An ode to Daniel Sturridge

It feels like it’s been a long time coming. Daniel Sturridge’s Liverpool career has been in steady decline for some time now and a parting of ways has seemed increasingly inevitable. Tonight, his loan move to West Bromwich Albion has been confirmed and in truth, he’ll almost certainly never pull on the Red jersey again.

It’s a move which makes perfect sense from the player’s perspective. He wasn’t getting regular minutes under Jürgen Klopp and at 28 he will want to be playing as much football as possible before he enters the twilight of his career. West Brom offers him that opportunity where he will be the undisputed star player, tasked with firing in the goals to keep the Baggies safe from relegation.

He’s a player with a point to prove and will be looking to force his way back into the England squad ahead of the World Cup in the summer, which will surely be his last chance to play in a major international tournament.

Born in Birmingham and with several family members living in the city, it’s very easy to see why the move was an attractive proposition for Sturridge. He deserves it, after all.

His Liverpool career is one which contained some sensational high points, and yet the overriding feeling is a sense of what might have been. Arriving from Chelsea in January 2012 for £12.5 million, Sturridge’s arrival was met with a mixture of scepticism and cautious optimism- clearly a hugely talented individual, but without the consistency to fully establish himself at a top club.

Instantly, Sturridge made his mark, scoring within 10 minutes of his debut and from that point he never looked back. 11 goals were plundered in his first half-season at the club and it was immediately clear that Liverpool had found themselves an absolute bargain.

With Luis Suarez suspended for the beginning of the 2013-14 season, it was Sturridge who stepped up in the Uruguayan’s place to spearhead Liverpool to three consecutive 1-0 victories. Once Suarez returned, the pair struck up a phenomenal partnership which will live long in the memory, with Sturridge racking up a remarkable 24 goals in what was the finest season of his career.

There’s no doubt about it- Sturridge at his peak was right up there among the very best strikers not only in the Premier League, but in Europe. He had it all. Blistering pace, trickery, vision, intelligent movement and devastatingly clinical finishing. He scored all kinds of goals, too.

His 25-yard chip against West Brom (somewhat ironically, now) is perhaps one of the great forgotten Liverpool goals of recent times- a finish of sublime quality which never quite got the credit it deserved. Only a handful of players in the world would even consider attempting such a shot, let alone execute it to perfection.

Liverpool might have fallen at the death in their pursuit of the title, but for Sturridge, his trajectory only looked upwards. Suarez left for Barcelona in the summer of 2014 and it was up to Sturridge to take the centre stage as Liverpool’s main man.

And then the injuries set in, of almost every type imaginable. Calf, hamstring, thigh, hip. You name it. Sturridge’s body all but gave up on him. The wriggly arms became a rarer and rarer occurrence, as Sturridge managed just seven league starts in the entirety of 2014-15. It should have been the season where he cemented his world-class status and yet looking back, it signalled the beginning of the end for Sturridge as a genuinely elite centre-forward.

Despite the overwhelming notion that Sturridge was never a natural fit for the high-intensity, pressing brand of football advocated by Klopp, the German’s arrival in 2015 saw Sturridge’s game time managed effectively as the injuries appeared to dry up to a degree. Klopp quickly ensured that Liverpool would no longer be reliant on Sturridge’s fitness, opting for either Roberto Firmino or Divock Origi as his preferred choices to lead the line, but Sturridge still had an important role to play as he bagged 13 goals in what was a mini-revival, making him the top scorer for the club in 2015-16.

Scoring in the Europa League semi-final victory at Anfield against Villareal, Sturridge helped Liverpool book their place in the final against Sevilla. That night will be remembered for Liverpool’s second-half capitulation, but it was Sturridge who opened the scoring with one of the great Liverpool goals of the 20th century. A stunning, outside-of-the-boot curler from outside the box, right into the far corner. It was a goal worthy of winning any cup final and it’s a travesty that it will ultimately be cast aside given the manner in which Liverpool collapsed in the second-half.

The following season, however, Sturridge once again found himself on the periphery of Klopp’s plans, consigned to a regular place on the bench, starting only seven league games in the whole of 2016-17. Even still, he made another vital contribution in his superbly taken opening goal in the crucial 4-1 win over West Ham in the penultimate game of the season, which proved pivotal in helping Liverpool secure their top four finish and consequent return to the Champions League.

