Football Features

Players whose forced Liverpool transfer exits backfired

By Ben Green

Published: 15:33, 5 September 2019

Anfield has often been described by footballing luminaries past and present as one of the best stadiums to ply your trade in.

Bill Shankly even described it as a “shrine” but, for some players, the allure of Liverpool’s famous atmosphere wasn’t enough to keep them on Merseyside.

Whenever calls from either Barcelona or Real Madrid transpire, it’s difficult not to tilt your head, even just a little, especially when the prospect of playing on the hallowed turf of the Bernabeu or Camp Nou, alongside some of world football’s finest players, illuminates your mind.

For some, those expeditions to La Liga bore fruit with the likes of Steve McManaman winning two European crowns under Vicente del Bosque at Los Blancos, and Luis Suarez clinching the coveted ‘Big Ears’ trophy in 2015 with Barca.

However, the grass has not always been greener away from Anfield for others, with a number of ex-Reds leaving the North West for pastures new, only to see their careers either stagnate or spiral out of control.

Of course, Liverpool fans will never begrudge a former talisman or academy star for wanting to further their careers and reach for the very top, some even tried to return when things didn’t work out, but there will always be a bittersweet feeling for Kopites when life away from Anfield didn’t prove the nirvana they thought.

With that, here are five players whose careers experienced a downward trajectory upon forcing a move away from Liverpool.

1. Michael Owen

Keeping en vogue with the latest ramblings from Owen, the Chester-born former marksman was simply sensational during his formative years at Anfield, experiencing a stratospheric ascent to first-team prominence by clinching the Premier League Golden Boot in 97/98 during his first full season for the club at just 19. Not bad for a boyhood Evertonian.

From there, the diminutive striker fully cemented his place in Gerard Houllier’s starting XI and he quickly established himself as Liverpool’s undisputed No. 9, becoming the first player since Roger Hunt to finish the season as the club’s top goalscorer for seven successive years.

By 2004, Owen was hot property for some of Europe’s heavyweight clubs and in the Spanish capital, Real president Florentino Perez was embarking on an epic conquest to assemble a squad replete with superstars, household names and world-class talent.

Owen ultimately joined Real and became the latest piece in Perez’s Galacticos jigsaw puzzle, joining the likes of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and David Beckham at the Bernabeu.

Unfortunately for the ex-England international, a slow start, inconsistency and the arrival of more big names the following year meant his sojourn in Spain ended prematurely and he departed for Newcastle United after just one season.

But, things wouldn’t get any better, as his spell on Tyneside proved even more detrimental to his career. Despite becoming the club’s record signing and being remunerated handsomely with £120,000 a week, a serious ACL injury in 2006 pretty much wrecked Owen’s prospects of replicating his nascent years and he never returned to his best form.

As a result, off-field disputes ensued, which are still lingering on till this day, with Owen recently stating: “My move to Newcastle was one I really regret – I should have followed my gut instincts from the start. I didn’t want to go there.”

2. Fernando Torres

At the peak of his powers, Torres was arguably the most devastating centre-forward on the planet, becoming the first Liverpool player to net 20+ goals during his maiden campaign since Robbie Fowler in 95/96 during 07/08, which simultaneously saw him break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record as the most prolific foreign debutant in English football.

The lethal finisher would win the European Championship with Spain that summer and continued to wreak havoc on these shores, forming a mesmerising yet deadly final-third partnership with Steven Gerrard, with the duo enjoying an almost telepathic on-field relationship.

However, like Owen, injury agitations began to creep in and hamper Torres’ game, with a persistent hamstring problem confining the forward to just 24, 22 and 23 Premier League appearances in the proceeding three seasons after his exhilarating debut campaign.

And yet, his goalscoring prowess never waned, as he continued to find the back of the net at an alarming rate, which ultimately encouraged Chelsea to shatter the British record and make the Atletico Madrid graduate a £50m player in January 2011.

Torres handed in a transfer request to ensure the move went ahead but having left Anfield in such a manner, he sparked outrage among Koppites, with many Merseysiders feeling betrayed that their once beloved marksman forced a switch – especially to a rival Premier League club.

Torres was supposed to be the catalyst in taking Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea to completely new heights, but he netted just one goal in the second half of 2010/11, while the following three years yielded just 19 league goals as he experienced a monumental fall from grace. We all remember that open goal miss at Old Trafford, too, right? He ultimately failed to acclimatise to the new brand of football being played in west London and never truly rediscovered his Anfield shooting boots.

These days, he is often referred to as the most expensive flop of all time.

