Why Liverpool keeping Barcelona target Philippe Coutinho is not the triumph it seems

Richard Jolly
Liverpool have rejected three bids from Barcelona, including one of £118 million, for Philippe Coutinho.

Victory. Liverpool repelled the advances of the most glamorous club in the world. Just as Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez masterminded rearguard actions at the Nou Camp, John W Henry, Tom Werner and Mike Gordon defied Barcelona by keeping Philippe Coutinho out of their clutches.

That is one interpretation, anyway. Assuming Barcelona’s third bid of the summer is also their last and that, by allowing Sunday’s supposed deadline to accept it to pass, Liverpool have kept their prized asset and defiance has been a successful strategy. It would be the populist, simplistic version of the situation.

The alternative view is that Fenway Sports Group boxed themselves into a corner with crowd-pleasing gestures of insubordination and ended up rejecting a £118 million offer that, realistically, no one could refuse. Coutinho is a special player, a footballer with the ability to unlock defences from midfield and to score copious quantities of goals from long range, but there is something wrong when he is valued at £100 million more than Blaise Matuidi and that bid is still spurned. It is the sort of offer they may never receive again, the kind that could facilitate an ambitious recruitment drive.

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It points to a failure of succession planning, an inability to realise that Barcelona were coming for Coutinho and to line up a replacement so that Liverpool could profit, rather than creating the potential problem of alienating their most gifted individual and then having to placate him. It was the consequence of a summer – several, some would say – of transfer-market misadventures with the end result that selling Coutinho would have been a PR disaster.

Had Coutinho traded Merseyside for Catalonia then Liverpool would have been in the unenviable position of seeming a selling club but not a buying one, losing their best player while proving incapable of luring his counterpart from other clubs.

Mohamed Salah represents the only real success in a window that promised more than it delivered. The Egyptian’s arrival looks a coup, adding a further injection of pace and potency to the forward line, but the reality is that he is alone among their three major targets in forming part of Jurgen Klopp’s squad. Virgil van Dijk is still at Southampton. Naby Keita languishes at Leipzig. Each may join the long list of players Liverpool wanted – including Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Dele Alli, Clint Dempsey, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Willian – but who FSG did not get. Even Salah, first targeted in 2014, only came at the second time of asking.


Meanwhile, by holding out for £30 million for Mamadou Sakho, Liverpool’s owners may have priced a defender Klopp will not pick out of a move. Brinkmanship only looks clever when you win at it.

So FSG are trapped in a form of stasis where no one goes anywhere. They may be scarred by their past, and not merely their difficulty in bringing premier players to Anfield.

They have received three windfalls in their seven-year reign. Each, to varying degrees, has been squandered. Fernando Torres’ departure to Chelsea produced a then British record £50 million which, as Liverpool had already tied up a deal for Luis Suarez, was not spent on the Uruguayan. Famously, £35 million was committed on Andy Carroll, whose Liverpool career yielded six league goals. The rest was spent in the subsequent summer where, while Jordan Henderson proved a fine buy, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing did not.

Fast forward to 2014 and Suarez’s £75 million sale produced a decidedly mixed bag; some additions – Rickie Lambert, Lazar Markovic and Mario Balotelli – were disastrous, others – Alberto Moreno, Divock Origi and Dejan Lovren – merely divided opinions. Even Adam Lallana and Emre Can, the best of the bunch, did not settle straight away.

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Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, right, with his wife Linda Pizzuti Henry at a baseball game in Boston

Advance to 2015 and Raheem Sterling’s £49 million move to Manchester City could be deemed a case of selling to strengthen if it is determined that the funds were reinvested in Roberto Firmino, Joe Gomez, Nathaniel Clyne and the unfortunate Danny Ings. It is harder to make the same argument if it is ruled the majority of the money went on Christian Benteke.

Assess their reign as a whole and it feels as though FSG are keeping Coutinho for the wrong reasons: because of fear of what comes next, because of a lack of confidence in themselves to sign successfully, because selling, in their time, has tended to lead to a slide. It was not always thus. When Kevin Keegan left, Liverpool brought in Kenny Dalglish. When they knew Ian Rush was going, they set about acquiring an entirely new forward line of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton. In each case, they built better teams.

Now, with the exceptions of Salah and the squad players Dominic Solanke and Andrew Robertson, they have broadly the same side. Liverpool lost premier players in the past and progressed. Now their obdurate stance appears a product of a dread they will regress. And that hardly makes for a healthy way to make decisions.

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