This season, Sturridge’s demise has only continued and it’s impossible to blame the player for wanting to leave given the predicament he found himself in. Two goals in two games against Huddersfield and Maribor were rewarded with virtually no further first team action, with Dominic Solanke edging ahead in the pecking order despite never having scored a senior goal in English football.

Quite clearly, Sturridge is nowhere near the player he once was. The cumulative effect of his countless injuries over the past four years has visibly resulted in the loss of his pace and acceleration of old. He no longer possesses that explosiveness and ability to burst past players like he used to. For some time, he’s looked like a player never quite fully confident in his own skin, not able to trust his own body.

You’ll rarely ever see Sturridge sprint anymore, or make penetrative runs in behind opposition defences. He’s adapted his game to become more efficient but less dynamic in his movement and while he still possesses enormous quality as a finisher, so many of the assets which temporarily made him a world-class striker have been stripped away.

It is with great sadness, therefore, that Sturridge finally leaves Liverpool with a whimper rather than one last hurrah. There will always be a feeling of considerable regret that he was never quite able to fulfil his vast potential, which he only got to show for one season. He had all the ability to become a legend at the club, but physically his body could not sustain it.

A tally of 63 goals in 133 appearances (many of which came from the bench) is, nonetheless, a record to be proud of. While there have been numerous attempts at questioning his attitude over the years, based on very little evidence, Sturridge has also shown himself to be a hugely popular figure who has always given his maximum to the cause. His loss to the dressing room will surely be significant,

Liverpool wave goodbye to one of the finest footballers to have played for the club in modern times, as well as a genuinely good-humoured and likeable personality.

It’s been a pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Why Liverpool cannot afford to wait until the summer to reinvest the Coutinho money

It’s become a cliché line now that the January transfer window isn’t the right time to make signings, as the best players generally aren’t available and clubs will demand an extortionate premium to even consider selling their prized-assets half way through the season.

It’s a theory which, when you look at the actual evidence, doesn’t quite add up. Some of Liverpool’s best signings in recent years have come in January. Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho just to name a few of them. Virgil van Dijk has, of course, also finally completed his much-protracted transfer from Southampton to Liverpool for £75 million this month. Alexis Sanchez has joined Man United from Arsenal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way in exchange. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks likely to be heading to the North London club too. Chelsea are reportedly close to agreeing a deal for Edin Dzeko.

It’s simply a myth that important signings cannot be made in January. Ultimately, if clubs offer enough money for a player they really want, there’s nearly always a price at which a deal can be done- as ultimately proven by Barcelona’s successful £142 million move for Coutinho, which was enough to persuade Liverpool to part with the Brazilian at such a crucial juncture in the season.

For Liverpool, it is absolutely imperative now that at least a significant proportion of that money is reinvested into the squad in order to maximise their prospects of success in the remainder of the season. With the top four race still in the balance and upcoming ties in the FA Cup and Champions League, there is a huge amount at stake for Liverpool and while recent reports suggest Jürgen Klopp might be content to wait until the summer to bolster his squad again, Coutinho’s departure significantly weakens Liverpool’s chances of winning a trophy and qualifying for the Champions League.

Waiting until the summer while sitting back and watching rivals strengthen, risks Liverpool perpetually building for the future without quite doing enough to achieve their goals in the present.

In selling Coutinho, Liverpool effectively lost two players in one, given the Brazilian’s propensity to play either in the front three or as the most advanced midfielder. Liverpool now find themselves in a situation where they are almost entirely reliant on all three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah to remain fit and available for the rest of the season, which is highly unlikely. Even if they do, issues of form and fatigue inevitably come into the equation.

The drop-off in quality for attacking options beyond the first choice trio is stark, with Dominic Solanke and Danny Ings hardly of the required quality, with the former never having scored a senior goal in English football and the latter having missed nearly two years through injury. Daniel Sturridge, meanwhile, appears well out of the picture and has been strongly linked with a move away to either Inter Milan or Sevilla this month, which would only further deplete Klopp’s attacking resources. Even when fit, Sturridge is miles off the player he used to be before the injuries took away his explosive pace and razor-sharp finishing.

