LONDON — After a 4-1 defeat away to Tottenham, one of the Premier League’s most impressive teams, it would not be difficult to argue that Liverpool look as far away from challenging for the title as they ever have. They once again showed that they cannot defend convincingly — throughout the team, not just as a back three or four — and also lacked the invention required to hurt opponents as strong as Spurs.
Their substitutes’ bench was distinctly underwhelming, filled with unproven youngsters, cheap signings and an overpriced, out of form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and it smacked of a club that is unable to compete financially with those clubs it regards as title rivals. But while all of the above might make every Liverpool supporter wonder if they will ever see their team crowned champions again — many will not have been born when it last happened, in 1990 — the fact that they were comprehensively beaten by Tottenham should offer everyone at Anfield the glimmer of hope that with the right management on and off the pitch, glory can return to the club.
In financial terms, Liverpool can no longer compete with Manchester United, while the oil-fuelled wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City has taken both over the horizon from the perspective of those at Anfield charged with restoring the club to its former status. But Tottenham are in the same situation as Liverpool when it comes to spending money on transfer fees and wages, yet they are now building a team under Mauricio Pochettino that could still halt City’s surge to the title this season.
Spurs may be able to outspend their rivals if their move to the redeveloped White Hart Lane next season turbo-boosts their revenue streams, but the club’s philosophy of developing its own players and promoting youth is unlikely to change considering that it’s taken them to brink of genuine success.
The sceptics will rightly point to the fact that Tottenham under Pochettino have won nothing yet. For all of the talent and promise of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and the rest, Tottenham’s trophy cabinet has not housed a trophy since 2008, when the club won the League Cup, and they have not won the league title since 1961.
Liverpool’s recent trophy haul is as unimpressive as Tottenham’s (one major trophy in 11 years) but they have bigger expectations at Anfield because in England, only United have won more, and no English club comes close to Liverpool’s collection of European silverware.
The Reds have spent plenty of money in recent years in an effort to bring back the good old days, too, but it has not worked and there is unlikely to be a huge transfer outlay in the coming windows because Liverpool’s American owners cannot — and will not — attempt to compete with United, City and Chelsea in the race for new signings. But Tottenham cannot compete with that super-rich trio, either, and are doing pretty well down their particular path.
Spurs have realised that they can only beat the rich and powerful by being smart in terms of player development and recruitment, at the same time as allowing Pochettino to mould a bright, young team on the pitch. Kane and Harry Winks have come through the ranks while Alli was plucked from MK Dons when other clubs (notably Liverpool) sat on their hands, refusing to gamble on one of the most highly-rated youngsters in the English game.
Spurs also took chances on Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier when others preferred to spend huge sums on higher-profile signings and while there have been some bad buys such as Vincent Janssen, the Tottenham philosophy has been largely successful.
Granted, Liverpool have also had their successes in the transfer market. Luis Suarez was a fantastic signing from Ajax in 2011, and he was sold to Barcelona for a huge profit three years later after creating some incredible memories (and some bad ones) at Anfield. More recently they’ve done well with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, but where are the homegrown players and where are the good defenders and goalkeepers?
Liverpool’s judgement on players has been hit-and-miss, and money has been wasted, but it is their youth development that has really let them down. Ben Woodburn has the ability to become Liverpool’s next big star, with Trent Alexander-Arnold also having a chance, but almost 20 years have passed since the likes of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher emerged at Anfield, following on from Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, and there has been little sign of local kids coming through since.
Perhaps Liverpool still believe they can punch their weight in the transfer market to the extent that they don’t feel the need to fully focus on youngsters as Tottenham do. But the reality is that Spurs have developed the blueprint that Liverpool must adopt, and Sunday’s defeat at Wembley, as painful as it will have been, can at least show some light at the end of the tunnel at Anfield.
There is a way to be successful and vibrant, and it doesn’t have to cost millions and millions. It just requires smart heads in the boardroom, long-term thinking and a coach bold enough to give the kids a chance. Right now, Liverpool do not tick enough of those boxes.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_