An unhappy transfer window for Liverpool has every chance of becoming more grim should Philippe Coutinho make a £100m-plus move to Barcelona and, though some well-rehearsed arguments are being heard from both sides over whether the club should make a stand or accept the inevitable, there is an unpalatable truth beneath all the posturing that is not being shouted so loudly.
This is, simply and briefly, that Liverpool are a selling club. They might not see themselves that way, they might keep denying it and taking encouragement from Jürgen Klopp insisting that no means no but Liverpool simply have to be a selling club because they have not won a title in over a quarter of a century and are now only occasional participants in the Champions League.
Klopp knows precisely how this works. His former side Borussia Dortmund remained a selling club even after winning the Bundesliga and reaching a Champions League final. Despite all their complaints and protestations they could not prevent Bayern Munich picking off their best players, and while that situation applies it remains almost impossible for a true power shift to take place in Germany.
There is of course a powerful argument, put most recently by the former Liverpool player Steve Nicol, that they will never recover former glory if they keep selling their best performers every time a decent offer comes along.
This is perfectly true. Liverpool will not win titles if every hint of success is followed by a further cycle of team-building necessitated by raiding parties from Spain. Yet if you are a 25-year-old in the middle of your career, as Coutinho is now and Luis Suárez and Javier Mascherano were in previous seasons, what are you going to do when Barcelona come calling? You have left the country and continent of your birth to seek success and recognition in Europe, and pulling on the shirt of Barcelona or Real Madrid represents the apex of that ambition.
The same might have been said of Liverpool once, not that the volume of imports from Latin America was anything like as high when they were dominating Europe with an essentially British team but you would have to be around or past your 50th birthday to feel that way now.
Or you would have to be Steven Gerrard, who famously resisted invitations to win titles with Chelsea to keep trying with Liverpool. As one might expect of such a loyal servant Gerrard insists Liverpool are not a selling club, pointing out the manager and the owners want Coutinho to stay, though the former captain is not so one-eyed he cannot see the other side of the coin. “It’s a dream move for South Americans, I’ve seen it before with Mascherano and Suárez,” he said. “This is a very difficult situation for the club to be in.”
To an extent Liverpool are finding themselves victims of their own scouting success. They did very well to acquire the services of Mascherano and Suárez, and if there was a tacit acceptance all along that they would have the players only for a limited time, Suárez in particular was great business in terms of goals and resale value, even if his appetite for controversy left something to be desired.
Liverpool probably imagined they would get a few more seasons out of Coutinho, or hoped they would have achieved some tangible success by the time the inevitable bid came from Spain, though this has not happened and the understandable fear now is it might never come about. Not while the club keep buying talented young South Americans at any rate.
The more the club pursue that policy the more they may come to be seen as a convenient stepping stone for players seeking to gain the attention of the big clubs in La Liga. If Liverpool could recruit more players of Gerrard’s nationality and outlook they might have a chance of persuading them to stick around long enough to see a title return to Anfield, but that is an incredibly difficult pitch to make to a young Brazilian who has just been given the opportunity to boost his visibility and popularity back home by stepping into Neymar’s shoes alongside Suárez and Lionel Messi.
It is hard to know at the moment whether Liverpool really are hopeful of holding on to Coutinho or merely holding out for more money, though Barcelona do not usually miss out on their stated targets for the simple and very good reason they understand their power to turn a player’s head. Once that happens, the other team in the equation is fighting a losing battle whether or not they regard themselves as a selling club, a stepping stone or potential champions of England in the near future.
It must be incredibly frustrating for Klopp, particularly as Liverpool were publicly slapped down by Leipzig and Southampton when they attempted to use the same approach to woo Naby Keïta and Virgil van Dijk. The latter is now being wooed by Chelsea, and Liverpool fans already fearing a Coutinho exit can easily see how this window’s transfer business might get worse before the close of play.
Liverpool are not actually too badly off for attacking midfielders, even if Adam Lallana has picked up an injury that will sideline him for the first few weeks. Sadio Mané is back and Mohamed Salah should provide pace and penetration, though there is a feeling Coutinho’s creativity would be missed, especially against teams who like to sit back and let Liverpool play in front of them. Many fans are at a loss to know where Liverpool might start looking for a replacement as good as Coutinho, even with potentially more than £100m to spend, but it is also true to say many fans are just as perplexed by the failure to bring in an established goalscorer. Dominic Solanke has made a most encouraging start, though at 19 is a little young to be leading the attack.
The big question, if Coutinho goes, is whether Liverpool should be looking for a like-for-like replacement or bringing in a different type of player and tweaking the system.
Klopp would be depressed if he knew how many Liverpool supporters are presently expressing the view Coutinho is irreplaceable and that hopes for the season are in danger of being dashed at the outset, because Liverpool, of all clubs, and the German, of all managers, are both supposed to be about teamwork rather than over-reliance on star performers. A guess here is that should Coutinho leave Liverpool will not miss his input as much as they missed that of Suárez, and that if some rethinking on the pitch is necessary Klopp will already have the matter in hand.
A deal with Barcelona would not be about putting money before glory, as some have suggested, but about dealing with reality. Just as, following on from such a sale, the next reality for a club with money to spend would be the need to identify one or two transfer targets who might actually be attainable.
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