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One of football's many aphorisms is that you should strengthen while you're ahead. It is the reason Manchester City and Chelsea have been able to build on their success under new owners, while Manchester United's slide into mid-table can be partly attributed to their failure to adhere to this principle. That United are now planning a reported £200m overhaul to return to their previous position supports the view that it is better to spend while you are already at the top. It is much more difficult to buy a route back up the table - something Liverpool have found during four years outside the Champions League.
That aphorism will linger in the back of Liverpool's mind this summer as they look to fortify their place in the top four. After a remarkable campaign in which they climbed from seventh to second, the Reds are now looking to kickstart a recruitment drive to prepare a small squad for the rigours of European football as well as a renewed Premier League title challenge. When the club's transfer committee convenes, its conversations with Brendan Rodgers will also focus on players who could be sold, with two of the manager's previous signings, Iago Aspas and Fabio Borini, among those thought to be surplus to requirements.
It's clear that the failures of these mid-range gambles in the transfer market have influenced Rodgers' thinking in his current plans. Rather than looking to unearth a diamond in the rough - and finding diamanté in Aspas' case - the manager wants investment to match his ambition and players to fit his philosophy. "I don't want to put a figure on how many but I would rather have one or two absolute top players than seven that might not help us," he said recently. "It's about the quality. We can't be going into the Champions League this year with doubts about players."
Rodgers' doubts about Aspas were reinforced for a final time in the Spaniard's substitute appearance against Chelsea, when he stepped up to take a corner in the closing stages and gifted the ball straight to Willian. It was a moment that emphasised the spending gap to Rodgers, and what he might have been able to achieve had he kept the Brazilian from Chelsea's clutches instead of having to settle for the £7m acquisition of Aspas. However, despite the significance of that comparison, Rodgers should not let it alter his outlook entirely.
In the current climate of the game, in which elite clubs know the price of everything and the value of very little, it is easy to have your fingers burned seeking the one or two "absolute top players" on Rodgers' wish list. This was the reason a sceptical Sir Alex Ferguson chose not to match the £32m fee Chelsea paid to sign Eden Hazard in 2012 and, while hindsight may have proven him wrong, the former United manager was arguably right to hesitate. As prices continue to increase, it seems that for every Hazard - who is still to fulfil his potential - there are other stellar signings whose values depreciate rapidly to a fraction of their previous worth.
There is a chance that Hazard could end up at Paris St-Germain this summer, for a rumoured fee of £50m, but Liverpool need only look at the fates of PSG's previous recruits to reconsider whether trying to compete with the richest clubs is the right way forward. Another former United target, Lucas Moura, will not be returning to his homeland to play in the World Cup this year. Neither will his teammate Marquinhos, who moved to the Parc des Princes for €31m from Roma last summer. "When somebody's paying €45m for a 19-year-old boy you have to say the game's gone mad," said Ferguson of United's failed pursuit for Lucas, and it is hard to disagree.
It is the same throughout Europe's biggest leagues. At Real Madrid, Isco and Asier Illarramendi arrived for a combined total of £67m at the start of the campaign, but neither has been included in Spain's preliminary 30-man squad for Brazil. Despite the competition for places at the Santiago Bernabeu, both Isco and Illarramendi have been given enough chances to impress, but their impact hasn't rivalled their enormous price tags. Perhaps Rodgers might have been able to eke more out of the obviously talented Isco in a squad much smaller than Real Madrid's but, considering the playmaker's price, 'perhaps' isn't good enough for Liverpool. Both of Rodgers' "absolute top players" must have an immediate effect on the team's performances.
Below that level, the odd failure is acceptable. Much has been said about the minimal contribution of Borini and Aspas - and I have written about both in Winners and Losers - but the money lost on those gambles has been made up handsomely elsewhere. Rodgers may be tempted to turn his nose up at cast-offs now he has guided Liverpool back into the Champions League, but finding superb value in the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho has been crucial to the Reds' achievements.
To his credit, the two high-profile signings Rodgers missed out on last summer - Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan - have proved to be well worth their expensive fees. But that should not encourage tunnel vision. There are bargains on the market - such as free-agent Jeremy Menez, the France international frozen out at PSG in favour of Lucas - and Rodgers should back himself to find them.
Given the evidence of his coaching ability, Rodgers possesses the talent to polish a rough diamond such as Menez or develop a young player who has perhaps lost his way, such as Jordan Henderson. Neither of these examples would fall under the manager's definition of "absolute top players", but both resemble the reputations of Sturridge and Coutinho before they arrived at Anfield.
It might be tempting to spend big, but Rodgers has shown that his strengths lie elsewhere. Avoiding the race for the biggest, priciest names may leave Liverpool in a precarious position with regard to their place in the top four, but it would also reduce the embarrassment and financial impact of failure. As always, it is about finding the right balance. Given time, it seems that Rodgers can gain a contribution out of most players. But the problem with paying exorbitant fees for players is that, if it doesn't work out, time is usually the last thing a manager can expect to be afforded.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.