“Salah’s going to leave in the next 12 months, I can see it already. He knows, he won’t say it. I can see it, you can feel it, you can smell it…”
The incendiary comment (or jibe, prediction or warning, depending on your media of choice) came from Gary Neville and the ‘he’ who sat alongside him was Jamie Carragher, who could not muster a response. The former Liverpool centre-half is an intelligent man and he will absolutely know that Salah could leave in 12 months, but also that Liverpool will not necessarily discourage that exit as long as they are in control of the terms. Great clubs do not build great teams and then cling onto the component parts for dear life; they sell for profit at the right time and have a seamless succession plan in place. Selling Salah (or Sadio Mane, or Roberto Firmino) next summer might not make Liverpool a selling club, but a really very clever club.
All three of Liverpool’s attacking trident will be 28 at the start of next season. That is not to say that their considerable powers will be on the wane – players do not hit 28 and suddenly lose pace or motivation – but their value will inevitably slide, ever so slightly before the effectiveness of their performances. To retain all three as 28 becomes 29 would be folly from a business perspective, just as retaining all three as 29 becomes 30 would be folly from a football perspective, particularly as so much of Liverpool’s game is based around energy and pace. Liverpool’s job over the next three years is to transition from that triptych to another – perhaps retaining one of those players – while making transfer gains and limiting on-pitch losses. As long as the price and timing suits them, Liverpool should absolutely sell one of those players.
Both Mane and Salah arrived at Liverpool for less than £40m; both Mane and Salah could exit Liverpool next summer for three, four or even five times that amount, assuming there is no drastic slump in form or career-threatening injury. But that price will reduce the following year and the year after that, until their worth is measured in nostalgia rather than pounds. Local propagandists might preach that ‘the desire of manager Jurgen Klopp and owners FSG to turn Anfield into a final destination appears to be taking root’, but if Liverpool really is the ‘final destination’ of those players, then the club will have failed. Timing is just as important in the transfer as the tackle.
It is sweet but painfully naive to believe that Liverpool represents the pinnacle of every footballer’s career, regardless of how many Champions Leagues have been won or how loud the fans sing; some players will dream of playing for Real Madrid, others will just dream of playing somewhere warmer. Even when Manchester United were undisputed kings of England, they were not immune; Ronaldo still wanted to join Madrid. It’s a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. The task of the pragmatists at Liverpool is to ensure that they manage any exits to suit them, just as they did so perfectly with Philippe Coutinho, whose transfer improved Liverpool far more than Barcelona. That episode alone should make fans comfortable to talk openly about breaking up the Liverpool trident; own it, and trust that the next £100m-plus fee received will be spent as wisely as the last.
Selling is only a sign of weakness if you sell at the wrong time for the wrong money, and without a plan in place. This is not the Liverpool of Andy Carroll but the Liverpool that won the Champions League 18 months after selling their most valuable asset. If you can smell something brewing, it’s likely to be pretty sweet.