Sunday, February 3, 2013

Can Liverpool learn from Newcastle?

The Toon Army have a new footballing figure to adore in the form of midfield dynamo Moussa Sissoko. After a really good debut performance against Aston Villa, the Frenchman announced his arrival in front of the home fans with a superlative performance featuring two goals to help Newcastle beat Chelsea 3-2 at St. James Park. It truly was an outstanding display, and when you consider the fact that the Magpies paid only 2.5 million pounds for him, one has to credit the Newcastle United management for an astute bit of business.

While Sissoko grabbed all the headlines, they were also some very encouraging performances provided by two other new recruits in black and white, Mathieu Debuchy and Yoan Gouffran. Debuchy is a right-back of fantastic quality, and was possibly France's best player in their poor Euro 2012 campaign, along with being one Lille's most consistent players during their rise to the upper echelons of Ligue Un. Gouffran was purchased for 1.2 million pounds, and the forward has already displayed intelligence through some excellent runs and a determination to track back and help the defence. Finally, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was possibly the best centre-back in France last year, helping the underdogs Montpellier to win the league at the expense of mega-rich Paris St-Germain.

Credit must be given first and foremost to chief scout Graham Carr, for identifying these outstanding talents. Derek Llambias has also played a crucial role in making the purchases at bargain prices and choosing the right moment to make offers to the clubs that Newcastle are buying from. In fact, one could objectively wonder, if there was a better tactical manager than Alan Pardew at the helm, the Magpies could conceivably be performing even better with their continental core.

Newcastle's excellent business in the transfer market does bring some scrutiny on the transfer dealings of another northern sleeping giant. While the upper management at St. James Park have set a new benchmark for excellent scouting and prudent financial sense in purchasing good players, Liverpool continue to overspend on unproven players, with a particular propensity towards overpriced British players. As the excellent shows, the disparity between Newcastle and Liverpool is shocking. While Mike Ashley has simultaneously managed to make a profit in the transfer market and improve the team, Liverpool continue to make losses in the market while regressing in the league.

Let's use the summer of 2011 as a starting reference point. Ashley sanctioned 13.3 million pounds to purchase Yohan Cabaye, Davide Santon and Gabriel Obertan. Cabaye was the Ligue Un player of the year at the time as he orchestrated Lille's brilliant title-winning season, and to this day remains an extremely vital player for Newcastle. After a shaky start adjusting to the pace of the Premier League, Santon has become a mainstay in the team, with many on Tyneside even considering the Italian the best player in the side during the wretched first half of this season. Only Obertan has failed to prove his worth in a black and white shirt. During that summer, Newcastle also signed Demba Ba on a free. Ba had a blinding first half to the season. While Ba's goals dried up in the second half of the season, his compatriot Papiss Cisse was bought in January for 10 million pounds, and was the goal-scoring sensation for the second half of the season. All in all, a terrific year of investment at St. James Park.

Meanwhile at Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish banking on the goodwill of Fenway Sports Group's recent takeover of the club, was given a substantial transfer kitty. Jordan Henderson, who had a fleeting number of "promising" performances in central midfield for Sunderland, was bought in for 16 million pounds. Stewart Downing, whose only virtue seems to be having a left foot, was purchased for 20 million pounds. At the end of the season, Downing had contributed a grand total of zero assists and zero goals in the league. On the back of some recent victories against relegation threatened teams, many pundits seem to think Henderson and Downing are finally showing their worth, however the jury's still out especially in big games. Charlie Adam was signed for 7 million, in the hope that he would replicate Xabi Alonso's success in midfield. Adam is now pinging set-pieces at Stoke. Finally, the less said about the 35 million splurged on Andy Carroll, the better. The only decent bit of business that Dalglish did was signing Jose Enrique for 6.3 million, ironically from Newcastle.

To be fair, Ashley did stall in the summer transfer market this season. Whether the 6.7 million spent on Vernon Anita was wise is still up for debate, although the 3 million recouped by selling Leon Best softens the blow somewhat. One could be pedantic and judge the sale of Fraser Forster for just 2 million as a bad bit of business in light of his heroics for Celtic in the Champions League, but hindsight is always 20/20. While many fans were disappointed with the lack of incoming players, Llambias and his team were shrewd enough to negotiate better prices in the winter market for already identified targets. While they might not end up 5th again this season, Newcastle will certainly have a deep squad to start the 2013-2014 season.

At Liverpool, King Kenny was replaced by Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers wants to turn Liverpool into a team of style, and wants his players to embrace a philosophy based on possession of the ball and intricate passing. To back up his vision, his first two purchases were Joe Allen for 15 million and Fabio Borini for 10 million. After a decent start, Allen has regressed to the point of being replaced by Henderson in the starting eleven, and to judge Borini as extremely poor is an understatement. Even more damning is the fact that Rodgers made these signings on the virtue of the two players have already performed under him before. No imagination or scouting was put to use.

It seems rather ironic that despite recent trends, many in the media have jumped on the bandwagon questioning Newcastle's identity and cracking supposedly witty jokes about Newcastle being a French club. In contrast, in part due to nationalism and partly due to the omni-potent presence of ex-Liverpool players in the media, the signings of Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho have been labelled as great bits of business in many quarters. While no one can deny the talent and confidence of Sturridge, the stark reality of the moment is that Liverpool are buying a player who was considered a failure at Chelsea. Coutinho is even more unproven. The Brazilian has the ability to dribble in tight spaces, but unfortunately that ability has rarely translated to success on the pitch, except during a brief loan spell last season at Espanyol under current Southampton manager Mauricio Pocchetino.

Of course the pair do give Liverpool some much needed depth in the attacking third, and it is conceivable that in the long-run, Sturridge and Coutinho could become bonafide legends at Anfield. Yet, the fact remains, that in the January transfer window, Liverpool have splashed out 20.5 million pounds on two young unproven players. Meanwhile, Newcastle have spent 18.7 million pounds on Debuchy, Gouffran, Sissoko, Yanga-Mbiwa and Massadio Haidara. Except Haidara, all of the aforementioned are proven consistent performers. Furthermore, Newcastle also recouped 7 million pounds from selling Demba Ba to Chelsea.

Liverpool are currently 8 points ahead of Newcastle in the table, and realistically should finish the season above the Magpies. However, if Newcastle do manage a late season surge and challenge Liverpool in the battle for the best of rest, then the Magpies tremendous acquisition of proven quality players in the transfer window would surely be a significant factor.

If the Fenway Sports Group and Ian Ayre are indeed serious about delivering success at Anfield without breaking the bank on mediocre players, then they could do worse than looking east and try to emulate Newcastle's unquestionably high-quality scouting network and transfer negotiating system.

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