Liverpool cannot, therefore, leave themselves so vulnerable that one injury to any one of the front three would be disastrous. The argument that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Adam Lallana could fill that gap doesn’t hold much strength, given that both players do not supply enough goals or assists and are best utilised in the midfield positions.

With an initial £102 million banked from Coutinho’s sale, it would be negligent to jeopardise a season which holds so much promise, but is now so finely in the balance given the paucity of attacking resources at Klopp’s disposal beyond his first choice players. While January might not be the easiest time to find the best deals, it would be worth slightly paying over the odds for another premium forward option in order to ensure that Klopp retains the ability to rotate his forward options without losing too much quality- which has underpinned so much of Liverpool’s relative success so far this season.

With that in mind, here are a number of potential options Liverpool might look at- not all of the same style, and not all necessarily easy to acquire at this stage in the season- but players which, if Liverpool offered enough money for, could contribute significantly in the remaining months of the campaign.

1. The obvious choice- Thomas Lemar

It’s something of a mystery quite why Liverpool haven’t made their move for Lemar this month (unless they have done so in private without it being picked up by the English press). The Frenchman was strongly linked at the end of the summer transfer window and Monaco have continually made noises this month to suggest they would be willing to sell if the right offer came in, which recent reports suggest would be below the original £90 million figure quoted to Arsenal in the summer.

Lemar is not a direct replacement for Coutinho style-wise, but he could similarly operate as one of the wide options in the front three as well as an attacking midfielder. He’s more of a creator than a prolific goal scorer at this stage in his career, but at only 22 he has vast potential to develop further. His form for Monaco has been well below par this season, although injuries and persistent transfer links may well have a major part to play in that.

The idea that Liverpool might be prepared to wait until the summer for Lemar, if true, is a risky one, given that his price tag would surely sky-rocket if he has an impressive World Cup campaign with France. Even worse, were Liverpool to slip outside the top four spots this season, they would have absolutely no chance of landing a player like Lemar in the summer, regardless.

There have been rumours that Lemar would rather stay at Monaco this month to ensure regular playing time ahead of the World Cup- although he would almost certainly get plenty of game time at Liverpool were a move to materialise, given the volume of games that remain and the need for rotation.

If Liverpool could get a deal done this month, it would be a major boost ahead of the second-half of the season, allowing him half a season to settle in while immediately improving Liverpool’s attacking depth and giving Klopp the opportunity to potentially rest the likes of Mané or Salah in league games ahead of the Champions League, for which Lemar would be cup-tied.

2. The “Premier League proven” option- Riyad Mahrez

Liverpool have categorically denied their supposed interest in Mahrez this month, although this often been the case in the past before they have gone on to sign players. The Leicester winger has been consistently linked with a move ever since the Foxes’ title triumph in 2015-16, but it has never quite materialised. It’s clear that Mahrez would like to make the next step in his career and would surely have no qualms about swapping Leicester for Liverpool.

In terms of versatility, Mahrez doesn’t quite offer as much as Coutinho or Lemar in that he wouldn’t provide a realistic option in midfield, but he would certainly supplement the forward line with regular goals and assists from the right wing, significantly lessening the burden on Salah. At 26, he’s approaching the prime of his career and could still kick on a level alongside better players and Klopp’s proven track record of unlocking potential.

After an indifferent season last time out, Mahrez has been showing the kind of form which saw him named PFA Player of the Season in 2015-16 and has a wealth of experience in this league already. Mahrez also has the added bonus of being available for the Champions League if he were to join, although he would be cup-tied for the FA Cup.

It’s more of a gamble, but one surely worth taking and most likely Mahrez would not cost quite as much as the astronomical fee quoted for Lemar.

3. The previous target- Julian Brandt

Rewind to before last summer and Julian Brandt was widely reported as Klopp’s number one priority transfer target, only for the German winger to opt to remain at Bayer Leverkusen in order to keep up his guarantee of regular playing time, which would be more of a challenge at Liverpool.

It seems incredible now, but Salah appeared to be an alternative option rather than the very first choice and the Egyptian has quickly secured superstar status since his £36.5 million move from Roma with 24 goals already in his debut season.

