The moment Liverpool's season was lost: Real Madrid winning the race for Aurelien Tchouameni has cost the Reds dear
In the space of 14 days last summer, Real Madrid scored two significant victories over Liverpool. And while the first of those may have cut Reds fans deepest, it is arguably the second which has had the more lasting impact on Jurgen Klopp and his team.
Denied a seventh Champions League success by Madrid in Paris, Liverpool were then thwarted in their attempts to land their No.1 summer transfer target, with the lure of Santiago Bernabeu, and the prospect of playing for the newly-crowned European champions, too much for Monaco star Aurelien Tchouameni to resist.
Liverpool had hoped to convince the France international, then 22, to move to Anfield, having identified him as the player to help transform a midfield that was already, in hindsight, showing signs of wear and tear by the time it was outmanoeuvred by Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Co. at the Stade de France.
Tchouameni had been scouted extensively, going back to his days as a youth-team player at Bordeaux, and his age, potential and ability to play as both a No.6 and a No.8 made him an ideal candidate, especially with Borussia Dortmund having made it clear that the Reds’ other ‘gun’ target, Jude Bellingham, would not be sold that summer.
Initial discussions with the players’ representatives were encouraging, with Liverpool not put off by Monaco’s demands for a deal which, with add-ons included, would total close to €100 million (£89m/$106m).
The Reds, aware that Sadio Mane wanted to leave, knew they would need to sign a forward and had already earmarked Benfica’s Darwin Nunez, but they were willing to splash out on Tchouameni too, with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita likely to then be moved on to create space and generate funds.
The problem was, Madrid were also sold on Tchouameni’s talent. The Spanish champions did not, at that point, expect Casemiro to leave - Manchester United’s interest in the Brazilian emerged late in the window - but had been consciously moving towards a younger, more dynamic side, built around talents such as Vinicius Junior, Eder Militao, Rodrygo, Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga.
Valverde and Camavinga, in particular, had played key roles in their Champions League triumph, providing energy, drive and no little quality as Madrid produced remarkable comebacks to beat Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City. Adding Tchouameni, the Spaniards believed, would give them a midfield that could take over from the brilliant Casemiro-Modric-Kroos triumvirate, and that was made clear to Excellence Sport Nation (ESN), the agency which represents the player.
Liverpool, despite lengthy and cordial discussions and Klopp’s enthusiasm for a deal, quickly realised that they were very much second favourites in the race. Tchouameni says he watched Real’s semi-final against Manchester City, which the La Liga side won 6-5 on aggregate, and messaged his agent “do everything possible to take me there, please!”
By the time the Champions League final arrived, and indeed well before it, Liverpool had accepted their fate. Despite a late attempt by PSG to hijack the deal, Real announced Tchouameni’s signing on June 11, paying an initial €80m (£71m/$85m).
Aurelien Tchouameni watching the masters at work in his first Real Madrid training session 🆕 pic.twitter.com/Sp9ya0iLNh— GOAL (@goal) July 14, 2022
Liverpool, meanwhile, opted not to pursue an alternative, a decision that has looked more costly with each passing week and each underwhelming performance since. Bellingham was out of reach - they hope to land him this summer instead - while interest in other targets, such as RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer and Matheus Nunes, who eventually joined Wolves from Sporting C.P., came to nothing.
Klopp had insisted, bullishly, that Liverpool did not need a new midfielder heading into the new season - “the last thing that crossed my mind was that we would need to do this,” he told reporters at Kirkby in pre-season - but they finished the summer window by signing Arthur Melo on loan from Juventus, with several of the “high-quality” options Klopp had listed having been sidelined by injury. Arthur himself has managed only 13 minutes of competitive action since joining due to a torn thigh muscle.
Those decisions, undoubtedly, have cost the club dear, and will cost them again in the summer, when an almost total midfield overhaul is anticipated and indeed required. The word is that Klopp will be backed in the market, and he will need to be. Bellingham alone will cost well over £100m (€112m/$119m), but the Reds will need more than just the England star if they are to repair the damage done this season.
“I think in the summer people felt Liverpool needed a midfield player, but now it feels like they need a midfield!” Reds legend Jamie Carragher tells GOAL. “It feels like it's two or three players for next summer in that area, if I'm being honest.
“I think not buying the midfield player, a lot of the supporters criticise the owners for that, but this is not on FSG. The money was there for Tchouameni to come if he wanted to come, but he chose Real Madrid, and the feeling from the the manager and the staff at Liverpool was 'well okay, we'll go with what we've got and maybe wait for Jude Bellingham next summer', and it just blew up in their faces.
“We can say it's easy to be clever after the event, but that is the manager's job and the staff's job to see these things before they happen by planning. That's what you're paid for. It's not just what happens on the pitch. It's almost building a new team and they've been very short in that position.”
Tchouameni, meanwhile, has enjoyed a stellar first season in Madrid, even if his manager, Carlo Ancelotti, suggested recently that his form had dipped since the World Cup, where he starred for France but missed a penalty in the shootout defeat to Argentina in the final.
“Until then he did very well, he was amazing,” Ancelotti said. “But the World Cup has affected him, in that he’s still not in the optimum situation, physically, pre-World Cup. He’s coming back, little by little.”
Tchouameni, who has managed 26 appearances for Madrid so far, apologised recently after attending an NBA game between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons in Paris on the same night his team-mates were playing a Copa del Rey tie against Villarreal, but has certainly shown why he was so in-demand last summer.
A glorious assist for Vinicius Junior in the Madrid derby in September stands out, and he ran the show alongside Modric and Kroos when Barcelona were beaten at the Bernabeu a month later. He would have relished the chance to shine at Anfield in Tuesday night’s Champions League last-16 first leg, too, had he not been ruled out through illness.
“In my head, I’m made for this,” he has said. “This is my destiny. It means I’ve worked hard, that I’ve made sure I got here. Now that I’m here, what do I do? I have to earn the starting job, I have to perform well, I have to win titles. I’m not here to watch.”
Clearly, he has no regrets over his decision last summer. If only Liverpool could say the same.