When Michael Edwards departs Liverpool on June 1 next year, he’ll be leaving some big shoes to fill. Granted, he stands considerably shorter than Jurgen Klopp’s 6ft 4in and as a player was a right-back, so they may not quite be size 12s, but as a sporting director, he is of the highest stature.
After almost six years in the position, and a decade on Merseyside, Edwards is to leave the club on the expiry of his contract, with his current assistant, Julian Ward, promoted from within to take his place.
This isn’t a hasty move by Liverpool, of course, with Ward regarded highly by figures within Fenway Sports Group. Having initially joined from Manchester City as a European scouting manager in 2012, before progressing into the role of loan pathways and football partnerships manager three years later, he has been entrusted to work alongside Edwards since the end of 2020.
But nevertheless, the flourishing reputation Edwards has enjoyed in his time with Liverpool makes him a hard act to follow, particularly given he exits at a pivotal stage in the club’s forward planning.
So what could Ward’s priorities be as he moves up the totem pole to become the Reds’ transfer figurehead?
1. Sort Mohamed Salah’s contract
On long-term form, there is no better player in world football than Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian has not only stepped it up a gear this season, but he has built on a four-year portfolio of world-class performances since joining Liverpool from AS Roma.
As a player, he is among the very elite, and as a global brand, he is one of the most powerful active footballers. And as he prepares to head into the final 18 months of his contract, he finds himself in a strong position.
Talks are ongoing with Salah’s agent, Ramy Abbas, with it widely reported that the player is seeking a wage comparable with his peers, but that £400,000 a week would double the salary that already makes him Liverpool’s all-time highest earner.
It is a tough decision, then, and negotiations will be delicate, but it is a situation Liverpool must resolve to avoid losing a player who has already broken into their all-time top 10 goalscorers list.
Hopefully, with Edwards still in-house for another six months, he and Ward can tag-team this one.
2. Make big decisions on five others
Salah isn’t the only Liverpool player whose deal runs out in 2023, though. He is simply the headline name in a five-strong group.
Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all into their final two years. James Milner, meanwhile, will be formally free to speak to clubs outside of England from January 1, with his contract up on the same day as Edwards.
There have already been clues laid that Milner could be transitioning into a coaching role in the long term, but a call must still be made over whether his playing career will extend beyond 2022 with Liverpool.
Elsewhere, Firmino and Mane are, like Salah, key cogs in Klopp’s attacking machine, but all three will be 30 next year and, try as they might, time will catch up with Liverpool’s much-vaunted front three sooner or later.
To avoid the pitfalls of previous successful sides, tough decisions may be required on whether to keep all three of Salah, Mane and Firmino, while for Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain, it will be a case of weighing up their long-term value to the club.
3. Prepare for the youth revolution
Liverpool’s recent inactivity in the transfer market has not been entirely by design; an ongoing pandemic, and its impact on major sources of revenue within the club, has restricted their spending power.
FSG are proponents of a self-sustaining model, and will not endanger the financial security of one of their biggest assets to simple appease growing calls to bolster a squad that won the Premier League title in 2020.
But as the conundrum facing Salah, Mane and Firmino highlights, there is a genuine need to overhaul this group of players to avoid them growing old together and past glory fading.
Put simply, Liverpool cannot allow themselves to become Manchester United, floundering in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Moves have already been made in this respect, with Diogo Jota (24), Ibrahima Konate (22) and Kostas Tsimikas (25) all poised for starring roles in the future, while Curtis Jones (20) and Harvey Elliott (18) are among those to join Trent Alexander-Arnold (22) in that homegrown core.
But an emphasis must be placed on injecting youth into this squad, while maintaining a balance of consistency. No big deal then, Jules.
4. Streamline the loan strategy
Having overseen the process for five years before taking the assistant sporting director job, Ward will be well aware of the delicate balance required with Liverpool’s loan strategy.
Klopp’s stance on sending young players out on loan has softened over the years, but it is evident that there have been few genuine successes in the temporary markets. Elliott, who spent the 2020/21 campaign with Blackburn, is chief among those.
Leighton Clarkson and Rhys Williams, for example, have both struggled for consistent game time in the Championship this term, having been full-time members of Klopp’s first-team squad less than a year ago.
The method of finding the right club for a group of players that every summer breaks into double figures is a tough task, but working with his successor, David Woodfine, there is a possibility Ward could streamline their approach.
Perhaps, in some cases, this could simply be a case of cutting their losses earlier in a player’s development to allow them to blossom elsewhere.
5. Planning for life after Klopp
As it stands, Liverpool are set to lose their sporting director in 2022, their best player in 2023 and, most worryingly, their manager in 2024. Klopp, in typically steadfast manner, has maintained his desire is to move on after nine years at Anfield.
More so than securing Salah’s signature, it would be a masterstroke if Ward is able to negotiate an extended stay for Klopp, even if it is unlikely to fall under the “lifetime deal” terms recently laid out by Steven Gerrard.
It is more realistic, however, that the club must push forward with the process of identifying Klopp’s successor.
Could FSG follow the same model and promote from within with assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders? Will Gerrard prove himself capable of stepping up having taken over at Aston Villa? Or could Liverpool bring in a new man entirely?
Ward will be aware of the enormity of the job he is taking up as he succeeds Edwards as sporting director, and the big decisions he faces will, undoubtedly, shape the future of Liverpool Football Club.
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