Brandt, however, is surely still a player on Klopp’s radar and significantly he will be available for a free transfer in the summer of 2019 when his contract expires with Leverkusen. Were Liverpool to put an attractive sum on the table now, that could potentially tempt Leverkusen to take the money rather than lose one of their star assets for just the meagre reported £11 million release clause which comes into play in the summer, when they would also be at the mercy of Bayern Munich further asserting their hegemony in the Bundesliga by handpicking another excellent young talent.

The major sticking point would be the fact that Leverkusen are currently second in the table and chasing Champions League qualification- although as Liverpool showed with Coutinho and Barcelona, if the offer is big enough, more often than not there is scope for deals to be done.

4. The American dream- Christian Pulisic

Back in August 2016, Liverpool made a measly £11 million bid for Pulisic, widely regarded as one of the rising stars of the Bundesliga and the poster boy of American football. The diminuative winger has continued to build his reputation and is a player clearly admired by Klopp- and, apparently, by FSG who would be keen to have potentially America’s finest footballer of modern times from a commercial perspect.

Still only 19, Pulisic has already featured in the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund, also racking up 55 Bundesliga appearances and 20 international caps for the USA. He is still raw in many aspects- notably in terms of goal-scoring- but his sheer speed, supreme dribbling technique and versatility makes him a hugely promising prospect and one which would potentially be a key part of Klopp’s Liverpool side for years to come, while also being able to contribute in the short-term.

Dortmund are currently 6th in the Bundesliga, although only a point behind second place, but the propsect of not finishing in the Champions League places is more than possible and would be a factor in terms of convincing the player to make his move.

5. The wildcard option- Nabil Fekir

Fekir is enjoying a remarkable season with Olympique Lyon with 16 goals and 5 assists to his name in 19 Ligue 1 so far, who currently sit 2nd in the table behind PSG- against whom he recently scored in a stunning last-minute victory over the French champions.

Liverpool have not been strongly linked with Fekir before, but in terms of what he could offer he would bring a huge amount to the team. Able to operate across the forward line and as a number ten, Fekir brings prolific numbers from multiple positions and, crucially, could potentially operate in the central role in the forward line, able to drop deep and link between the midfield and the attack while also providing a goalscoring threat and creativity.

Liverpool don’t currently have an established, quality alternative to Firmino in that role and a player like Fekir would certainly bolster Klopp’s forward line significantly for the remainder of the campaign. At 24, again, he has considerable potential to continue to build on his current upward trajectory having recovered so impressively from a Cruciate Ligament injury which curtailed his 2015-16 season.

 

 

 

Liverpool 4-3 Man City: match review

It might take a while to appreciate just how phenomenal a game of football this was. For the neutral, it surely goes down immediately as an all-time Premier League classic- a hectic, scintillating demonstration of devastating attacking football from the two most thrilling sides in the country.

Man City’s hopes of an invincible season have been dashed, but Pep Guardiola’s side are still well on track to stroll their way to the title on a record-high points tally. No team has emerged victorious against them all season until now, with good reason. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have shown they are the only side capable of going toe-to-toe and playing them at their own game without getting torn to pieces. It took an immense showing of both quality and sheer effort to overcome what has, until now, proven an unstoppable force this season.

While City’s two late goals shifted the scoreline from a complete annihilation to a narrow victory, this was, in many ways, the finest performance from Liverpool during the Klopp era. Several momentary defensive lapses aside, this was a display of phenomenal verve and cohesion, such that City’s defenders had to cope with a degree of pressure they simply haven’t faced from any other side.

The midfield trio of Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain functioned hugely effectively as a unit to help stem the tide of City’s attacks while also driving forward and setting Liverpool on the front foot. Chamberlain, in particular, was simply magnificent throughout, delivering the finest performance of a blossoming Liverpool career- a player re-energised, re-motivated and clearly loving his football as part of this team.

His goal was illustrative of his new-found confidence, picking the ball up from a deeper position before aggressively surging forward and lashing a low, pinpoint finish into the bottom corner past Ederson for his fourth in Liverpool colours. It’s the kind of goal he would never have scored several months back, but one can only assume that his work on the training ground under a manager who believes in his ability and consistently deploys him in his favoured role have been integral to his upward trajectory, establishing himself as a key cog in the Klopp machine in the role vacated by the recently departed Philippe Coutinho.

While the Brazilian possessed certain qualities unmatched by any other player in the Liverpool squad, his defensive contribution while playing in midfield could often be called into question and left the side somewhat unbalanced at times. Here, Liverpool’s work rate to win back possession by closing City down relentlessly was evident from the first minute. They were hardly given a second to breathe.

