In early January 2018, it became abundantly clear that it was no longer a question of “if” Philippe Coutinho leaves Liverpool for Barcelona, but rather of “when” (answer: imminent) and for “how much” (answer: lots).
At the time, there was understandable outcry from the Liverpool faithful. Once again, it seemed, our attempts to claw our way back onto our perch was being derailed. Once again, it was a Spanish Giant that was throwing a wrench in the works, by poaching our best and brightest.
“The best teams do not sell their best players midseason.”
“I hope we can finish Top 4.”
“What are Jurgen Klopp and FSG thinking?”
“We’ll never be a destination club.”
These were common refrains throughout the global Liverpool fanbase. It was also the last time that the fanbase was even remotely divided in the last year and a half. Reds manager Jurgen Klopp had earned a substantial level of trust in his first two seasons in charge. And owners Fenway Sports Group were slowly winning over their harshest critics through various on and off pitch investments. And yet this decision, to allow Coutinho to leave midseason—with Champions League qualification and the first Champions League knockout rounds in nine years on the horizon—threatened to undo all of the good work up until that point.
It goes without saying that letting Coutinho leave—especially for such a sizeable fee—was the right decision.
Although Klopp’s charges left it to the last day of the league campaign to secure their Champions League qualification, it came in the midst of a dizzying and wild ride to their first Champions League final since 2007. Their first of two consecutive finals, of course.
Coutinho’s fee was reinvested, and wisely. For the price of one Brazilian, Liverpool brought in two more in Alisson Becker and Fabinho (with money to spare). Additional signings of Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri helped fill out the squad, and paper over some of the creative cracks left behind by Coutinho’s departure. With Virgil van Dijk already in place, Liverpool were a far more balanced squad, adding defensive steel to attacking flair, and thereby creating the foundation for sustained and consistent success. It was this foundation of stability and consistency upon which our 97-point campaign, culminating in a European Championship, was built.
And yet, there is still one frequent refrain being muttered among the Liverpool faithful: we never signed a Philippe Coutinho replacement.
For many, Nabil Fekir was supposed to be “Coutinho’s replacement.” That the deal fell through at the 11th hour only seemed to create more clamoring for Fekir, or someone like him. It is a sentiment that, for some, never fully evaporated. Some even wish to bring Coutinho back. After all, who is a better Coutinho replacement than Coutinho himself? This feeling was perhaps understandable last summer, before we could predict a 22-point improvement and European glory. Now? It makes less sense.
As I hinted at before, and fully elaborated on several occasions last year, I’m not sure we need a Coutinho replacement, or even Coutinho himself.
First, let’s address the idea of a “Coutinho replacement.” What does that mean, exactly? One of the reasons we were able to sell Coutinho for such an eye-watering fee is because of his unique talents, ones that are difficult to find all in one player. He has fantastic vision for picking out passes. He’s a great dribbler and ball carrier. And he has a world-class shot from range (even if he dipped into that well a bit too often at Liverpool).
However, his clear and undeniable talents are offset by the pace he lacks to be an out-and-out winger. And when deployed as a central midfielder, he can occasionally become a defensive liability. Also, the fact that he’s such an obvious and prodigious talent, he is difficult to drop and impossible to ignore on the pitch, as Kloppo himself pointed out. Klopp seemed to get the absolute most out of him in his preferred 4-3-3, but it probably isn’t the best system to get the most out of Coutinho’s considerable talents. His struggles at Barcelona seem to confirm as much.
So ideally, we don’t want a Coutinho replacement, but someone versatile enough to play both centrally and as a winger in a 4-3-3. Someone pacy, but who can also track back and have a defensive positional awareness when needed. So really, we need someone who is better suited to our needs than Philippe Coutinho.
Perhaps Fekir was “that guy,” (and still might be, if the price is right and his knee is not actually made out of string cheese). Perhaps there’s another player out there who can become him, even one who is currently on the squad. If Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can get healthy and a good run of games, boy, they sure seem to have what it takes.
Even if we wanted to bring Coutinho back, the fee he would command, even at a cut rate, could probably be used better elsewhere. Simply, there are better deals to be had. There are younger players and better fits (and players that didn’t literally pay millions of pounds to leave the club after dragging the club and manager through the press). There are contracts to extend. There’s #Mbappe2020 (I kid, sort of).
It’s easy to say “bring Coutinho back” because he’s a boss footy player, and boss footy players are hard to find. But we have a team full of boss footy players now, and if they weren’t boss when we bought them, they sure as hell are now. And for now, this boss team is united in its ambitions, and its desire to see how many times they can get Kloppo absolutely blattered on the back of a bus.
Coutinho was at Liverpool for 5 seasons and won precisely fuck all with the Reds. Allison, Fabinho, Shaqiri, and Keita? One season. One European Cup.
I like our Coutinho replacements just fine, thank you.