Talk about a lively start to Liverpool’s new sporting director Julian Ward’s tenure.
Since Michael Edwards’ tenure officially ended after the club’s Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid, Ward has been tasked with managing the imminent departure of a legendary, crucial attacker at Sadio Mane, while attempting to rebuild Jurgen Klopp’s front line shape by securing the services of an elite replacement. Benfica’s Darwin Nunez, rated at €100million (£85million), is at the top of the shortlist and attempts to secure a deal continue.
Throw into the mix talks with agents about contract extensions and attempts to generate funds by offloading fringe stars redundant to Anfield demands and it’s been an unrelenting start to June.
Calling it a baptism of fire would not be entirely accurate as responsibility has been gradually handed over from Edwards to Ward over the past six months.
Ward led the way in landing a £50m deal with Porto for Luis Diaz at the end of January and subsequently beat out the competition to sign Fabio Carvalho from Fulham for a £5m fee that could potentially be reduced to 7, 7 million pounds could rise -ons.
Edwards, who spent less and less time at the AXA Training Center in Kirkby in the second half of the season, has been in daily contact with Ward and has offered plenty of advice to his replacement. It will certainly come in handy as Ward plays hard with Bayern Munich over Mane’s pursuit and is negotiating with Benfica over the structure of a deal for Nunez.
Anfield officials dismissed Bayern’s second offer for Mane as “ridiculous” on Wednesday after it emerged they had offered £23.5m which could potentially rise to £30m with surcharges. That £6.5m figure in bonuses would only have been fully triggered if Bayern had won the Champions League and Mane lifted the Ballon d’Or in each of the next three seasons – something Liverpool described as nothing short of imaginative looked.
the athlete announced last week that Liverpool’s asking price for Mane had been set at around €50m (£42m). Bayern’s original bid was £21m and could rise to £25m.
Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has hinted he would like to fly to Merseyside to hold face-to-face talks with Ward, but Liverpool insist he will be wasting his time unless he’s ready to make a serious offer.
The Bundesliga champions have pointed out that Liverpool paid them just £25m in September 2020 for midfielder Thiago who, like Mane, had ended the last year of his contract.
However, Anfield officials believe a fairer comparison is Bayern’s current €50m (£42m) valuation of Robert Lewandowski, who is looking to leave the Allianz Arena for Barcelona this summer. Both players are out of contract in 2023 but Mane is three years younger than the Polish striker.
Liverpool had initially hoped to resume talks with Mane over a post-season contract extension, but it became clear he wanted to pursue a new challenge after his head was turned by Bayern’s lucrative offer of a three-year contract.
Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann, who faced Liverpool during his tenure as Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig coach, was the driving force behind Mane. He believes that his wealth of experience, quality, tireless nature and versatility will add massive value to his team.
Not only could Mane fill Lewandowski’s boots through the middle, but he could also be used across the board amid ongoing uncertainty over Serge Gnabry’s future. With his signing, Nagelsmann would also have the opportunity to change the system and play with three strikers.
Signing one of the Premier League’s top talent for a relatively small fee is seen as a golden opportunity for Salihamidzic. He’s under pressure to deliver a glamor signing after a disappointing season and Mane certainly fits in.
Mane returned to his brilliant best in the second half of the season after helping Senegal win the Africa Cup of Nations and finished the season with 23 goals for Liverpool in all competitions. Klopp described him as “a machine” and “world class”.
The 30-year-old was initially keen to make an announcement about his future after the Champions League final but decided against it after the heartbreaking loss to Real Madrid.
His decision was already made. Sources close to the player say Bayern’s belief he would become their captain – coupled with a feeling he was undervalued at Liverpool – convinced him it was time for a change.
Mane, who scored a hat-trick against Benin and a late winner against Rwanda this week, has tried to shed light on the speculation as he faced the media during his absence from international duty.
He is desperate to leave Anfield on good terms and doesn’t want to disregard the fans who have shown him so much warmth over the last six years. He had hoped that an agreement had now been reached between the clubs that would suit all sides.
Liverpool have insisted since Paris that Mane can only leave if a substitute is in line and Nunez has emerged as their preferred target.
The Uruguayan striker was scouted extensively over the course of last season and impressed Klopp and his coaching staff in the Champions League quarter-finals game against Benfica, scoring in both games.
Liverpool believe his pace, power and dynamism make him perfect for Klopp’s intense football and they like the fact that the 22-year-old can play through the middle and down the left flank. Nunez scored 34 goals in 41 games in all competitions in 2021/22, including six goals in the Champions League.
Initial talks between the clubs have been positive, with Benfica demanding a package of around €100m (£85m). That would mean Liverpool would break their £75m transfer record set when they signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in 2018, but that hasn’t deterred them.
There has also been serious interest in Nunez from Atletico Madrid and Manchester United but the player prefers to move to Anfield and there is growing belief that a deal will be struck.
Liverpool’s attack certainly needs a boost as, alongside Mane’s situation, Divock Origi is also on a free transfer to AC Milan and Takumi Minamino is set to depart in search of regular first-team football.
Added to this is the uncertainty about the future of Mohamed Salah the athlete He recently revealed that his contract loophole is no closer to being resolved. The Egyptian will stay for the 2022/23 season and then leave on a free transfer next summer unless he gets a significantly improved offer.
Minamino has been told he can leave in the coming days if the £17m asking price from the club is met. That would mean a whopping profit on the £7.25million they paid Red Bull Salzburg for the Japan international in January 2020. Leeds United, Southampton, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Monaco have all expressed interest, with Minamino’s agent being given permission to hold talks with suitors about a possible move.
As well as selling Mane and Minamino, Liverpool will bolster their cat by offloading Nat Phillips, Neco Williams and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Liverpool are trying to tie both Naby Keita and Joe Gomez to new contracts and complete a £4million deal for Aberdeen right-back Calvin Ramsay, who would arrive as understudy for Trent Alexander-Arnold.
But the overriding priority right now is finding a quality attacker and getting the best possible transfer for Mane.
Nunez is represented by the same Gestifute agency as Liverpool duo Fabinho and Diogo Jota and relations are good. Ward also has an extensive network of contacts in Portugal, having previously worked for the national team under Carlos Queiroz and later as Liverpool’s scouting manager in the region.
The loss of Mane is undoubtedly a blow, but it would certainly be mitigated by the arrival of someone as exciting as Nunez. Acting quickly and decisively to secure big deals would also be a sign that while the identity of the club’s sporting director may have changed, the strategy and execution that led to this success remain unchanged.
(Top Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)