Throughout the duration of the first-half, Liverpool were largely diligent in their defensive work, only to be undone by a momentary lapse in concentration with Joe Gomez caught out by a raking crossfield pass to Leroy Sané on the left flank. The German burst into the penalty area and fired the equaliser past his compatriot, Loris Karius, who ought to have done better at his near post despite the ferocious power of the strike.

For Liverpool to have expended so much energy and to play so well during the first half, only to go in level at the break, could easily have damaged morale. To keep up that intensity in the second-half against a City side with a knack of scoring multiple late winners this season would be an enormous task- but one Liverpool showed they were more than capable of stepping up to.

That spirit, grit and determination was embodied by the performance of Andy Robertson, who turned in one of the finest left-back displays from a Liverpool player in years. The Scot dealt superbly with Raheem Sterling- a player in the form of his life, constantly terrorising defences this season- with his tough tackling, well-timed headers and interceptions, as well as his lively foraging runs up the wing.

City, however, were starting to crank up the pressure, until Chamberlain set Roberto Firmino through on goal with a sumptuous through ball. The Brazilian still had plenty to do, however, proceeding to shrug off the attentions of John Stones, before lofting a sublime, curling chipped finish in off the post to regain the lead- a stunning piece of individual quality, heavily reminiscent of the kind of goal Luis Suarez used to score in his prime.

It takes Firmino’s tally for the season up to 17, and along with his colossal all-round contribution in terms of pressing, movement, link-up play and chance creation, the Brazilian is quietly establishing himself as one of the very finest players in the league this season. There’s not a single forward in Europe who executes the complex role Firmino takes up in Klopp’s system and this was just the latest evidence of why he is the perfect player to operate as the attacking fulcrum of this Liverpool side- full of quality himself, while also elevating the performances of those around him.

He’s simultaneously a creator, a defender and now an increasingly prolific goalscorer- with Firmino in the side, it almost feels as if you’re playing with more than 11 men. Just imagine having to defend against that.

In a remarkable nine-minute frenzy, Liverpool put City to the sword twice more, with Sadio Mané lashing an unstoppable left-footed drive into the top corner after excellent work by Mo Salah, before the Egyptian bagged his 24th goal of the season with a sensational 45-yard lob after intercepting Ederson’s under-hit clearance, to put Liverpool firmly in the driving seat.

Despite holding such a commanding lead, however, the game never felt quite over with City still pouring forward in numbers with so much attacking quality in their ranks. Liverpool are not a side built to shut games down by sticking ten men behind the ball, and sure enough Bernardo Silva- on as a substitute for Sterling- swept the ball home from close range with eight minutes of normal time to go.

Liverpool appeared to have successfully ridden out a late storm, only for Ilkay Gundogan to put hearts in mouths as he prodded in City’s third in stoppage time to make it 4-3. It would have been beyond devastating for Liverpool to throw away three points after such a gargantuan display of endeavour and that very nearly became the reality as Sergio Aguero flashed a header into the side netting in the dying seconds from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick.

Rather than elation, the immediate sense at the final whistle was one of enormous relief, having managed to hold on for what is by far and away the biggest win of the season, taking Liverpool on to an 18-match unbeaten run and now up to 3rd in the table, pulling ahead of Chelsea on goal difference.

To step up and deliver such a performance in light of the blow of losing Coutinho and without the presence of Virgil van Dijk speaks volumes about the character and depth of this Liverpool side, inflicting City’s first league defeat of the season in spectacular style. While the frenetic finale somewhat took the edge off what would have been an emphatic thrashing, there should be no underestimating just how big a win this is in terms of morale for the remaining months of the season.

The target for Liverpool should be to establish themselves as the most likely challengers to City for the title next season and on this evidence, they are more than capable of doing so. City will be well aware of that themselves, too, having faced their most uncomfortable ninety minutes of the season, by some distance.

Although there still remains plenty of room for improvement and upgrades in individual personnel, this is arguably the biggest statement victory under Klopp, overcoming what is unequivocally one of- if not the most- formidable teams in Premier League history.

It ought to be celebrated as such.

