Liverpool are exploring their midfield options in the transfer market and Wolves’ Matheus Nunes is under consideration.
I was no surprise to hear Wolves boss Julen Lopetegui roundly dismissing Liverpool interest in Matheus Nunes on Tuesday.
The Reds are exploring their midfield options, both short and long term, and the club’s recruitment team have retained a long-standing interest in Nunes, who only moved to Wolverhampton in August from Sporting Lisbon.
“We can say that Matheus is our player, he’s a Wolves player and he’s so happy to be here,” said Lopetegui, bluntly, on Tuesday.
I was viewed as a major coup for Wolves when they signed Nunes for around £44m in August. Manchester City and Liverpool were interested and while it was Wolves and their enduring partnership with ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes who eventually struck the right terms, the Reds have not stopped watching from afar.
Liverpool have a healthy relationship with Nunes’s Gestifute agency, which was founded by Mendes, having worked together on deals for the likes of Fabinho, Diogo Jota and Darwin Nunez in recent years. In the case of the first two transfers, discretion was the order of the day to help seal big-money moves for both players well away from media’s glare.
In Nunez’s case, it was a £64m transaction that was completed relatively quickly given the size of the fee and the £21m worth of add-ons that could yet make the Uruguay international the most expensive player of all time at Anfield.
The Portuguese market is one Liverpool have explored in great depth in recent years. Feedback from Pep Lijnders’s contacts at Porto, for example, gave glowing character references for Jota, and an initial £37m move for Luis Diaz 12 months ago was successful thanks in no small part to those working on Liverpool’s behalf in the same region.
Current sporting director Julian Ward’s contacts book is an extensive one when it comes to Portuguese football too having worked for the national side between 2008 and 2010 during Carlos Quieroz’s stint as head coach.
“It’s incredible. Having the opportunity to work for the Portuguese national team is as big a challenge, as it is an honour,” Ward told the Belfast Telegraph back in 2010. “After the FIFA draw took place for the finals in December, myself and our chief scout Jose Alberto Costa observed and analysed our [2010 World Cup] group opponents Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea.
The other focus has been monitoring the form of a pool of Portuguese players scattered across eight or nine European leagues. With league games and the Europa and Champions League we have had plenty of games to follow.”
Ward may not have worked for the Seleccao for over a decade but he has kept a closer eye than most on developments in the country since and it’s an area Liverpool have exhaustively scoured in recent years. The current sporting director, who is set to leave Anfield after over 10 years at the end of the season, also took charge of scouting in both Portugal and Spain between 2012 and 2015 for the Reds.
Often the role is about definitively eliminating players as below the required standard as much as it is identifying potential additions. A scout at Liverpool is not typically judged on the amount of players brought in from their particular area of the world. Such a model could lead to unsuitable players being brought in, and often, tabs are kept on some due mainly to their age and their more natural potential to improve as a result.
Liverpool looked at both Joao Felix and Bruno Fernandes, for example, during their respective times at Benfica and Sporting prior to their big-money moves to Atletico Madrid and Manchester United.
In the case of Felix, it was decided the transfer fee – one which saw Atletico eventually pay £113m – was far too exorbitant, while Fernandes was a player who did pique interest at Anfield before it was accepted that £70m-plus was also too expensive for a player who it was thought was best utilised as a No.10, a position Klopp’s more functional midfield has tended not to lean on since the days of Philippe Coutinho.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that Liverpool have continued to retain an interest in the emerging prospects of the Premiera Liga. With the captures of Diaz from Porto and Nunez at Benfica, the Reds could yet commit to as much as £135m for the pair if their total add-ons are reached.
It’s also no shock to hear of links to Benfica’s Argentina World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez. At a time when midfield remains the area most in need of attention at Anfield, speculation involving the South American last month did not appear to be too unrealistic, particularly when it was factored in how Liverpool amicably wrapped up negotiations for Nunez just a few months prior with Benfica.
Given the relatively small department compared to clubs of comparable size in the Premier League, Liverpool’s scouting team do not necessarily focus on one particular player when attending matches. Instead, those tasked with talent spotting are more often than not dispatched to keep an eye on several performers in the same match and Fernandez, given his talent and age, will have had the rule run over him during Benfica’s fixtures as a result.
It’s understood there will be a particular focus on displays in the Champions League too, where the standard is generally accepted to be greater than domestic matches where Benfica often dominate unless up against Porto or Sporting. That rule is generally applied across all the top leagues in general when it comes to scouting potential players for the Liverpool first team.
Despite all of that, it is understood that Fernandez is not currently one of the midfielders under consideration in the Anfield corridors of power. Links to Chelsea have intensified in recent days and it has been reported the 23-year-old could cost the Londoners a club-record fee. That current figure stands at nearly £98m that was paid for Romelu Lukaku in 2021.
If those who matter in the recruitment team are not convinced, it is unlikely Liverpool will go anywhere near that sort of sum for any one player. Consider the Reds not in the running for Fernandez.
‘Spinning plates’ has been the general phrase used to describe Liverpool’s transfer interest in midfielders at present. With so much uncertainty around both the long-term ownership of the football club itself and whether or not Anfield will be able to even play the Champions League theme next term, planning for the future can be a difficult task.
There are also the external factors of other clubs and their overtures to consider. For example, Liverpool’s move for Diaz last year was brought forward by six months thanks to Tottenham registering their own interest, while the Reds had to act fast between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day to pip Manchester United to Cody Gakpo. Liverpool have become masters at swift and decisive action when it’s time to pursue a target but they are at the mercy of other elements beyond budgetary constraints at times.
Jude Bellingham, for example, is someone who Klopp – maybe more than anyone else at the club – is a huge admirer of. The Liverpool boss spoke glowingly about the Borussia Dortmund midfielder before the Boxing Day clash at Aston Villa.
I don’t like to talk about money when you talk about a player like him,” said Klopp. “Everyone can see he is just exceptional. If you mention to someone who has no clue about football or who knows about football and has not watched it for a while ‘how old do you think Jude Bellingham is?’ I don’t think anyone would get even close to his age. They would say 28 or 29 because he plays so mature.
“What can I say? I have thought that for two or three years since he had his breakthrough at Dortmund. Everybody knew already but I have no idea what that means for the money side of it.”
Any pursuit of Bellingham is surely dependent on Champions League participation next term, however. Given the cost would likely eclipse the club-record £75m paid for Virgil van Dijk at the start of 2018 and the fact that the England international will want to be playing in Europe’s most glamorous competition, it’s almost a prerequisite for any deal to be struck.
Back to Nunes and while a lack of Champions League football is not a huge detriment given he signed for Wolves in the summer, the financial boost that comes with it would inevitably aid any pursuit. The Rio-born midfielder played twice for Sporting prior to his move to the Midlands in August, though, meaning while he can technically sign for a third club this campaign, he cannot play for one.
That means Liverpool are almost certainly not likely to act on any interest they have until the end of the season. Lopetegui, it seems, can rest easy. For now.