Can FSG keep Liverpool on top after ending 30-year wait?

FSG broke Boston Red Sox’s 86 years of hurt and built the foundations of a dynasty… but then they threw it away. After ending Liverpool’s 30-year wait for a league title, can the American owners now keep Jurgen Klopp’s side on top of their perch?

  • John Henry’s Boston Red Sox endured mixed fortunes after ’04 World Series win
  • The victory ended an 86-year drought but only three more have followed since
  • Liverpool ended 30-year wait for an English top flight title earlier this summer
  • But can Henry avoid making the same mistakes to help keep Reds at the top
  • Jurgen Klopp’s side begin their title defence against Leeds on Saturday  

Tony Massarotti was never sold on the title of his book.

After the Boston Red Sox, owned by John W. Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, flattened the Colorado Rockies to win baseball’s 2007 World Series, the sportswriter penned a warts-and-all tale of how a team ended 86 years of hurt with two titles in quick succession. It was called Dynasty: The Inside Story of How the Red Sox Became a Baseball Powerhouse.

‘I wanted Dynasty In The Making,’ Massarotti tells Sportsmail. ‘I thought they were in the process of building what looked like a dominating baseball force. They put in the foundations for a dynasty. And then they threw it away.’

Liverpool owner John Henry (second left) holds the baseball World Series trophy in 2007 after his Boston Red Sox side secured their second title in four years following an 86-year drought

The Red Sox went on to win two more World Series in 2013 and 2018, establishing themselves as the most successful team in the 21st century.

But behind the statistics, a more cautionary tale perhaps for fans of Liverpool ahead of their Premier League title defence, which begins against Leeds on Saturday.

‘The first half of (FSG’s) ownership has been an example of what to do,’ Massarotti adds. ‘The last half I’d argue is an example of what not to do.’

Here, Henry and Co have reached another crucial juncture. After 10 years of rebuilding on Merseyside, the club have broken a 30-year curse of their own. But can Jurgen Klopp’s side stay on their perch?

Liverpool will now hope they can build on their Premier League success in 2020 having previously gone 30 years without winning the English top flight

‘If fans of Liverpool are looking for some sort of indication, I’d almost look at it as a second marriage,’ Massarotti says. ‘(FSG) know the mistakes they made in their first marriage with the Red Sox… if they screw it up again, it’s nobody’s fault but their own.’

The blueprint is clear. For all the discrepancies between baseball and football, FSG have a modus operandi which transcends sporting divides.

At both Fenway Park and Anfield, Henry and Co resisted building new stadiums, boosting revenue instead by marrying historic stadiums with modern ideas and breeding a winning ‘clubhouse culture’.

‘It’s the similarities that are important,’ Henry said after Liverpool’s title win. ‘Building the right team first and foremost with the discipline to stick to bold plans.’

Nowhere is this more obvious than in their faith in analytics through sporting director Michael Edwards at Liverpool and Theo Epstein, appointed General Manager at only 28, at the Red Sox.

Part of Henry’s success has been modifying Anfield rather than building a new stadium

They have met scepticism along the way for some of their more innovative ideas – such as Liverpool’s throw-in coach. But a common thread stretches across the Atlantic: by combining traditional scouting with modern methods they can bridge the divide to richer rivals. Both Liverpool and the Red Sox built winning teams by finding value in young prospects, and by being happy to splash out on superstars such as J.D. Martinez and Virgil van Dijk.

‘(Tom) Werner and Henry do not spare any expense on players’ development,’ says Gordon Edes, Red Sox historian and a communications advisor to FSG. ‘I do see so many parallels.’

But having built the winning Liverpool team, what happens next?

After their first World Series win in 2004, FSG continued to break ground. They explored new ways of using analytics defensively and won another World Series three years later. The model remained, even if some players didn’t. ‘The hardest thing to do when you win, is to stay true to your philosophy,’ Massarotti says. ‘Because inevitably you want to reward everyone who was involved in winning. And you just can’t.’

Instead FSG and Epstein identified the players they couldn’t afford to lose, and lost the players they could afford to replace.

Henry will hope current manager Jurgen Klopp (right) can continue to get the best out of his squad which has a blend of experienced stars and promising youngsters

‘It’s built into the plan that you don’t just put together a great team and assume it’s going to repeat its success,’ says Edes. ‘You do have to bring in new parts and be willing to part ways with players who have contributed significantly to your success.’