 

 

Coutinho’s departure: what it means for Liverpool going forward

So there we have it, at last. On 6th January, Liverpool confirmed they had reached an agreement with Barcelona for the transfer of Philippe Coutinho, with reports suggesting an initial, up-front fee of £105 million, followed by £37 million of plausible add-ons, taking the total package up to £142 million- making the Brazilian the third most expensive player of all time, after Neymar and Kylian Mbappé (£200 million and £167.5 million to PSG respectively). In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

Ever since the Neymar transfer in the summer, Barcelona have been aggressive to the point of outright disrespectful in their relentless pursuit of Coutinho, with the player clearly desperate to make the move to the Catalan club when the opportunity first arose. It didn’t suit Liverpool to sell in the summer, however, regardless of the fee- while Barcelona’s derisory offers were well below his market worth, anyway.

Back then, Liverpool didn’t have enough time to search for an adequate replacement and it was entirely in the club’s best interests to keep Coutinho heading into the new season. Had the offer been made right at the start of the transfer window, it may well have been a different story but such was the lack of time left that it never made sense to consider any of Barcelona’s offers. The cost was simply too heavy and keeping Coutinho- once is feigned back injury cleared up- would ultimately prove hugely beneficial in terms of his contribution to Liverpool thereafter.

For all the talk of the risks around forcing an unhappy player to stay at the club, Coutinho’s performances went up another level, regularly delivering world-class displays and prolific goal returns once he returned to the first team fold following his feigned “back injury”. In his 20 appearances this season (17 from the start), he has racked up 12 goals and 8 assists- thus averaging a direct goal contribution every game.

There are very few- if any- attacking midfielders of his ilk in the world capable of producing such impressive numbers, while also heavily influencing games in terms of his all-round contribution on the pitch. Coutinho has undoubtedly elevated himself to world-class status this season, having been previously a mercurial talent who only offered flashes of brilliance with a tendency to drift in and out of games.

Why, then, would Liverpool cash in on their prized asset this month, having fought so hard to resist Barcelona’s advances in the summer, with so much currently at stake? There’s a top-four spot to play for, along with the Champions League and FA Cup- for which Coutinho’s presence would enhance Liverpool’s prospects of success this season.

Liverpool held all the cards on this deal, with Coutinho having penned a new five-year contract in January 2017, with no release clause. There was never any obligation to sell right now at such a crucial juncture in the season and Jürgen Klopp’s overall project at the club. It didn’t need to happen.

Of course, it is simply impossible and counter-productive to keep hold of a player forever when he doesn’t want to be there. Mid-way through the season, however, seems an entirely unnecessary time to buckle to his commands, though. Liverpool could have dug in and kept Coutinho until the summer, before granting him his move at a time which would suit all parties.

That way, Liverpool would’ve benefited from his contribution for another five months, while the player would have been able to leave in a much more positive light than the toxic situation which has surrounded his protracted departure. Barcelona, meanwhile, have all-but-won La Liga already and cannot use Coutinho in the Champions League anyway. A January deal for a summer sale seemed like the obvious solution.

Yet when Coutinho decided to effectively go on strike, feigning another injury- this time his thigh- and refusing to travel to the club’s warm weather training camp in Dubai, the decision was made to cash in, rather than ride out the storm and dig in to keep him one more time. It’s a decision which ultimately prioritises the interests of the player and Barcelona, ahead of Liverpool’s own.

The ramifications of it are unclear, as of yet. It leaves a significant, gaping void in the squad, which needs to be filled this month if Liverpool are to maintain the positive momentum built up over the last couple of months. That means bringing in a high-quality replacement in January. With Monaco reportedly very reluctant to sanction any deal for Thomas Lemar this month, it’s not clear who that replacement might be.

There may well be a deal already lined up behind the scenes, of course, as was the case with the signing of Virgil van Dijk. One would think that given the amount of time Liverpool had to prepare for Coutinho’s eventual departure, they would have done all the groundwork to more or less tie up a replacement already. Whether that turns out to be the reality will become clear over the coming weeks.

What is abundantly clear, throughout all this, is that Klopp has allowed the deal to happen and therefore feels he is in a position to let a player of Coutinho’s quality to move on, without damaging what he’s building at Liverpool. For the FSG-sceptics, it might well seem that the Coutinho deal has effectively funded the Van Dijk acquisition, but all the evidence suggests that Liverpool were looking at Van Dijk well before Barcelona ever regiestered their interest in Coutinho. These owners are fully behind Klopp and thus the decision would not have been made without the manager’s approval.

