It was a Sunday evening in Lagos and I was busy preparing for Monday’s work when my phone rang. Alex, my friend since our university days was calling from London. Few hours earlier we both argued on the protracted issue surrounding the rumored transfer request submitted by Fernando Torres to leave Liverpool for Alex’s club Chelsea. I had informed my friend that Liverpool will not sell Torres as the club just announced the signing of another striker to partner with him. That striker was Luis Suarez.
To the call, Alex screamed with the highest pitch of his voice to inform me that it was now a done deal. Liverpool has agreed a deal to sell Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m and the deal would be completed before the transfer deadline. Immediately I dropped the call to avoid the likely banter that would have followed from Alex and started surfing the internet for news. At the same time, I was calling my contacts in Anfield for the full gist. While doing this, my heart became heavy. Anger, frustration, sadness all ran through my system and I could hear clearly my heartbeat. Several thoughts started running through my mind: why do we have to do this? Thought these new owners claimed they would not sell our assets? Who will replace him? What happened to the text he sent to Luis Suarez persuading him to leave Ajax for Liverpool? I was literally mad with myself.
That date, January 30 2011 remains one of my toughest day as a Kop – a Liverpool fan and still remain so till date. As a Kop since my teens, I can count the number of events in the history of the club that has created lasting memories for me. The few include 2001 Cup treble, 2005 Istanbul night, 2006 FA victory and the recent comeback against Dortmund in the Europa league at Anfield. These events are few as the club has not witnessed the kind of successes recorded in the 70s and 80s that made my late uncle became a fan, thereby luring me into loving the club.
Fast forward to Saturday January 6, 2018. The announcement of the agreement between Liverpool and Barcelona for the transfer of Coutinho never came to me as a surprise. In my mind it was just a case of another one bit the dust. With the drama- including the Nike episode- that started after he signed a new contract about a year ago, this news was just a case of when not if. Finally, the little magician has taken his tricks across the border to the Iberian Peninsula. Joining the club in a quiet manner in January 2013, Coutinho is leaving the club with a media frenzy as he had grown to become a fan’s favourite during his 60 months at Anfield.
Signed from Inter Milan in Jan 2013 for the sum of £8.5m, Coutinho became the fifth Brazilian to play for the club following the footsteps of Fabio Aurelio, Lucas Leiva, Diego Cavalieri and Alexander Doni in that order. However, he left as the greatest of them all as at the time of his departure. Roberto Firmino who is currently with the club has the potential to better his record but that’s for the future. As a professional in five years, Coutinho played less than 100 games, scoring a paltry 8 goals for three different clubs namely Vasco Da Gama, Inter Milan and Espanyol (as a loanee). His story changed for the next five years and that was spent with Liverpool. From the moment he played his first game against West Bromwich Albion 11 days after joining the club, Coutinho grew to become an integral part of the squad development in those periods and the fans loved him for his exploits on the pitch. A magician on the pitch and a quiet dude off it, Coutinho became the Kop’s favourite after the exit of Luis Suarez in 2014. He was nicknamed the Little Magician. In his 201 games for the club, Coutinho demonstrated high level of professionalism till his last game on Boxing day against Leicester City, despite the drama that characterized his exit. He scored a total of 54 goals for the club with his first and last goal at Anfield against Swansea City. His assets include excellent dead ball delivery and thunderous shot from outside the box. Though with a lightweight frame, Coutinho was never a great tackler or an excellent header of the ball but he makes up with his incredible dribbling skill. Coutinho came like a dwarf and left like a giant.
His exit has generated a lot of media frenzy with TV programs discussing the details of the transfer and the likely impact on the club performance. The club fans are not left out, on several platforms, some of the fans expressed their anger at the club for selling their jewel during a competitive season while others like me believe that there are positives from his departure. The angry fans are see doom for the club in the New Year expressing their anger at the club owners for refusing Barcelona bids during the summer only to accept same in the winter in the middle of a season. For me, the exit came with mixed feelings and I explain the positives below.
There is no perfect time for a player of Coutinho status to leave a football club because of their contribution, but in this case, the big question is why did the management release a player under contract in the middle of the season when they could have done same last summer? Many fans and pundits have questioned the rationale behind this decision pointing to the fact that he is cup tied for the Champions League while the La Liga is as good as heading towards Nou Camp due to the current position of Barcelona on the log. These concerns are genuine and correct, but I believe that the timing for the deal is right for some reasons.
