Timo Werner and Liverpool seemed such an obvious fit. He is a quick, mobile striker capable of dropping straight into Jurgen Klopp's system at Anfield and a player, with a reported £49 million release clause at RB Leipzig, who would also mirror the club's policy of finding value in an inflated market.
The Germany international is admired by Klopp, and Werner hasn't been shy in praising the Liverpool manager and his team in recent months -- with several public comments from the 24-year-old highlighting the positive qualities of Klopp and the side. But barring a very late bid by Liverpool to reenter the race and hijack Chelsea's move for Werner, one of the most sought-after talents in European football will be plying his trade at Stamford Bridge next season rather than at Anfield.
Sources have told ESPN that Chelsea have agreed to activate the £49m clause, while Liverpool's interest in Werner has cooled in recent weeks. The full cost of the deal -- £200,000 a week in wages over a six-year contract -- had become an issue for Liverpool, but if Werner had set his heart on a move to Anfield, a compromise could have been reached.
However, Werner also had reservations about moving to Liverpool despite the obvious attractions of playing for the reigning European champions and Premier League champions-elect. That reluctance is a warning sign to the Reds about the challenges they now face in terms of establishing themselves as the dominant force in English football.
Strengthening while on top has always been a crucial element in sustaining success, but it is not easy. Sometimes, a team can appear too strong, leaving some players to question whether they would rather put game time ahead of success on their immediate list of priorities. Having made himself indispensable at Leipzig by scoring 92 goals in 154 appearances, sources have told ESPN that Werner has no desire to spend time on the substitutes' bench at his new club, and that would have been a genuine prospect at Liverpool, with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino becoming such a formidable attacking unit under Klopp.
Werner hinted at his dilemma in March, when he admitted that he would have to consider his next step carefully.
"At this time in professional soccer there are two different variations," he told Sky Sports. "The first is to be part of a team like Liverpool or Manchester City. They have a good working team. The teams have also great coaches. But this is the question: Do you want to go to that kind of team, because the situation is already that hard for each member and you want to be a part of it? That's one point you have to look at.
"The other side are teams that need some big changes, because they just won a few big titles, but they are not able to compete at the highest level anymore. For me, Manchester United is one of these teams. So at this point of my career I'm asking myself: Do I want to be part of a new team, to build up something new, or do I want to stay at my team and make something great?"
The answer seems to be that Werner wants to help build something new at Chelsea rather than fight for the right to play at Liverpool and help Klopp's team build a dynasty.
Have Chelsea swept in & landed Werner under Liverpool's noses?
Steve Nicol reacts to reports that Chelsea have activated Timo Werner's €60 million release clause.
Eden Hazard made a similar decision in 2012 when, having spent months in talks with Manchester City and Manchester United, he instead signed for Chelsea, who had just won the Champions League after finishing sixth, 25 points behind City and United, in the Premier League. City and United were the established "Big Two" at the time, but few can argue that Hazard made the wrong call considering he won six major trophies, including two Premier League titles, during his seven years at Stamford Bridge.
By landing Werner, Chelsea have delivered a statement of intent, but they have been able to offer the forward an unobstructed path into the team, which Liverpool simply couldn't do.
Liverpool have rightly been lauded as leaders in the transfer market in recent years with a recruitment strategy that has seen the team's rise to the top, accelerated by the signings of Mane, Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, among others. But those signings all dislodged inferior players. They were signed as instant picks and have retained that status ever since. Times have changed, though, and there are very few players who Klopp could now sign who would be considered as instant picks, especially in the attacking positions.
Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe would walk into the team, but there aren't many others. Liverpool would love to sign the 21-year-old, but they would have to rip up their financial blueprint to even enter the conversation to bring in the €200m-rated forward.
How Liverpool take that leap forward and strengthen while they are on top is a challenge that Klopp and the club's transfer committee must take on. They've made just one signing -- the £7.65 million deal for FC Salzburg forward Takumi Minamino in January -- since the start of the 2018-19 season, so they are in need of new blood to spice up competition for places at Anfield. But Werner's imminent move to Chelsea shows Liverpool that being the best is not always an advantage in the transfer market.