1 step forward, 2 steps back: we’ve been here before

Goodbye my lover, goodbye my Phil.

Once more, Liverpool football club is on the cusp of greatness. After a slow start in the Premier League, the gap to 2nd place has narrowed, and we sit nicely placed in 4th (and in sublime form), we have favourably drawn Porto in the Champions League first knockout round, and have just beaten Everton to proceed in the FA Cup. Plus, a top class defender has finally signed. With Coutinho, we also had one of the most fearsome footballing attacks on the planet.

Then it happens. Coutinho leaves.

I was led to believe we were no longer a selling club. Yet here we are, selling our best player yet again, the latest in a long list of admission’s that we are not on the same level as the top clubs in the world. And that hurts.

The last time (and it is still painful), Luis Suarez left for Barcelona, and the money we received was poorly spent and we never recovered. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.

So, where do we go from here? The cold fact is Coutinho has gone. I believe the main issue is he is pretty much irreplaceable. By that, I don’t mean he’s the best player in the world. Obviously, Messi and co are above his level. What I mean is there just isn’t another player similar to him at the top of the game right now. Can you name a realistic target who is a like-for-like replacement? To me, it is clear. Whoever we bring in to replace him, we will be weakened. Our rivals must be laughing.

There’s a lot of chat about Lemar coming in from Monaco. He looks decent, but doesn’t play in the same position and has a different playing style. Mahrez, the same. Lanzini is probably the most like-for-like but, to put it simply, isn’t anywhere near the same standard as Coutinho. Isco? A distant dream.

Alternatively, we could strengthen other areas of the squad, such as signing a defensive-minded midfielder, or a goalkeeper, or a top striker and dropping Firmino into Coutinho’s old role. However, when teams sit all their players behind the ball, it was often Coutinho who unlocked the door. I fear the failure to sign a similar replacement would leave us woefully lacking in creativity.

Where does that leave Liverpool?

Our ambitions this season are pretty clear: a top four finish and a strong showing in the Champions League. Clearly, without Coutinho, our chances of either are significantly weakened.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. Naby Keita is coming at the end of the season, Virgil Van Dijk is in, Salah is on fire, and you would assume we have a big war-chest to make further signings.

However, just like when Suarez left, finding suitable replacements seem difficult. Back then, Alexis Sanchez looked like the perfect replacement. He went to Arsenal instead. This time, Sanchez again looks like the perfect replacement, but it seems like he’ll head to Man City this time.

A repeat of the underwhelming signings of Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert cannot be allowed to happen this time. The question is, has the club learnt from previous mistakes?

With the right signing, we are well placed for success this year. The wrong signing would see the hard work of Coutinho and co wasted. My belief is that no matter what happens this season, I will be wondering what if. What if Coutinho stayed? Could we have gone one better?

Regardless, I want a return to Europe’s elite more than anything, and it was much more likely to happen with the Brazilian wizard in the team than it is now.

Coutinho’s Liverpool legacy

He’s left in bad circumstances. The kind that leaves a sour taste in your mouth. From faking injuries to allowing himself to be photographed ‘supporting’ the team having ruled himself out of the Everton game last Friday to complete his dream move.

What is certain is Barcelona have got a truly world-class player. One that has taken this Liverpool team to new heights. This season, Coutinho’s performances have been incredible. Anyone doubting his ability should only look at his numbers this season compared to, say, someone like Eden Hazard. He will be a perfect foil for Messi, Suarez and co.

Is there anyone else in the Premier League this season with the same ability to win games out of nothing? For me, he’s been as much of a match winner in the last six months as anyone the club has had. From midfield, he scores spectacular goals, regularly, and his a playmaking genius has benefitted our other talent massively.

When the dust settles, I hope he is remembered positively. The Brazilian maestro who scored long-range belters for fun, free-kicks at ease and mesmerised defenders with his dribbling.

The FSG issue

FSG, to their credit, remained strong last Summer when they told Barcelona to back off our star man. This time, they decided to weaken their stance and let him leave, mid-way through a season that promises so much.

Yes, they spent £75 million on a centre back, which rivals the competition and gave us fans something to rejoice. But shortly after, the realisation dawned that we were funding the Van Dijk transfer with the money made from an impending Coutinho move.

In a few days, we’ve gone from the giddy heights of signing the world’s most expensive defender, to losing our most creative genius. Once more, FSG has profited while the squad has suffered.

It’s well documented that FSG, as owners, like to run a profitable entity. But rarely does that work in the modern game of football, especially when rivals are outspending the club every transfer window (net spend). It also sends out all the wrong messages about the club to both current players and potential signings. Are we just a stepping stone club? If I were Salah, Mane or Firmino, I’d be having second thoughts right now.

When Torres left, I was angry. When Suarez left, I was disappointed but felt it was the right time. Now, Coutinho has left, and I can’t help but feel we should have stayed strong and made him stay for six more months.

Players wanted to play for Liverpool because of Steven Gerrard. Because of Luis Suarez. Because of Fernando Torres. The list goes on. I think Coutinho’s last year had put him in that category, and I now worry that Liverpool, as a club, has suddenly become far less appealing to top talent.

If, like me, you want to take a trip down memory lane and enjoy Coutinho’s talent one more time, this is well worth a watch:

I asked fellow Liverpool fan, Tom Verghese, what he thinks:

On replacing Coutinho: ‘Looking at the way in which Klopp has used Coutinho, he’s used him as an inside out left-sided attacker and a number 8 (often left of the midfield three). The two roles have been significantly different. The number 8 Coutinho replacement is undoubtedly Naby Keita in my mind. The wide forward, however, is an interesting one. If you asked me to pick a ‘best outcome’ replacement then we go and get a world class footballer; a Sanchez from Arsenal, or throw €100m at Atletico for Griezmann’s release clause and look to use Firmino in the 10 position or the wide forward more often. That said, we’ve seen the way FSG operate & I can’t see them going after a superstar on mega wages. I wouldn’t be too disappointed to see Naby Keita and Leon Goretzka come in to fill the Coutinho and Can shaped voids, but I think this leaves us one attacker light’.

On the player himself: ‘Coutinho leaves almost 5 years to the day on which he joined. I remember getting excited by the fact that Rafa Benitez had reportedly rated him highly when Inter manager & that Pochettino had been desperate to bring him to Southampton, having worked with him at Espanyol. At the time, he represented the ultimate moneyball signing — pick off a player with big potential from a team where he’s not playing and thus, undervalued. 5 years on and he’s sold for nearly 20x his original transfer fee. We won nothing with him here; I don’t blame him for chasing a dream. I do, however, blame him for dropping his pants in Basel against Sevilla in the Europa League final and putting in a stinker of a performance. I’ve loved watching Phil Coutinho. There have been some truly breathtaking moments. But I don’t think this squad misses him as much as previous squads missed Torres/Suarez’.

On the rest of the season: ‘If counting only points accrued from Jan 1st 2018 until the end of the season, City will win the league. Second will be between Tottenham and Liverpool, depending heavily upon squad fitness. I think there’s a good chance we don’t replace Coutinho in January. I think there’s an even better chance that this will lead to uproar. Either way, I expect Lallana to have a big role on the remainder of our season & I expect Mané to have a better second half than first.’

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