Two weeks without league football and the opening days of the season a quickly fading memory has put many in the mood to pick at what has for Liverpool gone from a year of hope to one that seems to offer more of the same. A season that after an expectant summer only seems to offer more missed chances. More dropped points against weaker sides. More questions about whether the latest round of transfers represents money well spent. And more concerns that whichever manager is running the club this year isn't using those pieces he does have on hand as well as he perhaps could.
Of course the outlook isn't nearly so bleak on the pitch as it was at this time last year, but with the club ending the 2010-11 season on a high note and the new owners opening up the chequebook to splurge on domestic talent, it's hard to avoid that reality hasn't so far lived up to the preseason hopes.
At the time, the primary argument for paying over the odds for players was that buying British—or, at the very least, buying players with Premier League experience—was worth it, even if it meant paying more than to bring in similarly skilled players from further afield. It was worth it because the players would already be fully adjusted to the league; already adjusted to life in England. And so they would require little time to settle at their new club.
Buying British would mean an instant impact, and that instant impact would give the club its best possible chance of jumping over the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal and back into a Champions League position. Some may have doubted whether names like Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing would be the ones to lead the club to longer-term glories, the ones to lead the club back to the pinnacle of English and European football, yet even then most seemed to agree that such eventual goals weren't the primary concern. Instant improvement, enough to make fourth a near certainty, was the only goal that really mattered. And that's why the club went out and paid over the odds for established, adjusted, Premier League-proven talent that could make an impact from week one.
So far, that hasn't gone quite according to plan.
On the left, Stewart Downing, the summer's most expensive signing, has recorded no goals or assists, becoming increasingly ineffective in attack as the season progresses and encouraging a widespread belief that he hasn't yet imposed himself on an opponent. In the middle, Charlie Adam has looked mostly like the Charlie Adam seen at Blackpool last season, mixing moments of brilliance with moments of ineptitude and seeming a poor fit in a two man midfield.
Neither has been awful. At times both have even been quite good. But given that both were inserted straight into the starting eleven by a manager believing they were fully capable of immediately improving said starting eleven, not awful is hardly a ringing endorsement—especially when the likes of Jay Spearing, Maxi Rodriguez, and Raul Meireles all offered more playing in their positions last season.
Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll might deserve more patience because of their potential, but Adam and Downing were both established Premier League players brought in to improve the squad immediately and help secure a top four berth. Perhaps, eventually, they will get to the point where they're able to do just that. However, having to wait for them to adjust largely undermines the main argument in favour of buying theoretically proven local talent, especially in the case of Stewart Downing and the £20M that was sent to Aston Villa for his services.
As for Henderson, he may have been bought at least in part for his potential, but Liverpool has plenty of homegrown talent working through the academy—not to mention Jonjo Shelvey, out on loan and making a significant impact with Blackpool in the Championship. His case, and that of Andy Carroll, may not be quite as stark as the more senior players with Premier League experience who have so far under-delivered, but if the only thing Liverpool had been concerned about was his promise three or four years down the road there would have been little need to pay around £16M pounds to acquire him. Certainly part of that fee was due to an expectation that he has the chance to develop into a great player in the future, but part of it also reflected a belief that he could at least be a good player now—unlike a young player brought in from overseas, who would be expected to take time to fully adjust to his new surroundings.
With Liverpool meeting the quota for locally trained players last season, the only reason to rely so heavily on buying Premier League talent—and especially British players with their heavy homegrown markup—is if one fully buys into a central conceit: These players will take far less time to adjust. So far, that hasn't happened.
It doesn't mean the players who have yet to deliver relative to their price tags are failures, full stop. It doesn't mean that they can't eventually adjust, grow, settle, or otherwise develop into valuable contributors who might be able to get Liverpool to where both those watching and those guiding the club want it to be. It does, however, suggest that the rationale behind paying inflated fees to fix a squad that hardly seemed broken at the end of last season was a foolish approach. For fans, expecting the finished article from Dalglish and Liverpool after one summer would have been unreasonable, but expecting an improved side after what was spent and where the club was six months ago should be par for the course. To pretend it's otherwise and that those making the decisions are infallible comes across as blindly sycophantic.
Things may come good in the end, but mistakes have been made. It can't be ignored that, even if by the end of the year the likes of Adam, Carroll, Henderson, and Downing have fully integrated themselves into a flowing, dominating Liverpool side, these early struggles have largely undermined the idea that paying a premium for domestic talent—particularly when the club already has enough homegrown players on the squad to satisfy FIFA regulations—is worth it because the players brought in will already have adjusted to the league. It can't be ignored that Liverpool has payed a huge premium without receiving any kind of benefit for it.
It may not be entirely clear exactly what has gone wrong with Liverpool this season, but it's inescapable that something isn't right. Either the premium paid for proven Premier League talent was a complete waste and last season's best performers should have been supplemented by the best talent available for the best price regardless of nationality and any existing experience in England's top flight. Or the supposedly Premier League proven players that were acquired for top dollar are instead being badly misused, and if they were deployed more effectively they—and the entire squad—would suddenly begin to click.
Preseason expectations may have been unreasonably high, but that the club—and in particular many of the new signings—hasn't yet performed up to even more reasonable levels of expectation is a depressing, unavoidable reality.