Pedro Martinez – ‘arguably the greatest pitcher in Red Sox history’ – was released and within a year Johnny Damon, a ‘hero’ of that 2004 team, was out too. ‘It was a great example of how you’re supposed to keep winning.’ Massarotti says. ‘Protect the pieces you want to protect, reinfuse the organisation and roster with new talent and get better.’

It begs the question: if Liverpool follow suit, who of the current champions could be sacrificed? Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren have both left and any more big decisions will be determined by statistics over sentiment. ‘(If) a guy wins a championship and makes a big play, the fan base will develop an emotional attachment to him,’ Massarotti says. ‘What Henry tries to do is take the emotion out of it.’

Analytics allow him to be ruthless. But there is more to this policy than squad turnover. ‘The key to the whole thing is being able to identify and develop young talent. Then, as it approaches its peak years, keep it… but not paying it for too long a period so then contracts become anvils that drag you down,’ Massarotti adds.

Liverpool’s brave call to sell Philippe Coutinho (above) at his peak for £140million paid off, enabling them to sign key players Virgil van Dijk and Alisson

Philippe Coutinho is a case in point at Liverpool, who sold him for £140m to Barcelona. The Brazilian’s career has stuttered since, and Klopp used the funds to buy Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, who were key to their title success.

At the Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury was one of the best outfielders in the game, helping them win the 2013 World Series in his final season. But when his contract expired as he hit 30, he was released.

The Yankees signed him to a $153m, seven-year deal the Sox were unwilling to pay. But he never hit the heights he did with Boston and New York are even trying to void the last two years of his deal. The Red Sox replaced him with a young Jackie Bradley Jnr, who grew into a core player in the 2018 World Series win.

Then there is Mookie Betts – a ‘diamond in the rough’ the Red Sox turned into a great, only to trade him in February rather than meet his wage demands.

Selling players in their prime is fraught with risk, of course. It’s also a policy which relies on maintaining an ‘assembly line’ of players ready to fill a void.

But Liverpool’s core team is also playing at their peak including Mo Salah (front left), skipper Jordan Henderson (front centre) and Roberto Firmino (third left)

Klopp has hardly strengthened his squad over the past two years and Covid-19 looks like curtailing huge outlays this summer, too. In the likes of Curtis Jones, Neco Williams and Takumi Minamino, he has a core of young players. The issue is with his existing stars: Jordan Henderson is 30. Van Dijk, 29. Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino are all 28, too. Having so many players at their peak has been a strength; very quickly it could become a problem.

Will FSG and Klopp be brave enough to sell before star value begins to dip? The perils of veering off course were felt keenly across the pond.

After 2007, the Red Sox’s principles began to come under threat from within: ‘Their foundations really started to crack,’ Massarotti says. Epstein’s determination to keep building for the long term jarred with executives, some of whom felt pressure to spend – and sate supporters’ appetite for more immediate success.

Edes accepts Boston were ‘seduced’ into looking for ‘quick fixes, even if it might have come at the cost of diverging from a more disciplined approach.’ The Red Sox paid big money to sign and keep a number of players who faded and stunted squad development. In 2011, the team collapsed, Epstein left and results turned.

The Red Sox endured three miserable campaigns in the early 2010s, punctured by another surprise World Series victory in 2013

‘They had a borderline disaster on their hands,’ says Massarotti. ‘They had overpaid, underachieving players and they didn’t have any young players to replace them.’ In four seasons up to 2015, the Red Sox finished last three times. ‘They really just started throwing money at the problem,’ Massarotti says.

Incredibly, this slump was punctuated by a third World Series win in 2013, when the team rode a wave of emotion after the Boston Marathon bombing to defy all expectations. By their fourth title, however, the core mantra had re-emerged: The 2018 Red Sox were the most expensive side ever to win a World Series. They also boasted six players who were under 30 and had been nurtured in-house. The recent appointment of Chaim Bloom – likened to Epstein – is further evidence of FSG’s renewed direction.

‘The focus now,’ Edes says, ‘is to develop the core of players that’s going to carry us through to sustained success in the 2020 decade.’

Under Klopp, that is the challenge for Liverpool too.

Share this article

Source: Read Full Article