In July 2018, Cristiano Ronaldo completed a £99.2 million transfer from Real Madrid to Juventus. He was 33 years old. This felt like a game-changing moment: a recognition that modern professionals can continue at the highest level for longer than in the past, and that the sheer amount of money in the game makes buying older stars viable so long as it buys success. As it turned out, this was not a watershed moment but rather a high watermark — between the Covid-19 pandemic and Ronaldo’s mixed record at Juventus, the days of astronomical fees for ageing stars look to be over almost before they began.
Just ask Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich striker is undoubtedly still operating at the top level, having beaten the late Gerd Müller’s single-season Bundesliga scoring record in the last campaign. He could hardly be blamed for feeling he has achieved it all with the German champions, winning the title in each of the seven seasons since making the switch from Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. (There’s a more pertinent link to Liverpool to come, but bear with us.) A Champions League title in 2019/20, followed by a Super Cup and Club World Cup triumph, completed his trophy cabinet nicely. Even so, it does not seem likely that the striker will be going anywhere.
Bayern want north of £100 million for Lewandowski, who turns 33 tomorrow. Notably, this is the same age Ronaldo was when he made his switch — and the asking price is roughly the same too. If anything, the Pole’s output in recent seasons is better than the form shown by Ronaldo in the lead-up to his transfer. The Portuguese icon put up 26 goals and five assists in 27 games during his final La Liga campaign, compared to Lewandowski’s remarkable 41 goals and seven assists from just 29 games in the last Bundesliga season. However, just three short years down the line from Ronaldo’s switch, a move for Lewandowski looks impossible.
Liverpool would never have been a likely destination at the best of times, with FSG preferring to invest in younger talent, but now it is hard to imagine any club stumping up the cash for Lewandowski. An already exclusive group of teams who could afford him has been reduced ever further by the impact of the pandemic. His wages alone would price out all but a handful of sides. Coupled with such an astronomical fee for a player whose time at the very top is surely limited, and even the clubs who could theoretically afford him have smart enough recruitment structures in place to know there are probably better ways of spending the money.
Take Ronaldo. At the time of his move, he was still considered the second-best football player in the world, behind Lionel Messi. This is probably no longer the case, although he has continued to post good numbers throughout his time in Italy: even so, it has not been enough to bring Juventus any more success than they would otherwise have achieved. There has been no Champions League triumph. There have been two league titles, but the club had already won the previous seven without Ronaldo — and even that slipped away last season, with Inter Milan taking the Scudetto. If they had their time again, Juventus would surely have spread the £100 million investment across multiple upcoming stars.
This is where Liverpool come in. At the moment, the club is focused on renewals for many of its existing big names. This is unequivocally good news. However, the cost to FSG is far more than it appears. By signing Virgil van Dijk through to 2025, the owners are effectively writing off the £75 million spent on the centre-half. Nobody will pay a substantial transfer fee for Van Dijk as that new contract draws to a close — however good the player is, the maths just doesn’t add up. The same will apply to Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, should the club agree new deals for the 29-year-olds.
The situations of Alisson, Fabinho and Trent Alexander-Arnold are different, with even the extended terms not taking any of them into a window where they will no longer be feasibly sell-able. Even so, Liverpool spent somewhere in the region of £150 million to acquire Mané, Salah and Van Dijk: it’s no small thing to simply write off the chances of recouping any significant portion of that, even before thinking about the actual salaries being paid out.
As such, these new deals are genuinely designed to keep the players at Anfield for the rest of their careers. They are not an exercise in value protection, because to all intents and purposes these players will soon have no real-world value: however well they continue to perform, the cost of acquiring them will always put off the few potentially feasible buying clubs. The Liverpool owners have perhaps not got the credit they deserve for what is an incredible show of commitment: prioritising the health of the playing squad over the future health of the bank balance.
Equally, given FSG’s attempts to run the club sustainably, the spate of new deals arguably raises an eyebrow in light of the Lewandowski situation. If the owners were hoping to ‘do a Ronaldo’ with a 33-year-old Salah or Mané, a rethink is required. This may mean selling one of the stars sooner rather than later — this is easier said than done in a pandemic-affected market, and at this stage may have to wait until the next transfer window, but it is something to consider. Funding an up-and-coming talent with the proceeds from (for example) Mané would cause some short-term pain, but it may be necessary in order to kick-start a new cycle of the sell-to-buy model that has been employed at Liverpool since the moment FSG took charge.
Of course, nobody really wants this. Ask any fan if one of the front three should be sold, and the answer would be resounding. However, three years down the line, will the same fans not be bemoaning the lack of transfer activity as the team is allowed to grow old together? The reality is that Liverpool gets its money from outgoings, and the best assets are being allowed to gradually depreciate — this is a process that will happen regardless of performance levels, as Robert Lewandowski can testify.
The Ronaldo model is no more, and Liverpool must ask some tough questions about where that leaves them.