Heart Of Football

Post-Coutinho Reds must keep up attack

At any other time of the year, Liverpool versus Manchester City would make compulsive viewing.

The two most attack-minded sides in the Premier League. Each with sufficient vulnerability in defence to compel them to go all out on the attack - and to invite the opponents to attack them.

You score, we score more might seem a primitive concept of the game, but the managers Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are that way inclined. Bless them.

Yet Liverpool's 5-0 defeat at City's Etihad Stadium in September was distorted by Sadio Mane getting himself red-carded eight minutes before half-time for a reckless high boot against the City goalkeeper Ederson.

Before that, Sergio Aguero had scored. After it, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane each scored twice.

A fellow called Philippe Coutinho didn't play that day, and now that he has been sold for £142 million (S$257.8 million) to Barcelona he will not play for the Reds again.

Instead, Virgil van Dijk, cost Liverpool half the Coutinho fee. Everyone saw both moves coming.

The millions on the table were there for the taking. Move on, rebuild, and set down the gauntlet to those who remain to prove their own star quality. Rob Hughes

Coutinho stayed half a season, and unlike others (e.g. Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal), he gave his best even while it was obvious that his heart was set on Barcelona.

Nothing wrong in the way that Coutinho conducted himself in that half season. But Klopp knew that when a player has such a lifetime opportunity in the back of his mind, sooner or later the move has to be made.

"They are professional football players," Klopp said. "Sometimes they are in the middle of the story, and sometimes they are sat next to the guy in the dressing room who is in the middle of the story."

The story doesn't go away. With all the best intentions of the player and his team-mates, there remains uncertainty. £142 million is one way to stop the corrosive effects of uncertainty. £75 million to sign not just a big defender, but an exceptionally mobile and self-assured one like van Dijk, is a way to plug some of the gaps Liverpool so often suffer from.

Being the world's costliest defender will not in itself discourage City's array of sharp shooters, especially as not all of them are out-and-out front-line attackers. David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling - Heavens above, City can come at you from all manner of positions, with speed and stealth that, so far, has steamrollered the EPL.

Yet Liverpool, home and away, are hardly shot shy.

Coutinho has gone, but Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, with the support of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana are, on their day, the most powerful and prolific goalscoring alternative to City.

If we could stop looking through the January window, if we were able to ignore the players who want away and the agents at the gates, then Anfield would just be the sweetest place today.

"We don't play 'hero' football here," Klopp tried to insist. "If something doesn't work and everyone's talking about one player who isn't there any more, that's not right."

Coutinho, the manager acknowledged, is a world-class player. But at some stage, having tried everything to hold him, you must accept the inevitable.

"Players are different," Klopp continued. "When they've lost one opportunity, you will never get the same player again."

The club tried everything to persuade him. But it was Barcelona (and Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta) calling.

You cannot let that fester. The millions on the table were there for the taking. Move on, rebuild, and set down the gauntlet to those who remain to prove their own star quality.

How very different this is to Arsenal, and to Sanchez. The Gunners let his contract wind down. He (and his agent Fernando Felicevich) played a very different game to Coutinho.

The end game is horrid. City were waiting to wind down the final six months on Sanchez's contract and acquire him for "nothing".

No fee to Arsenal, that is. But hardly nothing to Sanchez. His terms, apparently, are £400,000 a week for 31/2 years, plus a signing-on fee of £15 million, plus £5 million for his agent.

Arsenal belatedly want to offload him now for half the £60 million transfer sum City offered last summer. The complication is that United want to muscle in, do the deal, and pinch Sanchez from under City's nose.

Typical Jose Mourinho. Typical dog eats billionaire dog in football. A sour and sorry story we need to look away from. Tonight's game at Anfield has the potential to help us do that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'Post-Coutinho Reds must keep up attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe