Commentary

Football: Barcelona’s siren call irresistible to Coutinho

An unhappy transfer window for Liverpool has every chance of becoming more grim should playmaker Philippe Coutinho make a £100 million-plus (S$177.2 million) move to Barcelona.

And, though some well-rehearsed arguments are being heard from both sides over whether the club should make a stand or accept the inevitable, there is an unpalatable truth beneath all the posturing that is not being shouted so loudly.

This is, simply and briefly, that Liverpool are a selling club.

They might not see themselves that way, they might keep denying it and taking encouragement from manager Jurgen Klopp insisting that no means no, but Liverpool have to be a selling club because they have not won the league title since the 1989-90 season and are now only occasional participants in the Champions League.

There is of course a powerful argument, put most recently by the former Liverpool player Steve Nicol, that they will never recover their former glory if they keep selling their best performers every time a decent offer comes along.

This is true. They will not win titles if every hint of success is followed by a further cycle of team-building necessitated by raiding parties from Spain.

Yet, if you are a 25-year-old in the middle of your career, as Coutinho is now and Luis Suarez and Javier Mascherano were in previous seasons, what are you going to do when Barcelona come calling?

They might not see themselves that way, they might keep denying it... but Liverpool have to be a selling club because they have not won the league title since the 1989-90 season and are now only occasional participants in the Champions League.

You have left the country and continent of your birth to seek success and recognition in Europe, and pulling on the shirt of Barcelona or Real Madrid represents the apex of that ambition.

Liverpool probably imagined they would get a few more seasons out of Coutinho, or hoped they would have achieved some tangible success by the time the inevitable bid came from Spain, though this has not happened and the understandable fear now is it might never come about.

Not while the club keep buying talented young South Americans at any rate. The more the club pursue that policy, the more they may come to be seen as a convenient stepping stone for players seeking to gain the attention of LaLiga's big clubs.

If Liverpool could recruit more players of Steven Gerrard's nationality and outlook, they might have a chance of persuading them to stick around long enough to see a title return to Anfield, but that is an incredibly difficult pitch to make to a young Brazilian who has just been given the opportunity to boost his visibility and popularity back home by stepping into Neymar's shoes alongside Suarez and Lionel Messi.

It is hard to know at the moment whether Liverpool really are hopeful of holding on to Coutinho or merely holding out for more money (British media reported on Wednesday that they rejected a second Barcelona bid), though Barcelona do not usually miss out on their stated targets for the simple reason that they have the power to turn a player's head.

Once that happens, the other team in the equation is fighting a losing battle, whether or not they regard themselves as a selling club, a stepping stone or potential champions of England in the near future.

Liverpool are actually not too badly off for attacking midfielders, though there is a feeling Coutinho's creativity would be missed, especially against teams who like to sit back and let Liverpool play in front of them.

Many Reds fans are at a loss to know where Liverpool might start looking for a replacement as good as Coutinho, even with potentially more than £100 million to spend, but it is also true to say many fans are just as perplexed by the failure to bring in an established goalscorer.

Dominic Solanke has made an encouraging start, though at 19, is too young to be leading the attack.

The big question, if Coutinho goes, is whether Liverpool should be looking for a like-for-like replacement or to bring in a different type of player and tweak the system.

A guess here is that should Coutinho leave, Liverpool will not miss his input as much as they missed that of Suarez, and that if some rethinking on the pitch is necessary, Klopp will already have the matter in hand.

A deal with Barcelona would not be about putting money before glory, as some have suggested, but about dealing with reality.

The next reality for a club with money to spend would be the need to identify one or two transfer targets who might actually be attainable.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline 'Barca's siren call irresistible to Coutinho'. Print Edition | Subscribe