x

Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Klopp's Liverpool should fill Coutinho-shaped hole collectively rather than with an individual

German manager will look to be creative while managing Coutinho's absence rather than giving one individual the unenviable task of duplicating Brazilian’s contribution

In the absence of Philippe Coutinho, centre, Liverpool will still have match-winners in Mohamed Salah, left, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Phil Noble / Reuters
In the absence of Philippe Coutinho, centre, Liverpool will still have match-winners in Mohamed Salah, left, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Phil Noble / Reuters

The immediate temptation is to focus on the fee: some £142 million (Dh707m), the second biggest in footballing history.

If the feeling was that Liverpool would never again receive an offer like the £118m Barcelona were willing to pay last summer, that was wrong.

Philippe Coutinho has gone for still more.

Liverpool can argue they prospered by playing hardball. Coutinho excelled for half a season, while they proved they were no pushovers and banked a record sum. It amounts to a colossal return on a player who cost just £8.5m five years ago, at a time when it seemed manager Brendan Rodgers would have preferred to sign Thomas Ince.

If both his recruitment and the profit suggest Liverpool have belatedly got better at transfers, the more pertinent issue is what comes next.

The answer seems simpler at Barcelona.

Coutinho has long appeared Andres Iniesta’s long-term replacement, even if in the immediate future he could feature on the left of the front three, in Neymar’s old role, although a fit-again Ousmane Dembele is also an option.

As Coutinho is cup-tied in the Uefa Champions League and Barcelona appear destined to win the Primera Liga, a truer test of his impact should come next season.

Liverpool have more immediate issues, principally if Coutinho’s departure will cost them their top-four status. The numbers indicate not.

Liverpool’s points-per-game return is better this season without the Brazilian starting. It is only fractionally worse since his arrival five years ago. If those figures lend themselves to suggestions that Coutinho decorated games rather than decided them, that impression is incorrect.

If two factors account for Barcelona’s willingness to pay such an exorbitant sum, they may be the two that render Coutinho hardest to replace: his capacity to do the spectacular and his ability to excel in the biggest games.

A disproportionate number of Coutinho’s strikes are spectacular and unstoppable. While others are deemed flat-track bullies, he specialises in scoring in defining clashes.

Almost a third of his 54 Liverpool goals came against Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and the Manchester clubs. His brilliance helped account for Klopp’s fine record in such clashes.

His capacity to produce the dramatic from a station in a midfield trio, the role he has adopted of late, is especially rare. Liverpool have distanced themselves from suggestions that they will bid for Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez, but he needs a more advanced role anyway.

West Ham United’s Manuel Lanzini may be the closest available equivalent in the Premier League and tends to deliver in London derbies, but is yet to prove he is in Coutinho’s class.

Liverpool will possibly rely on the likes of Adam Lallana after Philippe Coutinho's exit. Phil Noble / Reuters
Liverpool will possibly rely on the likes of Adam Lallana after Philippe Coutinho's exit. Phil Noble / Reuters

In the short-term, they can rely on the remaining components of the Fab Four to operate as a front three. Certainly the arrival of the prolific, but very different, Mohamed Salah has reduced the reliance on Coutinho.

His midfield duties are likely to be shared by a fit-again Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the latter an example of forward planning: a successor of sorts signed before Coutinho was sold.

Each brings a physical edge: Lallana with pressing and Oxlade-Chamberlain with pace, but neither has quite Coutinho’s technical virtuosity, his incision or his invention.

But then perhaps Liverpool are better served by compensating collectively, which fits Klopp’s ethos, rather than giving one individual the unenviable task of duplicating Coutinho’s contribution.

______________

Read more

Andy Mitten: Barcelona set to continue where they left off as they await Philippe Coutinho arrival

January transfer window: Coutinho, Luiz, Mahrez and Barkley could be high-profile departures

Extra Time podcast: Real Madrid, Harry Kane, Mo Salah and other success stories of 2017

______________

A centre-back and a box-to-box midfielder represent very different talents, but his sale has funded the purchases of Virgil van Dijk, for an inflationary £75m, and the summer arrival Naby Keita.

They have further funds. Yet the past provides a warning and Liverpool regressed after the sales of Xabi Alonso and Luis Suarez.

Armed with a windfall, Liverpool must ensure history does not repeat itself.

RELATED ARTICLES
Recommended