The departure of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool to Barcelona was always going to happen at some point soon, but Liverpool fans can be forgiven for finding themselves miffed at how it was allowed to happen in January.
After an up-and-down start to this season’s campaign, the Reds are on course for a top four finish and have qualified for the next stage of the Champions League. But whether or not they end this campaign in triumph or in failure is still very much in the balance. And selling one of their best players isn’t really going to help matters.
It feels like two steps taken backwards after one leap forwards.
The signing of Virgil van Dijk represented the much-needed addition of a player Liverpool simply didn’t have. Whether or not the Dutchman is the dominating defender he appeared to be last season is perhaps up for debate after his first half of this season. He hasn’t performed well in a struggling Southampton side, but there are clear mitigating factors to be taken into account: he was clearly unsettled and unhappy.
That, however, is in stark contrast to Coutinho, who was technically his teammate for all of a week. The Brazilian wanted to leave and never changed his mind, finally getting his wish in January. To all intents and purposes, this is the same situation as Van Dijk, but the fact that Coutinho put that all to one side for a few months and gave his all to his team is creditable. It’s not what Van Dijk seems to have done.
But although Liverpool really were in dire need of a centre-back in this transfer window, and although, with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah playing either side of Roberto Firmino, the need isn’t quite so great, you get the feeling they’re probably now in need of a creative midfield player, too. Jurgen Klopp’s side now lack a creative midfielder who can change the speed of attacks and see passes others can’t. A lot of that pressure might well be put on the shoulders of Adam Lallana, who’s been injured for most of the season.
And yet there’s an upside.
What the £142m seems to have allowed Liverpool to do is rebalance a squad which was hideously top-heavy. By getting rid of an attacker, they’ve been able to buy a top defender. It’s inconceivable that Liverpool didn’t know that Coutinho was leaving before splashing out on Van Dijk, and the deal with Southampton was surely done in the knowledge that there was £142m coming in for him. Now, instead of having four top attackers, they have three in attack and one in defence. It balances the see-saw just that little bit more.
And just as one Virgil van Dijk won’t change Liverpool’s defence overnight, losing Coutinho probably won’t see one of the league’s most prolific attacks become toothless overnight either.
If that’s the case, perhaps we might look back on this window as a net good for Liverpool: that in losing a part of an attack which is still fearsome, they’ve been able to patch up a defence which was anything but. Although their threat at one end might be curtailed slightly, their vulnerability at the other might have been helped significantly. And so instead of being able to score three goals in a game, maybe they’ll only manage two – but instead of having to score three to win, they’ll concede fewer and be able to win games by scoring less, too.
Balance is key to most great sides. The fact that Liverpool have been so entertaining this season and yet, ultimately, so ineffective, is down to the fact that their balance is so off-centre. Selling Coutinho and replacing him with a player in a completely different position might not sound like a move which will pacify the fans, but in terms of squad balance, it might well turn out to be the best deal Liverpool could have made this month.