Klopp’s statement explains his position very clearly:

“Players will come and players will go, that is football, but as a club we are big enough and strong enough to continue with our aggressive progression on the pitch, even when we lose an important player. We have never been in a better position in recent times, as a club, to react in the right way. We will use our size and strength to absorb moments like this and still move forward.

“I have been here long enough now to know in the history of Liverpool, key players have left before – but the club always goes on. You cannot transfer the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club, although I am sure there are many clubs who would like to buy it.

“I have so much belief in the talent we have here already and even more faith, together with our owners, that we will make continued investment into the playing squad, which will allow more growth and more improvement.”

He is absolutely right in saying that Liverpool have not been in a better position to build from a setback like this for a long time. This is not the travesty that was losing Fernando Torres or Luis Suarez, as Liverpool have three elite tier attackers in their armoury in Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Coutinho’s loss is a heavy blow to take, but it need not be a fatal one.

Long-term, Klopp will have confidence in building a stronger, more balanced side, using the money wisely to buy players who want to play for the club and fit exactly into what he’s trying to achieve. There is a strong base to build from, and if smart reinvestments are made, Liverpool can move on from this and continue their upward trajectory.

In the short-term, however, it’s a major gamble for Klopp and one which could well define his time at Liverpool. Qualifying for the Champions League again this season is the bare minimum requirement, and to do so without Coutinho is now a much greater challenge than it would have been. That’s not to say it’s impossible- especially if Liverpool can bring in a quality replacement- but the task is undoubtedly more difficult now.

Importantly, any replacement would not be near Coutinho’s level, while they would need time to adapt, settle into the system and would also most likely be cup-tied for the Champions League. Clubs will also be fully aware that Liverpool have the Coutinho money in the bank and with it being January, they will surely look to drive up their prices should Liverpool coming knocking.

In the immediate-term, therefore, it’s difficult to see how Liverpool benefit from this, as Coutinho’s departure directly weakens prospects of success on all three fronts for the remainder of the season- even more so if a replacement isn’t brought in this month, with Klopp preferring to wait until the summer rather to get his ideal targets.

In terms of the player himself, the manner in which this has all unfolded is hugely disappointing- but perhaps unsurprising. It’s a well-documented fact that South American players ultimately tend to aspire to play for one of the big two clubs in Spain and for any player, an offer from Barcelona is one which cannot be turned down.

Coutinho has given Liverpool five years, but hasn’t won any silverware and approaching his prime years, he’ll want to be rectifying that fact by playing for a club virtually guaranteed of winning trophies year in, year out. Footballers have short careers, and for a non-local player with no pre-existing loyalty to Liverpool, it’s to be expected that he would do whatever necessary to make the move happen.

All that said, for a player who owes his development almost entirely to Liverpool, so widely adored by the fanbase, to fake injuries and make himself unavailable for the Champions League qualifier earlier in the season, and most recently the Merseyside Derby, is a real shame to see, and tarnishes his reputation to some extent.

While not quite on Suarez’ level, Coutinho is one of the finest players to have played for the club this century and it is with great regret, from a Liverpool perspective, that the best years of his career will be spent elsewhere. He will undoubtedly be a major success at Barcelona.

From a personal point of view, I’m hugely disappointed the deal was allowed to happen in January. I would’ve had no qualms with agreeing a deal to let him go in the summer, but such is the importance of the next five months that losing Coutinho in January places all that at great risk.

Ultimately, now, we have to trust that Klopp has a plan in place to deal with the loss of such a quality player without it derailing a season which holds so much promise. The focus has to be on securing a replacement as soon as possible- which doesn’t mean spending for the sake of it- but Liverpool cannot afford to wait until the summer to replace such an integral part of both their midfield and attacking options.

With 54 goals (many of which were phenomenal, long-range strikes) and 43 assists since his debut in January 2013, no player has contributed more than Coutinho in that time. It’s very easy to convince ourselves that everything will be fine and that his departure isn’t as severe a loss as many- myself include- suggest it to be, but make no mistake- Liverpool are bidding farewell to a truly outstanding footballer. That shouldn’t be downplayed. The coming weeks and months will fundamentally prove whether this has been a brave and well-calculated gamble, or a costly error.

