Many doubt the real usefulness of free transfers. Getting a player in for next to nothing seems like good business for any club – except having to pay his wages, of course. Liverpool is no different. Every past and current manager have dipped into the free transfer market in the hope of finding cheap bargains or hidden gems, there’s always that saying, one man’s junk is another’s treasure. Looking at the club in the past ten years, have Liverpool’s managers been getting good returns on their seemingly cheaper investments? What sort of success can Reds fans hope for the latest free transfer? This article will explore this lesser mentioned side of football’s transfer market, and measure up a certain free signing meant to replace a recently retired Liverpool legend.
The first free signing back in Rafa Benitez’s first season at the club was veteran Mauricio Pellegrino, signed from Benitez’s previous club Valencia in January 2005. Brought in to bring some experience and cover for Liverpool’s central defence, Pellegrino did not really get to grips with the pace of the English game. He always seemed far too slow and was at best Sami Hyypia’s back-up. Pellegrino would almost definitely be seen as a failed free transfer; at least, he ended up being a coach under Benitez at the club.
Little under 6 months later, Benitez was at it again, this time bringing in Dutch midfielder Boudewijn Zenden from Middlesborough. Former winger Zenden was brought in primarily to give Benitez some depth in the central midfield area, as the manager sought to push Steven Gerrard wide in order to release the skipper’s attacking energy. Zenden did score a few goals but due to his age, he could not make much long term impact and left 2 seasons later, just before Benitez’s 2008/09 runners-up squad was just about to form. Zenden was definitely worth his value as a free signing, and did perform well when called upon.
liverpool was zenden’s last shot at the big time
Robbie Fowler’s second term at the club was more for sentimental reasons, in retrospect – Benitez’s way of getting the fans back on his side. Fowler did, not surprisingly, get a decent amount of goals, but too departed along with Zenden in the summer of 2007. He may have proved to be good experience for the academy and reserve youngsters to train alongside, but ultimately Fowler’s return on a free was a failure for Benitez.
Benitez’s first success with regards to free signings was definitely left-sided player Fabio Aurelio from Valencia. His flexibility at playing left-midfield as well as left-back gave Benitez’s a good option on the left side. Though the Brazilian was susceptible defensively, he made up for it with excellent crossing ability and set-piece deliveries. One highlight of his free-kick prowess was the goal he scored against Chelsea during the 4-4 draw in the Champions League knock-out stages, where Aurelio managed to catch Petr Cech too far off his line and curl the ball in at an audacious angle. Having resigned in the summer of 2010 and subsequently leaving for good at the end of the 2011/12 season, Aurelio was definitely a free signing success for Liverpool, providing 6 years of excellent service for the club.
voronin: flop of the decade?
The next two summers brought disastrous free signings for Benitez. Ukrainian Andrei Voronin was an absolute failure for the club, with his injuries and lack of ability putting Benitez’s eye for a player under the microscope. Voronin usually thought too highly of himself and was probably the worst player to have ever wore Liverpool’s number 10 jersey in recent memory. He was loaned out to Hertha Berlin in 2008 before leaving permanently a year later. At least, he managed to earn Liverpool £1.8million – hopefully that fee recouped his wages and gave the Reds some profit to mask this failed signing.
Right the next summer was Swiss defender Philipp Degen. He was so injury prone he rarely saw action, and only had on good game during the team’s 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur. He seemed better at right-midfield than right-back, but because he couldn’t defend, neither was he effective going forward, Degen seemed to be of no use to the team. He never got a chance to prove himself once Glen Johnson signed in 2009.
maxi certainly enjoyed scoring against chelsea
Benitez last success in terms of free transfers was Argentinian Maxi Rodriguez back in January 2010. Maxi had a good goal-scoring run under 2012 manager Kenny Dalglish, notably scoring twice in as many games against Chelsea. What he lacked in speed or dribbling ability, Maxi made up for in good movement and the flexibility to play in any attacking position. He had good mental attributes and brought experience to the young team. Though current boss Brendan Rodgers released him in 2012 to cut the club’s massive wage budget, a younger and less expensive Maxi could have slotted seamlessly into Rodgers’ system of short passing and quick movement.
Serbian Milan Jovanovic was signed on a free by Benitez, but due to the latter’s sacking, Jovanovic had to play under a manager who never wanted him. He was definitely another absolute fail of a free signing and left the following season. Though Jovanovic had speed, he didn’t know how to use it in the English game, much like Mark Gonzalez. Further, his injury streak and lack of goal threat saw him quietly shown the club’s exit door.
Roy Hodgson’s short tenure as Liverpool boss saw him bring in Joe Cole on a free from Chelsea. It seemed to look like a good deal, as Cole would be the link man to play through balls for Fernando Torres to race onto. Alas, his first game saw him red carded against Arsenal for a high challenge, and the former England man never recovered. Though he found some form last year in the Europa League and scored the winner at West Ham, Cole’s proneness to injury and high wages ultimately saw him out of the club. Had he been younger and less injury prone, Cole would have been Rodgers’ perfect wide-man, something like “Rodgers’ version of Andres Iniesta”.
on the treatment table more often than the pitch, joe cole.
The summer of 2011 saw Craig Bellamy and Alexander Doni sign for free from Manchester City and Roma respectively, by Dalglish. Bellamy was definitely a success in his second spell at the club. Having something to prove and seeing that it was his last chance at a big club, Bellamy grasped the chance with some aggressive and pacey showings out wide or upfront. He got his fair share of goals but only stayed for one season. Rodgers could have used his experience and knowhow upfront to back Luis Suarez up last year, but being too old and on too much money, Bellamy seemed to have to leave the club.
Doni was worth the money, just. He was always going to be back-up behind Jose Reina, but he did get his big chance when Reina was suspended for 3 games, one being the crucial FA Cup semi-final. However, during the match against Blackburn Rovers before the semis, he got himself sent off and Brad Jones’ subsequent display against Rovers and in the FA Cup semis saw Jones supersede the Brazilian shot-stopper as the club’s number two. Doni left last year, being none too spectacular but just about met the minimum requirement.
For new free boy Kolo Toure, his chances to be seen as a free signing success is slim. (Of course if you go back further and take some of Gerard Houllier’s free signings in Gary McAllister and Jari Litmanen, Toure might get a better case; but times have really changed pre-Benitez era circa 2004.) Once City captain and part of Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles, Toure definitely has seen it all at the big clubs of England. Brought in to replace the retired Jamie Carragher and the former vice-captain’s experience, as well as try to emulate his leadership qualities, Toure has much on his hands but is just about ahead of Martin Skrtel now in the starting eleven. The Ivorian stopper is only 32 – still young enough and in the peak age of defenders – and definitely has a few years at this club if he can prove himself early and steer clear of long-term injuries.
Toure seems to be a good free signing, but whether he’ll go down the route of Pellegrino and Degen, or be successful like Aurelio and Bellamy, remains to be seen. He could also always be seen as just about worth the hassle and wages, time will only tell, and this is Toure’s last chance in the big time.