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Feb 3, 2011

Reds deals signal break with recent past

The British record transfer has been attributed to the overseas owner. Rightly so, too. Without Roman Abramovich's investment of £50 million, Fernando Torres would not be a Chelsea player. Yet this is a deal that owes its origins to another boardroom altogether. It is proof that the poisonous legacy of Tom Hicks and George Gillett extended after the Americans' time at Anfield officially ended.

Amateur psychology has abounded in studies of Torres' body language and performances this season. While much of it can be dismissed, it is apparent that disillusionment set in some time ago. Neither the new owner, John W Henry, nor the temporary manager, Kenny Dalglish, can fairly be blamed for his desertion. That the Spaniard perked up after Roy Hodgson's removal both reflects well upon his successor and indicates that the former manager served as another of the alienating factors.

If Torres' actions cannot be condoned on Merseyside, perspective might lend some understanding. It was not merely that Liverpool made a transfer-market surplus in both 2009 and 2010; the profiteers' plan to compete on the cheap failed in part because every departed player, whether because of limited resources or poor managerial choices, had an inferior replacement. The most infamous examples are in midfield with the selection of Alberto Aquilani to succeed Xabi Alonso backfiring; 12 months later, the like-for-like alternative to the high-class scrapper Javier Mascherano was Christian Poulsen, a low-calibre anchorman.

Yet the pattern was repeated throughout the team. Paul Konchesky is a lesser left back than the loaned-out Emiliano Insua. Glen Johnson possesses more verve in attack but has proved dodgier in defence than Alvaro Arbeloa. Sotirios Kyrgiakos is not as dependable as Sami Hyypia was. Milan Jovanovic offers less on the left wing than Albert Riera. Joe Cole's overall career may have been superior to Yossi Benayoun's, but the Israeli brought more incision at Anfield. Robbie Keane was not replaced at all.

Only Raul Meireles and Maxi Rodriguez, arguably Liverpool's two finest recruits in two terrible years of dealings, stand out and neither settled quickly. Torres appeared disillusioned before either approached peak form. Include the regression of Martin Skrtel, the injury problems of Daniel Agger and the sense that Dirk Kuyt's honest labours are ineffective unless complemented by rather more skill elsewhere and an image of decline seemed entrenched even before Hodgson's downbeat rhetoric and downgraded expectations crystallised it.

In one respect, it has been cemented. Like 2009 and 2010 before it, 2011 has already contained the departure of one of Liverpool's greatest assets, Torres following the path trodden by Alonso and Mascherano. With his exit, the thrilling side that almost claimed the title 20 months ago can be consigned to history. The current collective are a very different team.

The alternative perspective is that, belatedly, something has changed. A distrust of directors is explicable at Anfield now but there is evidence that Fenway Sports Group (FSG) are beginning to justify their promise of investment. For the first time in three seasons, Liverpool have spent more than they have recouped, although it is a close-run thing: the money brought in for Torres and Ryan Babel almost financed the deals for Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.

That the latter begins his Liverpool career on the treatment table raises the unfortunate possibility that he will prove the new Aquilani. The £35 million pricetag appears excessive and, though his talent is evident, the precedent of an able player failing in his bid to follow one of the world's best has been set.

Yet Suarez is a different beast altogether. The Uruguayan represents Liverpool's most ambitious and exciting acquisition since a certain Spaniard. Almost overlooked as Torres and Carroll commanded bigger fees, the new No. 7 represents confirmation of a change in thinking at Anfield. He is a player who has similarities with Torres; the Torres who arrived in 2007, that is.

He was 23, Suarez is 24. Each was looking to take a step up, whether from Atletico Madrid or Ajax, and win silverware in a major league. It came at a time, too, when Liverpool were trading up, rather than down: Mascherano had signed a few months earlier as Momo Sissoko made way for a superior enforcer while Torres entered as Craig Bellamy departed.

Now, once again, that is the impression emanating from Anfield. The oft-injured Torres and the frustrating Babel may be of less use than a fit and firing Carroll and Suarez. In addition, the bids for Charlie Adam, the interest in Ashley Young and the obvious intention to find a more suitable left back than Konchesky show a renewed interest in improvement. In one sense, it should not be hard: Liverpool were so run down that Dalglish and FSG are starting from a low base. In another, it poses difficulties: Torres' public rejection perhaps explains the desperation to bring in Carroll to stave off suggestions they remain a selling club.

It is a shame for the new regime that Liverpool's best striker since Ian Rush didn't give them the benefit of the doubt, but years of empty promises take their toll. For that, and for much else, they can fault Hicks and Gillett.

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