The most surprising part of Liverpool’s three sentence apology to Southampton for tapping up defender Virgil van Dijk was that it was an apology. There were no conditions - no “if we offended Southampton, we apologize” aspect. From the rumor to the formal letter, Liverpool’s pursuit of van Dijk showcased a side of the transfer window rarely seen in public.
With a rumored asking price of up to $90 million for the center back, Liverpool were found of going straight to van Dijk to force Southampton to sell for a cheaper price. There were leaks that van Dijk preferred Liverpool to Chelsea and Manchester City, excited to work with Jurgen Klopp after discussing the manager’s vision at an in-person meeting and over text messages. Through it all, there was still the small detail that van Dijk is under contract with Southampton for another five seasons.
The other surprising aspect was that it was this summer, after three years, five players, and over $130 million switching between the sides, that Southampton hit their breaking point in dealing with Liverpool. Since 2014, under Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have signed from Southampton:
- Adam Lallana: $35 million, 2014
- Dejan Lovren: $28 million, 2014
- Rickie Lambert: $6 million, 2014
- Nathaniel Clyne: $19 million, 2015
- Sadio Mane: $46 million, 2016
This wasn’t the first time that Liverpool pressed Southampton to sell players through non-negotiating means. The two clubs were millions apart in valuing Lallana in 2014 as Rodgers wanted to sign the attacker before the World Cup. The difference was made up with Lallana asking his boyhood club for a transfer, thereby putting internal pressure on Southampton to sell a potentially disgruntled captain. Months later, Lallana expressed regretat how he left the club, describing the situation as “nasty”. Most relevant now, he says he knew of Liverpool’s interest before asking for a transfer.
To add another wrinkle, Liverpool stand accused by Chelsea of tapping up 19-year-old striker Dominic Solanke. This comes on the back of paying a fine of over $100,000 and receiving a two year ban on signing academy players after being found guilty of tapping up a 11 year old player from Stoke. All is fair in love and transfer negotiations, yet the persistent patterns in both the youth and senior side signal a systemic process. Chelsea were docked three points when caught tapping up Ashley Cole while the left back was still at Arsenal in 2006. Having escaped that sort of punishment, the actions of Liverpool’s board only affect the club’s reputation off the field. Regardless, to quote Charlie Murphy, it’s clear that Liverpool are habitual line steppers when it comes to the transfer market.
The impact of Liverpool’s behavior and apology extends beyond van Dijk. In the long rumored transfer of Roma’s Mo Salah, new sporting director Monchi - and king of the value transfer - said that his club are not a supermarket for cheap players. The message was clear: if Liverpool and Klopp wanted the 24-year-old Egyptian winger, they would have to pay a rumored $50 million asking fee. The dance between Monchi and Liverpool also has precedence, and a familiar rhythm: Liverpool send an offer, as they did with Luis Alberto and Alberto Moreno at Sevilla. Monchi turns the offer down. Liverpool raise their offer, and get their player the second time around.
Off field issues aside, Liverpool’s most incisive attacker in Lallana, their most consistent defender in Clyne, and their most dynamic dribbler in Mane each came from Southampton. More than any other Premier League academy, Southampton produces players (and a manager in Mauricio Pochettino) suited for the modern game. Yet this also places questions on the identity of their on-field success season to season. The club fired Claude Puel after an 8th place finish, which seems reasonable considering the economic power of the seven sides that finished above them. What are the expectations of a club that sells their top players after each season by design?
And here, a quick point in how the three rumored players would function at Liverpool. Measuring 6-4, van Dijk’s combination of aerial dominance and long range passing ability has drawn comparisons to Mats Hummels. Finding a stable partner for Joel Matip is Klopp’s biggest goal this summer, and the 25 year old is at the right place in his career to make the leap to the Champions League. It’s no stretch to say that how much they challenge domestically and in Europe next season depends on how they reinforce the center back position.
As for Salah, there’s an alternate history what Liverpool would have been had Rodgers signed the Egyptian in the 2014 winter transfer window before Chelsea swooped in. Salah recalls wanting to play at Liverpool. In a familiar story, Basel deemed Liverpool’s initial offer too low, giving Jose Mourinho enough time to sign the winger. Salah would not only contribute immediately, but would add to perhaps the quickest counter attack in Europe alongside Lallana and Mane. If van Dijk is necessary to compete, Salah’s quality would be the final piece enabling the team to overcome the final hurdle. Solanke is for the future, although with Klopp’s fearlessness in playing youth, could contribute next season.
One would think that Liverpool’s apology would end their pursuit of van Dijk - it is right there in the final sentence. But we forget that soccer abides by its own logic. Liverpool are not only once again rumored to sign van Dijk, but his Southampton teammate Dusan Tadic as well. At this rate, Liverpool could build an entire starting 11 of players bought from Southampton by 2019. In the world of agents and million dollar fees, there’s a level of tapping up in every transfer. If you aren’t writing public apologies, you aren’t trying. And even if you do get caught and punished, you might still get what you wanted anyway.