There Are Always More Great Players: Do LFC Need Generation-Defining Stars?
Great Players vs The Greatest Players
Great Players vs The Greatest Players
It's almost that time (no, not Christmas).
The transfer window opens not long after the World Cup (which I mostly boycotted) ended last night, and this season there are 22 league games after it opens, when every other season there would be far fewer.
For once, the January window can impact a majority of the season.
(It's also been a window in which, on average – perhaps due to a lower number of signings making it more focussed – Liverpool have done better with than in the summer when I parsed the data here.)
I'm not alone, I'm sure, in fully expecting Liverpool to be quite active, with maybe one or two senior signings.
At least, I was, prior further disruption on the recruitment side of things, with the news of Julian Ward and Ian Graham stepping down at the end of the season. Still, the club has to invest in players now; even if selling the club, you’d want to sell with better players.
That said, the chaos of this season has actually enabled younger players to start the transition from small/skinny/raw talents towards stronger, taller, smarter, sharper, faster and shrewder players.
Yesterday I published the following detailed analysis of all the emerging talents on my separate mini ZenDen TTT Substack (£3.50 a month; the TTT Main Hub, this site here, is £4.99 a month and has articles, match previews, match reviews, and is where almost all TTT commenting takes place. This is the community hub.)
Any more than a couple of new players in a January window would likely be too much churn – maybe it's okay if you have a terrible team to start with (Newcastle 12 months ago) – albeit Liverpool also have a few players who can officially talk to other clubs in less than two weeks' time; and while they may walk free at the end of the season, they could feasibly be shipped out early and replacements brought in early, even if I think that unlikely.
Liverpool will lose Naby Keïta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the never-seen Arthur in the summer, and then, at that stage, have three established midfielders aged 32-37 if that trio are all kept (and maybe this will be James Milner’s last dance; which could mean four senior midfielders depart).
Churn is a worry – I’m against churn at almost all costs – but the midfield needed a reasonable overhaul in 2022 (two players) and by 2023, a possible major overhaul of three/four players; with maybe only one kid, Stefan Bajcetic, likely promoted to a regular first-team option, based on his immense talent, increasing physical powers – albeit he has some filling out to do, having just turned 18 – and that he now seems ahead of some senior players in the pecking order.
As it is, any players signed in January will likely be integrated at the same time that those they usurp spend their final months at the club, lest the likes of Keïta be culled from the wage bill early.
Liverpool started the summer with a huge bid for Aurélien Tchouaméni, 22, essentially rendered worthless when he chose Real Madrid; and ended it with Borussia Dortmund not yet ready to sell Jude Bellingham, 19.
Whatever the situation with Bellingham (and I refuse to spend the next six months worrying about who he joins), an alternative to Tchouaméni could not be agreed upon (or deals could not be finalised, in one case apparently due to an agent's excessive demands), and time ran out.
That said, of course it would be wonderful to land Bellingham, as I noted in a detailed piece on here (see below), and I genuinely think Liverpool would be the perfect fit for him at this juncture, as I listed in detail.
What seems clear to me is that since the window closed, Liverpool will surely have been working – as they did with Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and others – to have deals lined up for when the window opens, given the awareness of what was required (and what had been missed) when the summer window closed.
Liverpool have always preferred early business, in contrast to some other clubs who like to haggle down to the wire. (Right now, it's more about finding players everyone at Liverpool agrees on.)
How good is Tchouaméni? At almost 23, he's a special player. And maybe he will get a lot better still. But there are other players.
And the point is: there will always be other players.
Several have emerged at the World Cup, with two – Sofyan Amrabat (26) and Enzo Fernández (21) – coming “out of nowhere” (or rather, big-name clubs Fiorentina and Benfica) to first look like potential bargains, then to suddenly appear in danger of being overpriced.
Players can easily double their values at a World Cup, which is why it’s often a bad idea to buy on the back of one (unless you were tracking them already and are not just seduced by four or five games).
Ten A Penny?
While it's difficult to suggest that generation-defining players pop up frequently (if they define a generation, like Lionel Messi, they are therefore rare), it increasingly strikes me that most 'great' players (you could define them as 'world-class') are, if not quite ten-a-penny, then hardly as rare as hens' teeth.
I've argued before over the definition of world-class, but there has to be an additional, higher-level term applicable to players like Lionel Messi, Pelé, Johan Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane, Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano, the original Ronaldo (Nazário), Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Konchesky and the greatest of them all, Diego Maradona, that takes them beyond world-class.
To me, world-class means amongst the best in the world in their position, not necessarily alone as the very best in the world in their position, or the very best in the world, full-stop.
Robert Lewandowski, Mo Salah, Harry Kane, and perhaps even Erling Haaland are all within a similar range of abilities and end-product, albeit with Haaland much younger and likely to improve, just as should Kylian Mbappé, who also sits in that group.
(Mbappé, like Neymar, is not yet in the pantheon of true greats – due to both lounging about in a farmer's league surrounded by teammates no rival could afford, to make the league a cakewalk; plus, don’t laugh at other’s misfortune, as it will come back to bite you. That said, had Mbappé’s World Cup final hat-trick - albeit two were penalties – won the trophy, then he’d be closer entering the pantheon).
These are all world-class, with maybe Mbappé and Haaland still young enough to go up another gear or two.
None, as yet, is a Messi or Maradona or Cruyff in terms of stature. The latter are stratospheric-class players.
From what I can tell, the generation-definers – the stratospheric-class players – were all phenomenons in their teens. I'm not sure there's an exception to this.
But the world-class players?
Not so much.
As I've noted many times over the last three or four years, at 20/21, each of Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané – and now Luis Díaz, Ibrahima Konaté and Darwin Núñez (three potential world-class players) – were either in mediocre leagues and/or at small clubs, or had barely tasted first-team football.
The same applies to Kane, on loan in the lower leagues, and Lewandowski (Lech Poznań until age 22, then a slow start with Dortmund; at roughly the same age, with Liverpool, Darwin Núñez has already matched Lewandowski's nine goals in a third of the games in their respective debut seasons under Klopp – which doesn't mean Núñez therefore goes up five gears like the Pole, but shows the early slow-burns of so many players who go on to become amongst the best in the world in their position, if not in the top 20 players of all time).
Therefore, do you even need stratospheric-class players?
This is a question I'll pull apart below, along with how long it often takes non-world class players aged 20/21 (such as Lewandowski, Salah, Kane, et al) to become world-class, and what helps that elevation.
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