With Darwin Nunez announced as a Liverpool player on Tuesday, there is an important question hanging around his signature.
Is the £80m the club likely to spend on his transfer a costly cure for a negligent mistake in allowing Sadio Mane to approach the end of his contract without agreeing to an extension…or is it a major blow?
There is a wonderful dynamic when a big club like Liverpool allows one of their best players – Mane is definitely Liverpool’s best player – to leave, and then spends heavily on his replacement.
On the surface, it might seem a little sloppy. Mane, after all, was the team’s best player in the final third of last season, a player who looked at the peak of his power as one of the best players in the world right now.
He is, however, allowed to go to a direct European rival, for a transfer fee of less than half of what the club has to pay for Nunez, who will undoubtedly work in the same positions, so he is a natural alternative.
Some would argue that it’s not the best contract management, and that Liverpool erred in allowing the Senegal striker to approach the end of his current deal, while still having a lot to offer in his career.
However, there is a counter-argument – which the club itself believes – that the signing of Nunez is an important stage in Liverpool FC’s evolution towards the pinnacle of world football.
Perhaps the most relevant point of the transfers is that both are done on Liverpool’s terms. If there was an overwhelming will to keep Mane, he would have been kept. Nunez was signed, because the club, after evaluating the evidence, believed it was the best solution, and not an imperceptible reaction.
Mane is 30 years old, and even if he keeps a good fit, there is no doubt that over the coming years he will back out on any new contract he signs.
Which makes that a huge contract for him personally, and the biggest to sign in his football career. Looking at the numbers, Mane was asking for nearly £400,000 a week for a four-year deal to stay with Liverpool. That would amount to a total of £83m, including bonuses. A staggering amount, but comparable to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, David de Gea and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Premier League.
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Bayern Munich are said to be close to agreeing to a three-year deal of around £360,000 a week. That equates to £56 million over the course of the contract. While Darwin Nunez’s numbers have yet to be confirmed by Liverpool, it has been reported that he will earn €6 million per season.
That, by the calculations, would entail a salary of around £160,000 – £180,000 a week, depending on his tax situation. Which is roughly half of what Mane will receive. This means that over three years, Liverpool will save around £30m on wages alone, by selling Mane and signing Nunez.
Add the £40m they want Bayern Munich from Mane – and it looks like they’re increasingly likely to get it as negotiations come to a close, and that’s a total of £70m. And it is, by any math, a smart move from a financial point of view.
Given that Nunez’s fee will be reduced by £65m, and another £18m in surcharges based on performance-related targets, this means that if he is successful, Liverpool will pay – based on those numbers – around £13m to replace Mane. with Uruguay International.
Although there are no guarantees in football, it makes sense from a logistical point of view. In three years, Mane will be past his 33rd birthday. Nunez will be twenty-five years old.
From a footballing point of view, it is still a huge risk, because there are no guarantees that the Uruguayan can translate his clear promise into real quality … while Mane guarantees that, as his level has proven in recent months. So for how long? Even three years is a huge demand for a player that has been pushed to the limits by a crazy football schedule over the past few years. Mane was never injured, but could that continue into his 30s?
For Liverpool, there is an acceptance that it is a risk…but it is a calculated gamble. For two reasons: the first is their belief in the analytics they now run on all new deals, which are as sophisticated as you can get in modern football. They know Nunez’s strengths and weaknesses, they know where he can improve, and where gains can be made. Which brings us to the second reason for their belief.
At Jurgen Klopp, they have a manager who has shown a world-class ability to develop players, perhaps only Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti can match in the current generation of coaches.
So even if Nunez is rude, they have a director who can quickly develop him into a more nearly talented one, who can deliver on his promise and deliver the final essay. Just as he did with Mane and with Mohamed Salah… and almost every player at Liverpool.
Nunez could be a more natural scorer than Mane as well, which is important for a team that has struggled to turn dominance in the Finals this season into goals. They did not score in all three finals they played last season, despite producing 76 shots in those matches.
The Champions League final was one of the most painful experiences. They were supposed to beat the regular Real Madrid, no doubt. And there’s a strong argument to be made, with Salah running out a bit, a natural finish could have made all the difference.
They will miss Mane’s charm, no doubt. But in financial terms, the deals make perfect sense. They have maintained a wage structure that does not leave them exposed to the high demands of all their star players (a nightmare situation that Manchester United have suffered in recent years).
Robbie Fowler in the Sunday Mirror column was great this week: “I don’t want to be harsh, but United could have written a book about how not to do transfers in recent seasons,” he said.
“They broke their pay structure on players like Alexis Sanchez and this highlights everything that was wrong with Old Trafford. Liverpool kept their financial house in order to sell Mane to buy Nunez, and United must learn from that.”
What Liverpool have done, according to Fowler and according to people inside the club, is to look at the bigger picture. They are evolving to stay on top of the game. To remain among the elite, there has to be a natural process of replacing players, before it is clear that they need to be replaced.
New faces must be furnished before they are requested. It worked for Liverpool in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and now finally after 30 years of falling behind the best clubs in the world they are back in a position of carefully planning the evolution of the team that keeps them at the top.
This doesn’t guarantee Nunez will succeed or else he won’t miss Mane, but it still makes sense. For a start, Liverpool will not end up in a situation like United where the wage budget is spiraling out of control.
And if Klopp’s magic plays into the players, there’s a good chance Liverpool fans won’t notice much of the development making the team smaller and stronger. Jota, Diaz, Konate, Tsimikas and Carvalho have arrived in the past two seasons to strengthen the team and reduce lifespan.
Continue this process with Nunez. And despite all the fans’ fears about Mane’s departure, this is a clearly logical process.