Why Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho transfer decision could define their season and Jurgen Klopp's entire reign
It is not too extreme to claim this as a couple of weeks that will define Liverpool’s season, if not an entire managerial era.
Anfield will host Hoffenheim on Wednesday night in the second leg of their Champions League qualifier. Progress from an already promising position and Liverpool suddenly become a more attractive club to sign for, one indeed with more of an argument to sell.
Sell, though, is not something Liverpool want to do with Philippe Coutinho – whose presence in Jürgen Klopp’s midfield is essential, not only because Saturday’s narrow victory over Crystal Palace reminded that Liverpool’s forwards need his service to be totally effective, but also from a public relations point of view.
Coutinho’s presence or absence will impact on how Liverpool’s supporters feel about the club in the immediate future, determining mood inside stadiums. Surely Klopp has learned from January how Anfield reacts when key players are not there.
No club is in England is as much a prisoner of its past as much as Liverpool but much can be gleaned from history as well. Klopp should know that the last four managers who have sold a player considered amongst the team’s most influential without sourcing a replacement have ultimately been sacked for their failings.
Though both managers were operating under different and altogether more unstable ownership, Xabi Alonso’s departure in the summer of 2009 and Alberto Aquilani’s arrival contributed towards Rafael Benítez’s departure 10 months later, while Roy Hodgson’s decision to sign Christian Poulsen when Javier Mascherano left still seems like it should be inscribed on his gravestone.
Later, Kenny Dalglish sold Fernando Torres and brought in Andy Carroll. By the time Dalglish was removed, Damien Comolli, the sporting director who sanctioned the fee for Carroll for a record fee had been fired as well. Then you have Klopp’s arrival and Raheem Sterling’s sale a few months earlier - a deal that did not reflect well on Brendan Rodgers, especially after he was convinced to sign Mario Balotelli to cover the loss of Luis Suárez.
It might be unkind to put this type of pressure on Klopp and Liverpool, especially when you have Coutinho behaving like a brat and stamping his feet after claiming only in January upon signing a new lucrative five-year contract that, “My football is here. My heart is here…You define the success of a player by his loyalty or his titles. Or both.”
A sympathetic interpretation of Klopp’s character will tell you that inwardly, he will have felt betrayed by Coutinho’s actions considering he places so much emphasis on team culture and the fall out has undoubtedly cast a long shadow over his preparations for the start of the season.
But that would be to ignore Liverpool’s own claims that they have a “world class” sporting director at their disposal in Michael Edwards, as it was suggested by the new chief executive Peter Moore. Is it therefore unfair to think there might be a “world class” solution to the predicament Liverpool find themselves in?
Klopp has said he will not sell Coutinho primarily because he does not have time to source a replacement but Barcelona’s first bid for Coutinho came in the middle of July. If a “world class” sporting director was in place and succession planning is a consideration at Liverpool – as it really should be, otherwise the club can be accused of arrogance, incompetence or both - surely six to seven weeks is long enough to do something about the problem.
There is every chance, however, that come the start of September, Coutinho will have some grovelling to do because Barcelona – a club not used to being placed on the back foot – have been after the sale of Neymar and their tactics in negotiations since has not been smooth or convincing and rather more a description of harassment. Setting deadlines on offers, as they have done, seems increasingly misguided if they really want to sign the player, appealing to the idea that they are in a PR war with their own fans because nobody wants to come out of this looking like they are not in control.
Ultimately, for too long, when Liverpool teams have made progressions, managerial reigns have been undermined by transfer decisions.
The next fortnight might tell us whether this one is going to be different.