
As we mentioned above, Edwards has almost exclusively bought players either just hitting their peak years or players in the very first years of their peak.
Here’s a table to show all the players under the age of 24 which Transfermarkt has marked as first-team signings:
From this group, Tony Gallacher and Dominic Solanke made no real impact on the first team at Anfield, although we will return to Solanke later. Meanwhile, Loris Karius’ time as first-choice goalkeeper was short-lived, culminating in those high-profile errors in the Champions League final loss to Real Madrid in 2017/18.
Ibrahima Konate has yet to make a big impression on the first team since his move from RB Leipzig last summer but he has shown a lot of potential when he has played and Klopp seems to be bringing him into the team slowly.
Naby Keita has struggled badly with injuries, meaning that he has only broken 1000 league minutes once in the three seasons before this one. He is on track to manage it this time around but he feels like a player Liverpool may cut their losses on this summer.
Diogo Jota and Andrew Robertson are clear success stories, though. The latter—whilst less celebrated than Trent Alexander-Arnold on the other side of the pitch—has been a key part of Klopp’s tactical system with much of the team’s creativity being provided from the full backs. Importantly, the Scotsman was signed from Hull City, who were relegated the season before. Edwards trusted in the scouting process and recognised the quality Robertson possessed, despite playing for a poor team. He had no issue in signing a player from a relegated team for a team hoping to fight for trophies. A fee of £8.1 million looks a bargain deal now, given what Liverpool have got from him on the field.
Jota was the first step towards replacing the front three of Firmino, Salah and Mane. The Portuguese forward has primarily been used in rotation with Firmino, giving Klopp added depth of quality but he is clearly the long-term solution in the centre forward position.
He is perhaps the best example of how Liverpool’s recruitment has worked under Edwards as he was identified as a player whose output would scale up in a better team. Given he had scored seven goals and made one assist in 19/20, Liverpool paying over £40 million for him in the summer of 20/21 raised eyebrows for some. However, his underlying numbers of 0.38 expected goals and 0.15 expected assists per 90 were very impressive in a Wolves side not famed for their attacking play. Edwards and the recruitment team were correct in their assessment that his output would scale up at Anfield, as he has averaged 0.6 xG and 0.17 xA in the Premier League for the Reds.
Here’s a clip of Robertson and Jota combining to score against Everton earlier this season:
Now moving onto the players Liverpool signed just as they began their peak years:
As you can see, this is where the majority of the money has been spent and a number of the current first XI are featured in this group.
The trio of Van Dijk, Alisson and Fabinho were the players for whom Edwards sanctioned the biggest fees, no doubt because they were seen as the vital signings for the spine of the team. In those three, they brought in world-class players in goal, central defence and midfield, and with their elite forward line already in place, they were able to take the team to the next level, and in the first full season they were all at the club, Liverpool won the Champions League. They also took the Premier League title race to the final day that season and won the competition the season after, following a 30-year-long wait for a league title.
This season, Luis Diaz has arrived in this age bracket after his January transfer from Porto. He has instantly looked at home in the Premier League appears to be the second piece in the puzzle when it comes to long-term successors to Liverpool’s top class front three.
It should also be noted that the fees for Salah and Mane have been made to look like absolute bargains, given the output of the two forwards. On top of this, Joel Matip has been a superb signing, considering he was a free transfer.
Like Robertson, Wijnaldum was picked up from a relegated team in Newcastle, and whilst his fee wasn’t cheap, he was an important part of the midfield that won Liverpool the Champions League and Premier League. His brace in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona will live long in the memory of all who witnessed it.
Selling young players who won’t “make it” at Anfield
Moving onto the outgoings, we will first look at the players in the ‘potential’ (17-20) and ‘pre-peak’ (21-23) age groups. As mentioned, these are largely players Liverpool deemed wouldn’t make the cut at Anfield:
As you can see above, during Edwards’ tenure, Liverpool secured almost £90 million in sales of ten players in these age groups. In the cases of Rhian Brewster, Solanke and Ibe, they managed big fees and these players will perhaps never attract fees as high as this again in their careers. Given that Solanke was picked up on a free transfer from Chelsea, selling him for a fee of almost £20 million was excellent business.
