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.