As the summer transfer window came around the bend, Liverpool was quickly accredited with an interest in Sporting Lisbon's young center back Tiago Ilori. With Sporting in dire financial straits, the Reds hoped to poach one of the most highly regarded defensive prospects in Europe at a bargain price. Even with bankers breathing down their necks, the Iberians held firm on their valuation and Liverpool seemingly moved on to other targets.
Then, we had the joys of the League Cup and a supposed training exercise against third-tier minnows Notts County turned into Saving Private Ryan, with injuries to defensive signings Aly Cissokho and Kolo Toure (not to mention midfielder Joe Allen). Shortly thereafter, Liverpool aggressively closed deals for Ilori and PSG center back Mamadou Sakho.
Whether pure coincidence or directly related to the Notts slaughter, Liverpool ended up sending almost 17 million pounds to Paris for Sakho and seven million to the Portuguese capital for Ilori. For Ilori, it was roughly double what Liverpool attempted to pay earlier in the window and according to the magical, mercurial transfermarkt.co about six times the player's actual value at the time of the transfer.
Of course, Brendan Rodgers and FSG weren't paying for what Ilori is currently, but solely for what they believe he will become. There were a host of clubs sniffing around Ilori and it's easy to see why. Standing 6'3", the 20 year old reportedly holds the fastest sprint times ever recorded at Sporting's vaunted youth academy - yes even faster than flying wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. Further, much like fellow signing Sakho, Ilori holds a reputation for comfort on the ball and this cartoonish concoction of size, speed, and technique is what drove the Reds to close the deal.
Still, despite Ilori's undeniable potential, eyebrows were arched upon hearing the transfer's terms. The Reds spent the summer steadfastly refusing to pay over their own valuations of targets, and to see the club return with a doubled bid was a bit of a shock. Ilori has just 14 senior appearances to his name with Lisbon (with two coming in 2011/2012) and the deal brings about some uneasy comparisons to the last top center back prospect to sign for Liverpool, Sebastien Coates.
Fresh on the heels of dominating the 2011 Copa America, Coates was the next "Big Thing" (he does look a bit like "Where the Wild Things Are") coming out of the remarkably fertile footballing soil of Uruguay. Liverpool fended off intense European interest, particularly from Atletico Madrid, to bring in the towering center back and, aside from a stunning goal against QPR, things slowly rolled downhill.
Now, Ilori is a different beast than the Uruguayan particularly with his Road-Runner sprinting ability, but, fundamentally, center back is a very difficult position in which to groom young talent. Unlike almost every other outfield position, center backs are rarely substituted during matches and more impervious to squad rotation. It is also a position where one mental slip can ruin an otherwise flawless 90 minutes. Coates seemed to be caught in a cycle where a lack of match sharpness led to a foolish error, which in turn caused even less playing time.
Without any European competition this season, Ilori is going to find first team minutes few and far between. Daniel Agger, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel, and Mamadou Sakho are all ahead of him in the pecking order and even Martin Kelly and Andre Wisdom could throw their hats into the ring as well. Rodgers seemed to acknowledge Ilori is "one for the future" but even if that's true the club will still need to find competitive minutes with which Ilori can cut his teeth.
Should Ilori reach his potential, the club will look back on this seven million pound outlay as an absolute steal for one of the game's pre-eminent defensive talents. Indeed, should things break well for both Sakho and Ilori, Liverpool will have a truly freakish defensive pairing to rival any club in the world. The signing is a true test of Liverpool's management and boardroom structure. The scouting department has identified one of the best prospects in Europe, the executive team has closed the deal to bring him aboard, and now it's up to Rodgers, Pascoe, and co. to successfully turn Ilori's raw promise into a polished superstar.
Here's the obligatory "Welcome to Liverpool" video for those Youtube scouts among us. Now, I usually mute the sound immediately, but here let it run a little bit by accident and found myself snatching for a letter opener with which to pop my ear drums. You've been warned.