Julian Ward was not supposed to take over as Liverpool’s sporting director until the summer, when Michael Edwards officially departed. But as it turned out, the apprentice assumed the duties of the master a few months early.
It was Ward who led the negotiations with Porto over the signing of Luis Díaz in January. Liverpool agreed to pay an initial £ 37.5m for the Colombian, with a further £ 12.5m in potential add-ons.
Half a season into his Liverpool career, it looks like great value. In terms of outright performance levels, Díaz was arguably Liverpool’s best attacker in the final few months of the campaign. The expectation is that goals will flow in abundance next season, at which point few will be able to dispute that the deal was a masterstroke.
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Ward also deserves credit for agreeing a favorable package within a short period of time. It is widely known that Liverpool did not intend to pursue Díaz until the summer, but hurriedly brought their plans forward in the final days of the January window when they learned that Porto were ready to sell him to Tottenham Hotspur for a reduced fee.
However, it must be acknowledged that the Primeira Liga outfit were under real pressure to sell, playing right into the hands of Ward and Liverpool. In December, UEFA had threatened to kick them out of European competition for a season if they did not meet their debt obligations, giving them just two months.
‘Porto wouldn’t have entertained selling’ Díaz without these financial difficulties’, journalist and Portuguese football expert Aaron Barton told the ECHO. But they were in desperate need of funds, and they regarded Díaz as one of their few ‘saleable assets’. In these circumstances, Liverpool were almost their knight in shining armor.
Now, with the summer window due to open on Friday, Ward may once again tap into his ‘strong network of contacts’ in Portugal, stemming from his work with the national team as head of analysis and technical scouting. According to various reports, Liverpool are interested in Benfica’s Darwin Núñez, and Núñez is interested in Liverpool.
So what’s the issue? Well, Benfica are steadfastly demanding £ 85m. And Liverpool are ‘adamant’ that they won’t overpay.
The stage is set, then, for the new man Ward. He may privately regard this as a test of his worthiness. Can he live up to his predecessor’s reputation as one of the game’s top negotiators?
Edwards was able to talk clubs down from eye-watering price tags. Roma initially wanted £ 90m for Alisson Becker in 2018, but he was content to give his time and eventually snapped him up for a full £ 25m (28.8 per cent) less than the asking price.
And he also managed to negotiate the kind of installation plans that made big-money deals manageable. For instance, Liverpool paid just 10 per cent of the £ 41m fee for Diogo Jota in the first 12 months.
One would imagine that a multi-year plan to spread out the almighty fee would be essential in the case of Núñez too.
Liverpool have been clear that they have alternative options in mind. They’re seemingly ready to move on if Benfica refuse to compromise. But it would appear that Núñez is their primary target. Having already missed out on Aurélien Tchouaméni to Real Madrid, they may feel a degree of pressure, particularly given that Old Trafford is a possible destination for Núñez too.
What’s more, with Sadio Mané potentially leaving for Bayern Munich, there are enormous shoes to fill. They can not afford to take any chances.
This deal could well break Liverpool’s transfer record. Even if the Reds can make some inroads, Núñez is likely to cost somewhere between the £ 65m they paid for Alisson and the £ 75m they shelled out on Virgil van Dijk. For Ward, this is perhaps the definition of a baptism of fire.