When Fenway Sports Group arrived at Anfield, all the talk was of Moneyball and looking to Arsenal for inspiration. Buy young, buy undervalued, and build. There are still clear signs of that approach at Anfield, but since Brendan Rodgers arrived at the club, a more accurate comparison for Liverpool's approach to long-term team building isn't Arsenal's version of Moneyball—it's Chelsea's.
Chelsea have embraced spending big on vacuuming up much of Europe's top young talent. At times they have been mocked for it, and for the fact that so many of their £5-10M youth investments are never going to play a minute for the club. Dig a little deeper, though, and you begin to see an attempt to exploit the way most clubs approach youth development. One that Liverpool are now trying to copy.
The poster children for this new approach at Liverpool are players like Luis Alberto, Tiago Ilori, and, if things go to plan over the next week or two, Divock Origi. There will be more that follow. All have—or will have—the tools to become stars, but none are anything like a lock for it. And even if they do come good, it will be at least a few years before they're ready to contribute.
Barring injury, though, they should all end up solid footballers. They may never make a significant contribution at Liverpool, but they should develop into good players. Add in youngsters like Joao Carlos Teixeira, Jordan Ibe, and Seyi Ojo, all of whom the club paid significant fees for, or longer-term projects like Andre Wisdom, Ryan McLaughlin, or Jack Robinson, and you have a significant investment in youth.
On the surface, paying £7M for Luis Alberto or Tiago Ilori or £6M up front for Origi seems steep for players who, if they end up being only good might only end up being worth £10M or so—and when if something goes wrong they might end up worth rather less. It's a high price for a chance at a superstar, which is why few clubs would have bought these players at this stage in their careers.
Buy one such promising player and you've got perhaps a 15% chance at a superstar, a 15% chance at the player stalling out and ending up worth far less, and a 70% chance of him being somewhere between good and very good. Better odds than with younger kids, but hardly great when you're spending £5-10M. But as Chelsea have shown in recent years, if you buy many such players, the maths begin to change.
Viewed as part of a larger transfer strategy, that a single £7M prospect might fail no longer really matters—there are others, and on aggregate those others will mostly end up good solid players whose eventual transfer fees will cover the costs of the overall strategy. The goal is a self-sustaining and essentially revenue neutral system. One that occasionally gets you a superstar.
Only as that superstar is the product of a self-sustaining, financially neutral system, he arrives at the club at 22 years of age, give or take, and for, essentially, free. All the trading and loaning and players who mostly only end up very good pays for itself. And occasionally a Thibaut Courtois or Romelu Lukaku gets spit out of the system. That, in the end, is the main goal.
It takes a quite significant initial investment, not to mention a degree of faith from all involved that £6M here and £8M there and £5M over thataway aren't critically undermining the club's transfer strategy in the shorter term. It also means accepting that many of these exciting, promising youngsters the club brings in will never make a significant contribution to the club.
These aren't players being bought for this or even next year, no matter their fees seem to suggest they should be contributors. But there's no sign the club see them as having any impact on short-term transfer strategy. Chelsea figured out the blueprint for a self-sustaining, revenue neutral way to gamble on potential superstars. Liverpool are now looking to get in on the action.