The Barcelona charm offensive has begun for Philippe Coutinho. Arsenal fans know it all too well, as do other clubs across Europe, with the Catalans often opting for a few recurring methods of enticing players they want to the Nou Camp.
Cesc Fabregas was spoken about at length by his Spanish team-mates hailing from the Blaugrana prior to his eventual 2011 transfer, and the same is happening now with Neymar. In his latest take on the situation, the attacker has said “he’s the player I see playing in Barcelona” in reference to Coutinho, which is certainly not the first time he’s spoken on this subject. The two are old friends, but to believe this is the only thing fuelling the speculation would be naive.
The Liverpool ace recently signed a new contract at Anfield with no release clause and claimed he feels “at home” where he is, but even the most ardent of Kopites would find it hard to argue that a move to Barcelona doesn’t represent the sort of opportunity a player of Coutinho’s age, 24, may find too hard to turn down. The signs, then, point to the Brazilian leaving should the La Liga giants really make a play for him, which begs the question: can Liverpool afford to let Coutinho go?
While the former Inter Milan ace is, arguably, the best player in Jurgen Klopp’s squad, it’s not as hard of a debate as it was when Luis Suarez eventually slipped away to the Mediterranean coast and the blue and red of Barcelona in 2014. While ‘El Pistolero’ made the Liverpool team of that time what it was, Coutinho is a cog, albeit a great one, in a system, and he’s not always the part his manager needs. To suggest that Klopp would happily see his ‘Little Magician’ go would be 100% incorrect, but it’s likely a far less worrying set of circumstances than Brendan Rodgers faced a few years ago with Suarez. Coutinho can excite and enthral, but he can also frustrate and disappear in equal measure, which he has done of late, albeit he is recovering from a nasty ankle injury.
Stationed on the left of an attacking three, when all are fit, the 23-cap Selecao man offers a genuine threat when on form, but his numbers in terms of end product are not quite up to scratch. His best season to date in the Premier League, 2015/16, saw a return of eight goals and five assists, and while this may be a respectable tally for an attacking midfielder, being part of a front three system with no genuine centre-forward means that the responsibility must be shared. This season he has six and five so far, while Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have twelve and five and nine and four respectively. Even left-back James Milner has notched seven goals, albeit he is on penalty-kick duty.
Critics of this will point to his best position being a little deeper in a central midfield zone, and while there is logic to this, where does he fit into Klopp’s system? The only rational spot for him is Adam Lallana’s No.8 slot, but the England international has looked revived this term and is often the trigger for the Reds’ pressing in midfield. While Coutinho could potentially operate in the same role, it’s by no means a guarantee that he would be an upgrade, and if this were in his manager’s thoughts surely we would have witnessed Coutinho in this position more regularly this term.
Away from the raw numbers, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Coutinho cannot be the best player in a team. He offers creativity and a platform for others to shine, but being the main man is, possibly, a step too far. So often he takes too much responsibility on in times of frustration, which often manifests itself in wayward shots from distance. When on form he’s close to being in the world-class category – he may indeed reach that level outright – but when he’s not firing he becomes almost a weak link, and the lack of middle ground between the two is just why he cannot be relied upon as Suarez, Steven Gerrard and, when at his peak, Fernando Torres were, or to the extent of Eden Hazard at Chelsea.
The way the market is going suggests Barcelona would have to pay around £60m for Coutinho, and while that’s not insane money, it would be enough for Klopp to potentially draft in two players to suit his attacking line – Alexandre Lacazette and Julian Brandt, for example. Transfers rarely offer a guarantee, but the German’s record in terms of buys through the years has been impressive and he’s sure to have players in mind for an attacking set-up he wants.
In many ways the unthinkable is worth thinking about. It may offer yet more ammo for critics to fire shots at Liverpool after the sales of players such as Suarez, Torres, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Raheem Sterling, but unlike some of the aforementioned exits, it’s hard to not put Coutinho’s potential leaving towards the easier to recover from end of the scale.
Barcelona often get what they want, but maybe what they desire this time will not be as detrimental on Merseyside as it was in 2014.