Talk about a lively start to the tenure of Liverpool’s new sporting director Julian Ward.
Since Michael Edwards’ reign officially ended after the club’s Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid, Ward has been given the task of handling the impending exit of a legendary, pivotal attacker in Sadio Mane while trying to reshape Jurgen Klopp’s front line by securing the services of an elite replacement. Benfica’s €100 million (£85 million)-rated Darwin Nunez tops their shortlist and attempts to thrash out a deal are ongoing.
Throw into the mix talks with agents over contract renewals and trying to generate funds by offloading fringe stars who are surplus to requirements at Anfield and it’s been a relentless start to June.
To describe it as a baptism of fire wouldn’t be quite right as there’s been a gradual handover of responsibilities from Edwards to Ward over the past six months.
Ward led the way in landing a £50-million deal with Porto for Luis Diaz at the end of the January window and subsequently saw off competition to sign Fabio Carvalho from Fulham for a fee of £5 million potentially rising to £7.7 million with add-ons.
Edwards, who spent less and less time at Kirkby’s AXA Training Centre during the second half of the season, remained in daily contact with Ward and has provided plenty of advice for his successor. It 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 dismissed Bayern’s second bid for Mane as “laughable” on Wednesday after it emerged that they offered £23.5 million potentially rising to £30 million with add-ons. That figure of £6.5 million in bonuses would only have been triggered in full if Bayern won the Champions League and Mane lifted the Ballon d’Or in each of the next three seasons — something Liverpool regarded as outright fanciful.
The Athletic revealed last week that Liverpool’s asking price for Mane had been set at around €50 million (£42 million). Bayern’s initial bid was £21 million potentially rising to £25 million.
Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has indicated he’s keen to fly to Merseyside to conduct face-to-face talks with Ward, but Liverpool insist he will be wasting his time unless he’s prepared to table what they regard as a serious offer.
The Bundesliga champions have pointed to the fact that Liverpool only paid them £25 million in September 2020 for midfielder Thiago, who, like Mane, was down to the final year of his contract.
However, Anfield officials believe a fairer comparison is Bayern’s current €50 million (£42 million) valuation of Robert Lewandowski, who wants 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 Poland striker.
Liverpool had initially hoped to resume talks with Mane about a contract extension after the end of the season, but it became clear that he wanted to pursue a new challenge after having his head turned by Bayern’s lucrative offer of a three-year deal.
Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann, who came up against 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 massively enhance his team.
As well as potentially filling the boots of Lewandowski through the middle, Mane could be utilised out wide given the ongoing uncertainty over the future of Serge Gnabry. His signing would also give Nagelsmann the option of changing the system and playing with three forwards.
For Salihamidzic, it’s viewed as a golden opportunity to land one of the Premier League’s top talents for a relatively small fee. He is under pressure after a disappointing season to deliver a glamour signing and Mane certainly fits the bill.
Mane was back to his brilliant best in the second half of the season after inspiring Senegal to Africa Cup of Nations glory and ended the campaign with 23 goals for Liverpool in all competitions. Klopp described him as “a machine” and “world class”.
The 30-year-old had initially intended to make an announcement about his future after the Champions League final but decided against it after the heartbreak of defeat to Real Madrid.
His mind was already made up. Sources close to the player say Bayern’s pitch that he would become their main man — coupled with the feeling that he was under-valued at Liverpool — convinced him that it was time for a change.
Mane, who followed up scoring a hat-trick against Benin with a late winner against Rwanda this week, has sought to make light of the speculation when he has faced the media while away on international duty.
He’s desperate to leave Anfield on good terms and doesn’t want to disrespect supporters who have shown him such warmth over the past six years. He had hoped by now an agreement between the clubs would have been in place that suited all parties.
Liverpool have been insistent since Paris that Mane would only be allowed to leave if they had a replacement lined up and Nunez has emerged as their preferred target.
The Uruguay striker was scouted extensively over the course of last season and massively impressed Klopp and his coaching staff during the Champions League quarter-final tie with Benfica when he scored in both legs.
Liverpool believe his pace, power and dynamism make him the perfect fit for Klopp’s intense brand of football and they like the fact that the 22-year-old can play through the middle and wide on the left. Nunez netted 34 times 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 €100 million (£85 million). That would involve Liverpool breaking their transfer record of £75 million which was set when they signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in 2018, but it 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’s a growing belief that a deal will be done.
Liverpool’s attack is certainly in need of fresh impetus given that, as well as Mane’s situation, Divock Origi is off to AC Milan on a free transfer and Takumi Minamino is set to depart in search of regular first-team football.
There’s also the uncertainty over Mohamed Salah’s future, with The Athletic recently revealing that his contract stand-off is no closer 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 £17 million is met. That would represent a hefty profit on the £7.25 million they paid Red Bull Salzburg for the Japan international in January 2020. Leeds United, Southampton, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Monaco have all registered their interest with Minamino’s agent given permission to hold talks with suitors about a potential move.
As well as selling Mane and Minamino, Liverpool are also set to bolster their kitty by off-loading Nat Phillips, Neco Williams and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Liverpool are looking to get both Naby Keita and Joe Gomez tied down to new contracts and wrap up a £4 million deal for Aberdeen right-back Calvin Ramsay, who would arrive as understudy to Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Yet the overriding priority currently is landing a top-class attacker and getting the best possible fee 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.
Losing Mane is unquestionably a blow, but it would certainly be softened by the arrival of someone as exciting as Nunez. Moving quickly and decisively to get big deals done would also be a sign that the identity of the club’s sporting director may have changed but the strategy and execution that have delivered such success remain the same.