Cheers for the memories, Phil. It’s a shame it had to end this way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burnley 1-2 Liverpool: A slice of Estonian magic kicks off the new year in style

Of all the ways to win a football match, this just about tops it. Having conceded a hugely disappointing late equaliser, facing the prospect of two painfully dropped points, to then go back up the other end and bag the winner in the 94th minute via a combination of the much-maligned Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan from an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain free-kick right at the death, is pretty much the perfect start to the new year. Such glorious scenes.

This time a year ago, Liverpool dropped two points as Sunderland equalised with a late penalty to draw 2-2, which set about a malaise which proved hugely damaging throughout January and February. It was a real momentum killer, crushing morale and sapping belief. This feels like the very opposite.

Aside from the precious three points gained, the psychological benefit of winning the game in such a manner is something which this squad will now carry going forwards from here. Twice in a matter of days, Liverpool have responded to setbacks against two tough, gnarly opponents, by digging in and showing a collective spirit and drive to eventually win the battle.

This was a battle in every sense of the word. It’s what Burnley do. They compete, they scrap, they make the game horrible. They’re better than any side in this league at doing it. Liverpool, though, stood up to the challenge and weren’t afraid to put themselves about and engage in the physicality of the contest.

A first half which was devoid of any creativity or fluidity from either side was merely the jostling match before the real fight in the second half. It was far from a classic Liverpool performance and the attack struggled to click in the absence of Phil Coutinho, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino. It was a performance of graft, rather than guile, for the most part.

Such is extent of individual quality within this squad, however, that a moment of brilliance was always likely to occur at some point. Sure enough, it came from Sadio Mané- a player enduring the first real rough patch of form in his Liverpool career. Collecting a superb, whipped cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mané swivelled and unleashed a rocket into the roof of the net to get the goal he so clearly wanted and needed. A stunning strike on his weaker foot to give his side the breakthrough- and what should also serve as a welcome confidence booster for a player who clearly has so much ability to influence a game, even when off the boil.

As has proven the case throughout this season- and much of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure- a 1-0 scoreline is rarely ever enough for Liverpool and despite defending resolutely for the majority of the game, it was no huge surprise when Burnley eventually found a way through themselves. A momentary lapse in concentration from Klavan and Joe Gomez was all it took for Johann Gudmunsson to pounce on a flick-on at the back post for the equaliser in the 87th minute.

Gomez was largely excellent- as he has been throughout the campaign thus far- but moments like this are a notable weakness of his and an obvious area for him to improve. Eradicating these kinds of lapses is all part of his development and will surely come with time as he gains experience.

It felt like another sucker punch, coming so late on, after so much effort had been put into maintaining the slender margin. Memories of Watford, Chelsea and Sevilla this season are still fresh and to suffer yet another draw having been so close to the victory line would have dealt a real blow to the general morale around the club, as well as the points tally.

And then it happened. A trademark, driving run by Emre Can won the free-kick, which Oxlade-Chamberlain- magnificent in his performance once again- curled it dangerously into the box for Lovren to nod across goal for Klavan to bundle in the winner. For a few seconds, there was a feeling of dread that Liverpool might be denied once more by an offside flag, but sure enough, it counted this time. Absolute euphoria ensued.

Wins like these don’t come around very often. Liverpool have produced two of them in the past few days and it is a huge credit both to the players and the manager- whose rotation throughout the Christmas period has paid dividends- that they’ve been able to haul themselves over the line when it would have been so easy to buckle and drop points.

It’s a moment of sheer and utter elation which ought to be properly cherished. Liverpool haven’t scored many late winners at all this season. To do so away, against Burnley, where very few sides will take maximum points this season, having made seven changes to the side who beat Leicester, is a real demonstration of the character of this squad- as well as the depth which allows the likes of Adam Lallana to come in and make such a positive impact on his return to the side.

Another win which feels very much more than just three points and one which builds on the momentum which has come with a 16-match unbeaten run and the feel-good factor brought by the arrival of Virgil van Dijk. This was the most perfect of ways to kick start 2018, a year which holds enormous promise for Liverpool as they continue their upward trajectory under Klopp.