Many clubs might have kept these three on the books and given them loans or perhaps kept them as backup players with promises of increasing minutes over time. However, Liverpool’s sporting director recognised that they could procure good fees for the players to sell whilst their stocks were high as players making their first steps into senior football and chose the right moment to take the money. Had he waited before selling, their values would likely have tumbled, especially given their career trajectories since leaving Anfield.
The rest of the players listed haven’t brought in large fees but any cash being brought in for players who don’t have a future at the club is certainly the smart play with this group.
There are a few players who have moved on and done well elsewhere, increasing their value. Ovie Ejaria has impressed in the Championship for Reading but struggled a little with injuries. Meanwhile, Ryan Kent played a key role in Rangers winning the SPFL for the first time in a decade and has performed very well in Europe for the Gers. He has been linked with Premier League moves on several occasions and may finally make the move this summer.
The player whose value has leapt the highest is Luis Alberto. He wasn’t the right fit at Anfield, so Liverpool were correct to move him on but seeing his value on Transfermarkt now hitting £28.8 million when the Reds sold him to Lazio for less than £4 million must be a slightly sore one.
Here’s his Transferlab profile in the attacking playmaker profile:
As you can see, he particularly stands out for through balls as he serves the forward line with passes to put them through on goal to score, like this:
It’s fair to say that some of the inflated fees accrued elsewhere in the list of young outgoings more than covers for missing out on a big fee for Alberto, though.
Moving on players in peak and “diminishing returns” phases
When it comes to the other phases—peak age and ‘diminishing returns’ (29+)—once again, Liverpool have sold extremely well, for the most part.
Here is the list of peak age players who have moved on from Liverpool during Edwards’ tenure:
Of course, the stand-out is Philippe Coutinho who moved to Barcelona for an enormous fee. In the case of the Brazilian, Liverpool weren’t keen to move him on as he had been starring in an attacking midfield role for Klopp’s side. However, they recognised that in selling him, they could go some way to funding the upgrades to take the squad to the next level. It was after his sale that van Dijk, Fabinho and Allison joined and they became a truly elite team.
Beyond Coutinho, there were significant fees brought in for six other peak-age players who were deemed surplus to requirements. Edwards has been good at recognising when players need to be improved on or are already down the pecking order, and once again, he has been a master at getting high fees in for players who weren’t going to be making any meaningful contributions to his team. The fees for Christian Benteke and Mamadou Sakho were also excellent, given the context.
There are also a few players who were allowed to leave for nothing in this group. However, with the exception of Emre Can, none of these were likely to have brought in decent fees. Mario Balotelli’s reputation was low by the point he left Liverpool, whilst the other players were all out of the picture at Anfield. Edwards would surely have hoped get a fee for Can, but like the Luis Alberto transfer, the good work elsewhere makes up for the disappointment in this case.
In the diminishing returns phase, again, Edwards did some great work in securing fees for players who had played their parts at Liverpool but needed to be moved on:
As before, there are a few free transfers here but that’s to be expected when players are older. To have brought in almost £35 million for players over the age of 29 is impressive and the fee of just under £11 million for 31-year-old Dejan Lovren is particularly good work.
Will Liverpool continue this philosophy without Edwards?
Now that Edwards is moving on, there is a chance that Liverpool could tweak their transfer philosophy going forwards. However, the fact that they have made an internal rather than an external hire to replace him, indicates that they will continue in this manner.
From here on in, that suggests they will look to maximise fees they can bring in from young players who won’t make a lasting impact at Anfield and they won’t keep aging players around for too long. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how the Salah contract situation resolves. In the past, they would be looking to sell him whilst they can. However, he may just be a special case, given his world-class quality.
In terms of incomings, Diaz is an excellent final transfer from Edwards, and if Salah is to leave, it looks like he will go some way towards mitigating that loss. It’s very likely that Ward will continue to sign players of that kind of ilk. It’s served Liverpool brilliantly over the last few years and there is no need to break from the winning formula.
After all, this strategy has seen the club go toe-to-toe with Manchester City over the last few seasons. Given City’s almost unrivalled ability to absorb losses in the transfer market, Liverpool have had to be the smartest of the elite clubs when it comes to transfers. With Edwards at the helm, it’s hard to argue anything other than that they succeeded in that goal.
Header image copyright Shutterstock/Christian Bertrand