If Liverpool sell Philippe Coutinho in this transfer window, they’ll effectively have been handed the ticking time-bomb that Barcelona themselves were given by Paris Saint-Germain.
This particular game of pass the parcel started when the Parisians wrenched Neymar from the Camp Nou and left Barcelona holding the bag. Essentially, it’s up to the La Liga giants to replace one of their best players with another of similar quality (almost impossible) and whilst every club in Europe knows that the Catalans are almost £200m richer (jacking up already-inflated prices).
If they want Coutinho as part of the replacement package for their departed player, they’ll have to pay over the odds. But even then, if Liverpool were to sell, they would then find themselves in the same position: possibly over £100m richer, but with very little time to replace one of their best players, and with every club in Europe wanting all of that money and more in return for their own star asset.
That’s why Liverpool – and Southampton re: Virgil van Dijk, or RB Leipzig re: Naby Keita – will probably hold as firm as possible between now and the end of the window, safe in the knowledge, they hope, that the impending World Cup will focus their unsettled players’ minds. But sometimes there might be a strategic benefit to selling.
An obvious benefit is the money, but that’s a bad reason for Liverpool to sell. For one thing, they’ve spent all summer attempting to sign Keita and Van Dijk, and adding both of those players would cost over £100m anyway. So the Reds are certainly in no need of Barcelona’s cash – they can’t even spend the money they already have.
But another reason why selling now is a complex issue is the transfer market itself: the Neymar transfer seems to have inflated everything, and that was on top of the fact that the Premier League’s new TV rights deal, which essentially doubled the English clubs’ money, had already made everything that bit more expensive. And yet, no-one knows how that’s going to change things.
Many figures within the game have labelled the spending ‘unsustainable’, and they might be right. In fact, if they are, clubs might just refuse to spend the money, and the prices might fall next summer as a result, especially if there are teams keen to offload some players in order to raise funds for a squad overhaul.
But no-one knows.
That means that selling Coutinho now could either mean selling him at a time when they can get the greatest price – because the market evens out a bit next summer – or it could mean that they only get half as much this year as they could do next year, if the market stays as mad as it is now.
In a way, that’s arguably the biggest question facing Liverpool’s hierarchy over the next few weeks: if they player wants to move, and if they can get Barcelona to pay over the odds, and if the market comes back to relative sanity next summer (a big ‘if’, granted) then selling might be the right decision.
That thought process is bolstered by the fact that, whilst Coutinho is arguably Liverpool’s best player, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s a good player for Liverpool to have.
Jurgen Klopp spent last season using the Brazilian as part of a front three, which had varying results. Essentially, without the pace and guile of Sadio Mane, Liverpool often looked short in attack, lacking speed and a player with the ability to beat a man to create a chance.
This summer, that was – partly – rectified by the signing of Mohamed Salah. But, despite the need for rotation that a European campaign will bring, the front three of Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino looks to be pretty set. And that would result in Coutinho, if he stays, playing in the midfield three.
As it turns out, that’s probably Coutinho’s best role, and it’s probably where Barcelona would play him were they to sign him, adding an extra dynamism to an ageing midfield.
But in Liverpool’s case, he might not be the right kind of player for a Jurgen Klopp team. With an N’Golo Kante-type midfield scurrier added to the pressing power of Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool would have something closer to the right balance than they would with Coutinho in the midfield three. If that’s the consideration, then maybe Liverpool should sell up to Barcelona and take the money, hoping to bolster their midfield instead of replacing Coutinho like-for-like.
Of course, that’s overly simplistic, too. The Premier League is now more tactically diverse than it has been for years, with so many clubs going in so many different directions with choices of coach and player. When Liverpool face Crystal Palace this weekend, they’ll come up against a team who will likely play three at the back and opt for a type of attractive passing football they haven’t played since Alan Pardew left the club.
But after the international break – and games against Manchester City and Arsenal – Klopp’s side will come up against Burnley, Leicester and Newcastle, each of whom played solid back fours last weekend, and were difficult to break down.
That means you need options, and Coutinho is perhaps the one player in Liverpool’s squad who provides something different to the rest. Rather than having a game based on flair or physicality like a lot of players Klopp seems to favour, the Brazilian will unlock defences by finding runners rather than beating men.
That’s the dilemma. And whilst it’s true that Liverpool could probably cope without Coutinho – assuming they can find the right midfielders to add to their squad anyway – they’ll certainly miss the different skill set he brings to the team. But if they were to sell him, get as much money as possible, and bring in a midfielder who can break up play and launch attacks, Liverpool might have a more balanced team than they would have if they started Coutinho every week.
And if that’s the case, Barcelona wouldn’t be leaving Liverpool with a parcel full of problems by nabbing Coutinho, they’d just be giving them a lot of money and allowing Klopp to rebalance his midfield free from the political need to play his best player every week. And that might be the best reason to sell.