Liverpool fans have become wryly accustomed to the ‘next summer’ line when it comes to FSG transfer business. It inevitably tends to have the ring of an excuse. But in reality, it speaks more to the long-term outlook of the owners, who have only once spent less than £35m in all their summers at the club. That figure is typically far higher.
Even so, the delayed gratification is enough to make even the most ardent FSG loyalist a little twitchy. Jude Bellingham is a generational talent, and it is hard to shake the feeling that the longer he is on the market, the more difficult it will be for Liverpool to complete a deal.
Then there is the question of the upcoming season. Liverpool will certainly not want to write off an entire campaign as they wait for Bellingham, and some fans have questioned whether there is sufficient strength in depth in midfield without an addition of some sort. But FSG will feel they have already answered that question.
To state the obvious, there was no Bellingham at Liverpool last season, and yet the team played every game possible in pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple. They ended up with both domestic trophies, which in recent times have come to be a strong measure of squad depth among the biggest teams.
Nor have there been any midfield outgoings just yet. There have been movements in attack, with Sadio Mané and Divock Origi gone and Takumi Minamino set to follow, but the centre of the park has remained untouched. There was talk of selling Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the latest line out of the club appears to be that Liverpool are keen to keep him for the final year of his contract.
This decision in itself is an indicator that FSG are forming a bridge plan ahead of 2023. But the owners have dropped an even bigger hint with a ‘signing’ that has already been completed: a new deal for James Milner.
For much of last season, the assumption was that Milner would move on at the end of the campaign. But FSG have broken their usual mould to agree a one-year extension with the veteran — a courtesy, it will be remembered, that even Steven Gerrard was not convincingly extended. The motivation surely lies in the 2023 midfield plans.
If Liverpool are indeed intending to go big in that position, whether that be with Bellingham or someone else, it makes sense not to splash out on a short-term ‘stop-gap’. Plenty of names have been touted for this role, including an unlikely return for Gini Wijnaldum, but such a move would simply not add up.
Wage commitments and a potential extra non-homegrown squad slot for someone who would become surplus to requirements within a year cannot be justified. And that’s just for a loan move —parting with a transfer fee would make even less sense. Nor could anyone who came in be expected to instantly get up to speed: Milner, who has been at Liverpool even longer than Jürgen Klopp, knows the intricacies of the system inside-out.
There is no point hiding the fact that he can no longer necessarily fulfil every function that the system requires of a Liverpool midfielder, but as a short-term option some way down the pecking order it would be hard to find anyone better. That’s without mentioning his role as a mentor and leader.
Still extremely fit at 36, he never lets Klopp down. Liverpool were unbeaten in his eight midfield starts in the Premier League last season, winning six. The draws came against Chelsea and Spurs: hardly a damning indictment. He looked out of his depth when starting at right-back against Manchester City, but there’s plenty of younger players who would have suffered the same fate, and the team still managed a draw. In any case, with the arrival of Calvin Ramsay, this role should no longer be required.
Had Liverpool extended Milner’s deal with no plan for the future, it would have been a black mark against FSG’s name. But the Americans are more future-focused than perhaps anyone else in the Premier League: with deals for Ramsay, Fábio Carvalho and Ben Doak secured this summer alone, and Trent Kone Doherty set to follow, short-termism is not an accusation that can be levelled at them. Instead, using the vice-captain as a Bellingham stop-gap is a smart piece of business — as long as the owners eventually get their man.