In the grand transfer race for Jude Bellingham, it looks like neither Liverpool nor Manchester City will come out on top.
For Liverpool, it was a case of withdrawing from the pursuit when the extent of the required investment in the team became clear. FSG could not purchase the cherry without having the cake. The fear at Anfield was surely that this would open the door to Manchester City, but Real Madrid appears set to secure Bellingham’s signature.
This is undoubtedly the lesser of two evils. The prospect of Bellingham and Erling Haaland being reunited at Manchester City was sickening, and would have made it far more difficult for Liverpool to plot a route back to genuine competitiveness with Pep Guardiola’s side. Even so, the way the saga has panned out has still underlined the daunting task ahead.
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It’s not news that Liverpool does not have the spending power of many of its rivals, least of all Manchester City. But the stark choice faced over Bellingham, a long-time priority target, really encapsulated the difference.
Unfortunately, it boiled down to either holistically improving the Liverpool squad or capturing the star player. Doing both was never an option, and the unanticipated scale of the decline in Jürgen Klopp’s team ultimately meant shelving the Bellingham plan.
While this is very disappointing, it’s not an inherently bad thing to have to do. Running a football club is about prioritizing, and Liverpool has masterfully conducted transfer business over much of the FSG era, maximizing the available resources.
The trouble is that Manchester City does not have to face these tough calls. If the squad needs strengthening at the same time that a star player is available, Guardiola can simply put out the request and get both.
Take last summer, for instance. Back then, Borussia Dortmund had a different star man. And while a release clause made Haaland somewhat more affordable than Bellingham on paper, it was still a hugely expensive transfer when factoring in things like agent fees and wages.
Even so, Kalvin Phillips was still brought in for a significant sum — and the tiny extent of his involvement demonstrates just what a luxury that was. Deals for Manuel Akanki and Sergio Gómez further bolstered the squad.
This summer, that’s exactly what Liverpool would do in an ideal world: one marquee addition, plus two or three purchases to improve squad depth. But FSG had to choose one or the other.
That’s the reality of competing with Manchester City. It’s not so much about the one-off huge transfer fees — it’s notable that Guardiola has rarely broken transfer records, with Jack Grealish being the major exception. The real killer is the ability to constantly invest and strengthen, ensuring a squad in prime condition to compete for all honors is always at the manager’s disposal.
Perhaps that makes it inevitable that the best any rival can hope to do is compete in phases, as Liverpool has done. Given the financial disparities, even to push Manchester City for three of the last six championships is a colossal achievement.
What it also definitely means is that Liverpool has to be perfect. The decision to bolster the squad more holistically this summer could be the right one, but every move has to be a hit. There can be no ‘Phillips’ situation — if even one signing ends up playing such a limited role, the reality is that Klopp will not have the resources to push Manchester City.
History suggests that Liverpool is capable of pulling it off. Promising names are being thrown around, not least Alexis Mac Allister — even if there are now whispers of Manchester City seeking to hijack that move. But the gut-wrenching call on Bellingham has already underlined the stakes in this transfer window, and the significant disadvantage that FSG has to try and overcome.