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3. Pepe Reina

Back in 2013, when Barcelona stalwart Victor Valdes announced his intentions to leave the club at the end of the season, Pepe Reina made clear to the Liverpool board his desire to join the Catalonians, with aspirations of returning to his homeland and becoming the No. 1 gloveman for his boyhood club.

However, things didn’t exactly pan out the way Reina would have hoped. Instead, Valdes made a dramatic U-turn on his decision to call time on his Blaugrana career, while Liverpool had gone ahead and secured the services of Simon Mignolet in preparation for Reina’s exit.

At the time, Mignolet was in red hot form for Sunderland, winning the club’s Player of the Year accolade the season prior to his arrival at the six-time European champions, so then-manager Brendan Rodgers was left in a quandary between the sticks: having two first-team ‘keepers.

As such, Reina was sent out on a season-long loan to Napoli, where he posted a heartfelt message to Liverpool fans explaining how he wanted “to go back home” to Barca but only if the opportunity arrived. Of course, that opportunity never did arrive and Reina was left in limbo.

On his return from the Parthenopeans, Mignolet had, by this point, made the goalkeeping berth his own and Reina left for Bayern Munich, where he played second fiddle to Manuel Neuer for a year before returning to the Stadio San Paolo. He had three solid seasons in Naples and is now at AC Milan, but had he joined Barca in 2013, he would have four La Liga titles and a Champions League medal to his name.

4. Philippe Coutinho

In his pomp and firing on all cylinders, the Brazilian phenom was one of the most dazzling and majestic players to have ever strutted his stuff on the Anfield turf, with the pint-sized release valve forming an elegant cog in Jurgen Klopp’s high-octane machine.

Having signed from Inter Milan in 2013, Coutinho quickly established himself as a prominent playmaker in Liverpool’s first team, flourishing under Brendan Rodgers, alongside the likes of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling, as the Reds came agonisingly close to clinching a first-ever Premier League title in 2014, only for ‘Crystanbull’ to haunt them.

He continued to play a key role for the club despite Liverpool’s dip in form under Rodgers but, once Klopp took his position in the dugout, Coutinho’s game transformed to another level and his stock skyrocketed.

But it wasn’t just his balletic gait or twinkle-toed feet that caught the eye; Coutinho’s long-ranged curlers became the hallmark of his game, with the Brazilian netting the most Premier League goals from outside the box in 2016/17 (6), and the second-most in 2017/18 (4) – despite playing just half a season – sparking attraction from overseas.

Interest from Catalonia first emerged in August 2017 but Liverpool rebuffed any and all overtures received from Barcelona. However, Coutinho was seemingly intent on leaving Merseyside to play for the Blaugrana and he eventually got his wish in January 2018 as the club splurged £142m for his services.

Well, what a turbulent 18 months it has been since then, with the South American never fully adapting to Ernesto Valverde’s game, struggling to form a cohesive on-field partnership with Lionel Messi and falling out with Barca fans. Now, he’s out on loan with Bayern Munich for the season – not the dream move he had envisaged.

5. Emre Can

The Bayern Munich graduate joined Liverpool from Bayer Leverkusen in 2014 as a promising enforcer and quickly established himself as an effective box-to-box midfielder at the club, with his dynamism and driving runs adding a bite and energy to the middle of the park for the Reds.

His versatility also saw him become a hit with compatriot and Rodgers’ successor Klopp, who would often deploy him at centre-back, while his exploits helped Liverpool reach three finals in as many years (League Cup, Europa League and the Champions League).

He memorably clinched the Premier League Goal of the Season award for his ludicrous overhead kick against Watford in 2017 and looked like he could go on to become a world-class player under the tutelage of Klopp. However, Juventus proceeded to do what Juventus do best and sparked an interest in Can, whose contract was set to expire in June 2018 and, well, the German’s head was ultimately turned.

The Old Lady pulled off another freebie masterstroke and picked up Can upon the expiration of his contract last year, where he went on to make 38 appearances across all competitions in 2018/19, scoring four goals and registering one assist.

However, following the arrival of Maurizio Sarri and two more free transfer coups in Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot, Can has now fallen down the pecking order and was recently omitted from the Italian’s 22-man Champions League squad for their upcoming group stage matches.

Can has since expressed his ‘shock and anger’ after Sarri apparently gave him assurances over his place in the squad, only for him to later find out he has been excluded.

He said: “I am shocked and angry. Last week, the club promised me something else, yesterday the coach called me and told me in less than a minute that I was not in the squad.”

Both Can and Coutinho left for titles, but neither is yet to clinch the most sought after one in the Champions League, as Liverpool did last season.