News that Raheem Sterling would be actively pushing for a move away from Liverpool this summer has been the main talking point for fans over the past 24 hours, though to be fair, many saw it coming from a long way off. One would hope and expect that the club would be amongst those who knew this was a likely development, and that a coherent plan will have already been formed, ready to be put into place.
For many, once a player wants away the assumption is that he’s as good as gone. It’s a cliche in modern football that the contracts signed by players are worth approximately nothing at the end of the day, and that if a player really wants to move on there’s no way a club can hold on to them. Liverpool, though, showed a willingness to challenge such assumptions in recent years by holding on to Luis Suarez despite the player’s desire to leave.
Suarez had two seasons left on his contract when he began to agitate for a move away and Arsenal came calling, but the club held firm in their belief that £40M wasn’t a fair offer—and that moreover, even if it was they wouldn’t be selling Suarez to a league rival. Suarez soon after became key to Liverpool’s best season in five years as they unexpectedly challenged for the Premier League title, signing a new and improved deal along the way.
Sterling might not have the same mentality Suarez did, a mentality that meant when Liverpool refused to sell Suarez nonetheless buckled down and got on with having the best season of his career, but with Sterling Liverpool are actually in a stronger position than they were with Suarez. That’s thanks to mandated training compensation that would allow the club to run down his contract and still, in theory at least, still receive market value for him.
It’s far from a perfect and predictable situation for Liverpool—it relies on an arbitration board to decide what Sterling is worth at a later date, after all, and there has never been a situation as high profile as Sterling’s would be. In the past, though, it’s a set-up that saw Manchester City awarded £9M for Daniel Sturridge when he was 20 years of age and had only played a handful of first team games for the club.
While it might be something of a roll of the dice to let Sterling’s contract run down in two years and hand it to an arbitration board determine his value, and while it wouldn’t protect the club if he moved on to a club on the continent in 2017, if Sterling is set on a London switch as many believe it would at least offer Liverpool far more protection than they would have with an older player pushing for a move—or that they had in Suarez’ case.
It doesn’t mean the club can simply shrug and ignore his demands, but it does give them a major piece of leverage. More than it would with an older player, it means that it might be entirely reasonable for the club to hold on to Sterling—whose current contract is only paying him £35k a week—leaving it up to the player to decide if he wants to play for a contract elsewhere in two years or stagnate and undermine his own future earning potential.
Plus, with the Euros on the horizon next season, it’s not just a contract two years down the road Sterling would have to play for if Liverpool decided that training compensation meant they could hold on to him. On the other hand, ever since Sterling did his BBC interview, where he claimed he just wanted to focus on football, the player’s form has dropped precipitously. In fact, he’s played the worst football of his young career in recent months.
Suarez’ mentality was such that, when forced to stay, he didn’t know how to do anything but give his all and play his best. Sterling, on the other hand, still far from the finished product at 20 years of age and being given questionable advice behind the scenes, could see his career undone in similar circumstances. That might mean that, if the right offer comes in, the club will jump at the chance to maximise value by selling, even if it means letting him go to a league rival.
If the right offer doesn’t come along, though, that promise of training compensation gives Liverpool a unique advantage they didn’t have with Suarez. If the right offer doesn’t come in, holding on to Sterling on his current low wages and finding out if he’s got the same fight as Suarez or if he will instead sulk, stagnate, and watch as his career goes to waste could actually be the most reasonable course of action for the club.
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