Liverpool and Boston Red Sox: That familiar feeling of breaking the jinx

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In the 2011 Hollywood film Moneyball, based on the 2003 book by the same name, there is a scene towards the end showing Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane—played by Brad Pitt—meeting the owner of the Boston Red Sox. Beane is offered an extravagant contract to switch sides; he rejects it.

Moneyball is the story of Oakland’s 2002 season, where Beane’s recruitment approach, shaped by a statistical analysis model not used before, helped them build a highly competitive team on a low budget. Oakland famously went on a 20-game unbeaten run during the regular season. Thus the offer from Red Sox. Undeterred by Bean’s refusal, the Boston team went on to use a similar statistical model for recruitment under their new owner in 2002. Two years later, the Red Sox broke what came to be known as the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ – the team’s 86-year failure to win the World Series, baseball’s biggest prize. The Boston team has since won three more World Series crowns, most recently in 2018.

The owner of Red Sox, John W Henry, will be familiar with the feeling of breaking jinxes then; in 2010, he took over Liverpool FC. A decade later, these Reds are champions for the first time in 30 years. Henry’s Fenway Sports Group took over from the club’s tumultuous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, a period that had brought Liverpool on the verge of bankruptcy that season. On the field, the Reds had started 2010/11 with one win in eight games, leaving them in the relegation zone for a few weeks.

When local rivals Everton beat them 2-0 at Goodison Park that season, Henry and his close associate Tom Werner – chairman of the Red Sox since 2002 and that of Liverpool since 2010—were both in attendance. The new owners could not have had a better reminder of the task that lay ahead in rebuilding the club.

In the decade since, the transformation from Roy Hodgson’s stuttering team to Jurgen Klopp’s world-beaters has been nothing short of phenomenal. After winning only a League Cup between 2006 and 2019, the club has now won two of the biggest crowns available to them—the Champions League last season and now the Premier League. Fenway’s role in this decade-long process cannot be understated; like with the Red Sox, Liverpool’s resurgence has come despite the club not competing in the transfer market with most of their rivals.

The way some of the key players in Liverpool’s squad were recruited look barely believable now; their indefatigable midfield engine Giorgino Wijnaldum and rock solid left back Andy Robertson were both picked from relegated Premier League teams.

Even Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Robeto Firmino, Liverpool’s hallowed front three, came in for a combined total of around £100 million (last year Manchester City bought the midfielder Rodri for £70 million alone). It is undoubtedly Klopp who has to take a lion’s share of the credit for the way he has shaped the team, both in terms of recruitment and on the pitch, but there is little doubt that he has the owner’s backing in doing things the unconventional way.

To see Klopp’s hand in executing highly strategic transfers, look no further than Liverpool’s recent transfer record before the manager came in. In the winter of 2010, Fernando Torres was sold to Chelsea for £50 million, and the club immediately invested 70% of that money on another forward in Andy Carroll. It didn’t turn out well. Liverpool had signed Luis Suarez in the same window, and when the Uruguayan left the club in 2014, the Reds signed eight players using the transfer fee received from the sale. This too, didn’t work out well. Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Divock Origi are the only three of those eight players still a part of Liverpool, and all of them now play peripheral roles.

The first major sale Klopp made after joining Liverpool in 2016 is Phillip Coutinho to Barcelona for a record £105 million in 2018. Klopp had missed out on signing a rookie centreback from Southampton that he has his eye on in 2017. Instead of rushing in to buy someone else, Klopp waited. When Coutinho’s sale went through, Liverpool used part of the proceeds to bring in the Southampton defender, Virgil van Dijk (and, later in the summer, Alisson Becker). The rest, well, is history.

Liverpool’s total net spending on players since Fenway’s ownership in 2010 till now has been a total of £209.48 million. In contrast, Manchester City’s and Man United’s net spending in only the last five seasons are £601.98 million and £484.88 million, respectively. This is not to say that Fenway’s stay at Liverpool has been all rosy. The women’s team was recently relegated after constantly deteriorating fortunes in the Women’s Super League, which they had won in 2013 and 2014. The club’s firm support for Suarez after he was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra also remains a stain.

Moreover, as seen by the club missing out on German forward Timo Werner to Chelsea, it is evident that Liverpool are still finding it difficult to compete financially despite their success on the field. It remains to be seen how the owners handle the financial impact of the pandemic and aid Klopp’s quest for more success.

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