Alexis Sanchez reminds Liverpool of the transfer targets that got away
He was the ideal replacement for Luis Suarez: a South American with speed, skill and an enviable scoring record. If Liverpool were to lose Suarez, their beloved, brilliant match-winner, at least they had someone lined up: Alexis Sanchez.
So the theory went. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Arsenal intervened and bought him from Barcelona for £35 million in the summer instead. Sanchez faces the club he could have joined on Saturday. Instead of linking up with Liverpool, the Chilean joined the long list of those who got away from them. He is distinguished company.
They include many of the greats of the Premier League era. In that time, the PFA Player of the Year award has been won eight times by men Liverpool hoped to sign, and only twice by footballers on their books. They didn't require a foray into the transfer market to obtain one of those, Steven Gerrard, anyway. The other was Suarez, their only buy since John Barnes to be crowned the best player in the country.
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Sanchez wasn't the South American's successor in the Liverpool forward line; he might not take the individual silverware from the Uruguayan, either, but he is a player of such excellence that he merits consideration.
There are reasons to believe he would have been ideal for Liverpool. Sanchez possesses the versatility Brendan Rodgers appreciates. A striker, winger and No. 10, he could have filled multiple positions in the Liverpool manager's various formations. Yet while the Chilean's version of events is that he always preferred to join Arsenal, there are plenty around Anfield who believe that if Liverpool had offered a greater financial package, he would be plying his trade on Merseyside now.
Now they are left to count the cost. Arsenal have scored 14 more league goals than Liverpool; Sanchez has struck 13 times in the top flight. It may be overly simplistic to suggest that, if he had ended up at Anfield, the two clubs would have swapped scoring statistics and traded positions in the table, but it is tempting to draw that conclusion. He is a transformative player.
His move was the equivalent of a six-pointer, a transfer that swung the balance of power between two clubs. From Liverpool's perspective, there have been too many in the 25 years since they last won the league. They are sliding-doors moments that have often caused them to slip backwards when they needed to stride forwards.
And while talented players tend to attract interest from multiple parties, while no club lands all its transfer targets and while Liverpool are no exceptions, there have been damaging trends dating back a quarter of a century. The number of high-class players who escaped their grasp, their habit of ending up at immediate rivals, often Manchester United, and the difference in quality between the players they wanted and those they actually recruited: together they have formed a dangerous cocktail.
Yet it is easy to construct an alternative history of never-ending Liverpool dominance. Consider the catalysts for Manchester United's rise. As former manager Graeme Souness told Simon Hughes in his forthcoming book, "Men in White Suits," goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel wrote to Liverpool asking for a trial before joining Manchester United. He was even willing to pay his own expenses. Souness, worried about problems with long-serving goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, did not take the Dane up on his offer.
The Scottish manager was also recommended Eric Cantona by Michel Platini, who deemed him "perfect for Liverpool." Souness, to his regret, was worried about the prospect of bringing in a troublemaker. Midfielder Roy Keane and striker Alan Shearer were others to elude Souness in his ill-fated reign.
His successor Roy Evans wanted Jari Litmanen in 1998, who was later, briefly, part of Gerard Houllier's team in 2001-02. He was keen on forwards Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham, who became a non-talking, free-scoring strike partnership for United. Evans told Hughes the board pulled the plug on a deal Sheringham was eager to sign.
Houllier's most infamous blunder was opting not to sign forward Nicolas Anelka, following a successful loan spell from Paris Saint-Germain in the 2001-02 season, and instead preferring to buy El-Hadji Diouf. The French manager, like Souness, tried to bring in Shearer. He missed out on another United talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, subsequently citing a refusal to meet the Portuguese winger's wage demands. He thought he was close to getting centre-back John Terry from a cash-strapped Chelsea, only for Roman Abramovich to buy the Londoners and transform their footballing and financial fortunes.
Rafa Benitez's record in the transfer market became the subject of some controversy, with outstanding successes outnumbered by failures, albeit often cheap ones, but the Spaniard is entitled to argue he excelled at identifying talent. Daniel Alves, David Silva, David Villa, Simao Sabrosa, Stevan Jovetic and yet another United stalwart Nemanja Vidic were all on his radar. None joined, worsening Benitez's relationships within Anfield in an era of internecine warfare and grudge-bearing. Perhaps, had Liverpool signed a couple of them, they might have been the dominant team of their era but despite the Spaniard's indelible association with facts, a delve into fantasy is tantalising: what could they have won?
The same question can be posed about Brendan Rodgers' current reign. Marquee signings have evaded Liverpool as frequently as Suarez escaped from defenders: Clint Dempsey, Diego Costa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Willian, Mohamed Salah, Yevhen Konoplyanka, Loic Remy and Sanchez. When Liverpool have been on one of their seemingly unstoppable runs, such as the three-month spell that preceded defeat to Manchester United on March 22 or the 11 straight wins last spring, it has scarcely mattered.
Yet perhaps one of those failed signings would have made a crucial contribution to render them champions last season. It is worth remembering that, after Demba Ba's more famous opener, Willian scored the second goal in Chelsea's win at Anfield last April to reshape the title race just as Costa got the winner on Merseyside for Jose Mourinho's team in November. There is a script whereby Sanchez scores a decisive goal for Arsenal and Liverpool end Saturday eight points off the top four. More than two decades of experience should suggest it is plausible.
It is rather less probable that £15m forward Mario Balotelli, their eventual addition when Sanchez headed for Arsenal, will have such an impact. Regrets and recriminations are invariably greater when, instead of a superstar, the arrival is substandard.
That hasn't always been the case, just as Liverpool haven't always been at fault.
There were times when their budget wasn't big enough. There were times when others acted quicker, or heeded the right advice. There were times when players preferred to join more successful clubs or those where they had a personal connection. There were times when they stayed put. But there were also times when they got it grievously wrong.
They won 12 league titles in a 25-year period that ended in 1990. A game show-style glimpse of the players they could have had in the subsequent spell suggests they could have been as successful again, but for those two small words: what if?
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.