Talk about a lively start to Liverpool’s new sporting director Julian Ward’s tenure.
Since Michael Edwards’ reign officially came to an end following the club’s Champions League final loss to Real Madrid, Ward has been tasked with managing the impending exit of a legendary and key striker in Sadio Mane while trying to reshape Jurgen Klopp’s frontline by securing the services of an elite substitute. Benfica’s €100m (£85m)-rated Darwin Nunez tops their shortlist and attempts to strike a deal are ongoing.
Throw yourself into talks with agents over contract renewals and try to generate funds by offloading fringe stars who are surplus to requirements at Anfield and the start of June has been relentless.
To describe it as a baptism of fire wouldn’t be entirely fair as there has been a gradual handover of responsibilities from Edwards to Ward over the past six months.
Ward led the way by securing a £50million deal with Porto for Luis Diaz at the end of the January window and then knocked out competition to sign Fabio Carvalho from Fulham for a possible £5million deal. reach £7.7 million with a supplement. so.
Edwards, who spent less and less time at AXA’s Kirkby academy during the second half of the season, stayed in daily contact with Ward and offered plenty of advice to his successor. That will certainly come in handy as Ward plays hardball with Bayern Munich over their pursuit of Mane and negotiates with Benfica over the structure of a deal for Nunez.
Anfield officials on Wednesday called Bayern’s second offer for Mane ‘laughable’ after it emerged they were offering £23.5m up to £30m with add-ons. That £6.5m bonus figure would only have been triggered in full if Bayern won the Champions League and Mane lifted the Ballon d’Or in each of the following three seasons – which Liverpool considered like downright whimsical.
Athleticism revealed last week that Liverpool’s asking price for Mane had been set at around 50m euros (£42m). Bayern’s initial offer was £21m with the option rising to £25m.
Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has indicated he is keen to travel to Merseyside to conduct face-to-face talks with Ward, but Liverpool insist he will be wasting his time unless he is ready to present what they consider to be a serious offer.
The Bundesliga champions have highlighted the fact that Liverpool paid them just £25million in September 2020 for midfielder Thiago, who, like Mane, is in the final year of his contract.
However, Anfield officials believe a fairer comparison is Bayern’s current €50m (£42m) valuation of Robert Lewandowski, who is keen to leave the Allianz Arena this summer and join Barcelona. 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 contract extension after the end of the season, but it became clear they wanted to pursue a new challenge after having their heads turned by Bayern’s lucrative offer of a three-year contract.
Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann, who has clashed with Liverpool during his spells in charge of Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, has been the driving force behind the club’s pursuit of Mane. He believes his wealth of experience, quality, relentless nature and versatility will greatly improve his team.
As well as potentially filling Lewandowski’s boots through the middle, Mane could be used on a massive scale given the continued uncertainty over Serge Gnabry’s future. His signing would also give Nagelsmann the option to switch systems and play with three strikers.
For Salihamidzic, it’s seen as a golden opportunity to land one of the Premier League’s top talents for a relatively small fee. He’s under pressure after a disappointing season to deliver a glamorous signing and Mane certainly fits the bill.
Mane was back to his best in the second half of the season after inspiring Senegal to Africa Cup of Nations glory and finished the campaign with 23 goals for Liverpool in all competitions. Klopp described him as “a machine” and “world class”.
The 30-year-old originally planned 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 pitch that he would become their main man – coupled with the feeling he was undervalued at Liverpool – convinced him it was time for a change.
Mane, who followed that up with a hat-trick against Benin with a late winner against Rwanda this week, sought to shed light on the speculation when he faced the media while on international duty.
He’s desperate to leave Anfield on good terms and doesn’t want to disrespect the fans who have shown him such warmth over the past six years. He had hoped an agreement between the clubs would have been in place that would suit all parties.
Liverpool have insisted from Paris that Mane would only be allowed to leave if he had a replacement lined up and Nunez has emerged as his favorite target.
The Uruguayan striker was widely spotted last season and massively impressed Klopp and his coaching staff in the Champions League quarter-final with Benfica when he scored in both legs.
Liverpool believe his pace, power and drive make him the ideal candidate for Klopp’s intense brand of football and they appreciate the fact that the 22-year-old can play through the middle and on the left. Nunez has scored 34 times in 41 games in all competitions in 2021-22, including six Champions League goals.
Initial talks between the clubs have been positive, with Benfica demanding a package of around €100m (£85m). It would mean Liverpool breaking their £75m transfer record which was set when they signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in 2018, but that hasn’t put them off.
There has also been serious interest in Nunez from Atletico Madrid and Manchester United, but the player’s preference is to move to Anfield and there is growing belief that a deal will be agreed.
Liverpool’s attack certainly needs a boost given that in addition to the Mane situation, Divock Origi left for AC Milan on a free transfer and Takumi Minamino is set to leave in search regular first-team football.
There is also uncertainty over the future of Mohamed Salah with Athleticism recently revealing that his contractual impasse is not close to being resolved. The Egyptian will stay put for the 2022-23 season and then leave on a free transfer next summer unless he receives a significantly improved offer.
Minamino has been told he can leave in the coming days if the club’s asking price of £17m is met. It would be a big 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 registered interest with the Minamino’s agent cleared to speak with suitors about a potential move.
As well as selling Mane and Minamino, Liverpool are also set to bolster their kitty by offloading Nat Phillips, Neco Williams and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Liverpool are looking to tie Naby Keita and Joe Gomez to new contracts and agree a £4million deal for Aberdeen right-back Calvin Ramsay, who would arrive as a back-up to Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Still, the top priority right now is to land a top-notch striker and get the best possible price for Mane.
Nunez is represented by the same agency Gestifute 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 head of scouting for Liverpool in the region.
Losing Mane is undoubtedly a blow but it would certainly be softened by the arrival of someone as exciting as Nunez. Acting quickly and decisively to clinch big deals would also be a sign that the identity of the club’s sporting director may have changed, but the strategy and execution that made such success possible remains the same.
(Top photo: Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)