It was the £142 million problem. How do you replace the second most expensive footballer in history and in a market that is only open for a month and when many of the world’s best players are unavailable? Liverpool’s answer was simple: they didn’t.
They purchased a hugely expensive centre-back, in Virgil van Dijk, but they did not buy a replacement for Philippe Coutinho. Instead, they replaced him without replacing him.
The players they already possessed, whether Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain James Milner or Sadio Mane, have played in Coutinho’s positions. They have contributed, not by duplicating the Brazilian’s contributions but in their own ways, so that Liverpool have not missed a man who was both talisman and craftsman.
That suits Klopp’s ethos. He does not believe buying is the answer to everything. He values coaching, likes improving the players at his disposal and is irritated by the English obsession with the transfer market. He is annoyed, too, by a focus on individuals and Liverpool have found a collective way of compensating for the departure of Barcelona’s new Brazilian. “Maybe the biggest compliment is that nobody thought in the last few games, ‘With Phil it would have been different’,” Klopp said last Friday.
Because Liverpool have arguably only needed Coutinho once. Their 1-0 defeat to Swansea was the sort of game that required his ability to conjure something out of nothing; perhaps, when confronted with a team who defend deep, a trademark long-range shot to produce a spectacular goal. Minus Coutinho, they were also knocked out of the FA Cup by West Bromwich Albion, but that owed more to defensive deficiencies.
Their win percentage without Coutinho in the starting 11 this season (67) is far higher than with him in it: just 44. More pertinently, others saw his departure as an opportunity. Chances have been taken. If there was no logical place for Oxlade-Chamberlain in the strongest side when Coutinho remained at Anfield, there is now.
The Englishman was the £35million odd-job man. Now he has illustrated he can be pivotal. He has one goal and four assists in his last six starts. He has created goals for Mohamed Salah in his last two league games: not in the way Coutinho would, with finesse, but with raw pace. He has brought the kind of directness Klopp likes: storming runs produced both assists. Another led to his early goal in the 4-3 win over Manchester City, arguably his best display since leaving Arsenal. Less technical and more physical than Coutinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain adds to the helter-skelter feel of Liverpool’s game.
He also affords options. Klopp can now juggle his midfield three in a way he did not do beforehand. “You need two sixes and one who is more of a 10,” he said last Friday. Now the 10 can be on the left, as Coutinho invariably was, or the right, if that suits the balance of the side better. Like Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain can play either side.
Milner’s versatility has other benefits. He spent last season as an overlapping left-back. He has been a left winger at other stages of his career. He spent some of the 5-0 win over Porto nearer the touchline than Klopp’s central midfielders tend to be. He hit the post when Salah juggled and finished from the rebound and centred for Roberto Firmino to score; indeed, he is the best crosser among Klopp’s current crop of midfielders. It produced the strange statistic that Milner has more assists in the Champions League than anyone else. “I am seen as a workhorse who runs around a bit,” Milner said on Monday, aware of his reputation for dour endeavour. Workhorse can occasionally be liberated to gallop in a midfield where Coutinho no longer enjoys a primacy.
Mane is the third man to compensate for Coutinho’s departure. His has been a stop-start season. The best period has come of late, a burst of five goals in three games against Porto, West Ham and Newcastle taking him to 14 for the campaign. He was being outscored by Coutinho. Now he is occupying the position the Brazilian usually played last season, before Salah’s arrival forced a rejig, and sometimes this, on the left of a front three. He is also ensuring Liverpool still have three potent players which, for all the talk of the Fab Four, is all they have what they have ever really had: Coutinho, Firmino, Mane and Salah rarely played together with all at top form.
Liverpool’s past suggested Coutinho would be missed: Luis Suarez and Xabi Alonso were when they were sold. The way he has not been is rendered all the more remarkable as Adam Lallana seemed the obvious internal answer. He was the man who excelled as the most attacking of the midfield three last season and who, while sidelined, was displaced when Coutinho dropped deeper. Yet he has only played 186 minutes of Premier League football in an injury-hit season.
It has barely mattered. Shorn of Coutinho, with his seeming stand-in often a spectator, Milner, Mane and Oxlade-Chamberlain have combined to compensate. The chances are that someone will be signed in the summer but so far, Liverpool have shrugged off the sale of the £142 million man, spent nothing on midfielders and forwards and surged on.