I agreed that the loss appears huge due to the competitive nature of the league and it could be an advantage for other teams chasing the champions league spots as everyone seem to agree that the title looks like heading to Etihad barring any huge disaster. It is also important to state that Liverpool’s squad strength has shown considerable improvement from where it was last season. Allowing Coutinho last summer without seeing the output of Salah, a player that misfired the last time in the EPL would have been more disastrous than now. With the current form of Salah combined with the potentials of Mane and Firmino versatility in the attack, the trident has shown that they can come good for the club.
Last season, Liverpool winning ratio without Coutinho was 60% compared to 57.1% with him. In the 32 games played so far, the club has won 10 games drawn 3 and lost one game without Coutinho resulting in a win ratio 71.42% as against 44.4% win ratio in the remaining 18 games with him. These include 8 draws and two losses. This improved figure confirmed that the timing is right compare to the summer. As stated earlier, there is no better time to lose a talented player in any squad.
As at Saturday when this transfer was agreed, the issue of fee was never an argument for the angry fans opposing the transfer. All this changed at his presentation ceremony where Barcelona sporting director, Jordi Mestre stated that the transfer was cheaper than the position last summer. Also, it was rumoured that Real Madrid submitted a rival bid of £177m before this deal was agreed with Barcelona. The fans were annoyed that the club succumbed to Barcelona tactics by selling “cheap”.
While this position appears ridiculous considering that the club made a transfer gain of about 1,571% for a player bought for £8.5m, I would like to enlighten these fans that the transfer of a player include both implicit d explicit cost to the buying club. I am sure that Mr Mestre’ statement cannot be interpreted from financial terms only. The fee is good, and the club management has done a great job negotiating such a big fee exploiting Barcelona desperation for the deal. On the scale of things, Coutinho’s ranking in world football among top midfielders in the game can not be ranked side by side with his transfer fee which is the second highest fee ever paid for a footballer in the history of the game. These fans cannot argue that Coutinho ranked second best midfielder in the world.
IMPACT ON THE SQUAD
No player is bigger than the club and this include Coutinho but the club has done a great job in sanctioning this transfer as some fans seem to disagree. The psychological impact of the departure of Coutinho might be felt within the squad as he appears a favourite among his mates. The farewell messages from his former teammates on social media can attest to this and this is one of the positives from the transfer as it would have been disastrous for the club to keep a disgruntled player as influential as Coutinho in the club. As mentioned in Klopp statement, Coutinho has made it known to everyone his personal ambition to play for Barcelona. The club stopping him from achieving his personal ambition after the summer drama would have been counterproductive and in the long run might have adverse effect on the team’s performance and squad unity.
On the performance level, results so far have shown that the major issue facing the squad is the defense. The coming of Virgil Van Dijk (VVD) would address that and for a club on 17 games unbeaten in all competition, Coutinho departure is expected not have any adverse effect on performance. The Club currently occupied the fourth position on the league table three points ahead of the fifth team while they await a two leg second round game against FC Porto in February. Also, the club is in the running for the FA cup defeating Everton recently and awaiting a tie with West Bromwich Albion later in January.
The departure of Luis Suarez in 2014 and Coutinho now has raised some concerns about the genuineness of the owner’s statement of transforming the club into a title winning team. The argument has been that they are in Liverpool to make profit and they have shown that by allowing key players to leave whenever it appears that the club is on the success path. The sale of Luis Suarez after 2013/14 season when Liverpool was close to winning the league and Coutinho exit when the club has a slight chance in the Champions League were points raised by the fans. For them, FSG has turned a blind eye to the happenings in Etihad, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford.
These are genuine concerns but personally I have some reservations with American owners in England and this would be expressed in detail in another piece. On this issue, the FSG have made considerably investments in the club but cannot be compared with the model used by the Russian at Stamford Bridge and the Arab at Etihad. The truth is that with these American owners Liverpool has a daunting task to replicate the success of the 70s and 80s. For the Arab and Russian, there is limitless access to funds to win titles, but the American model is different. Another argument would be about American owners at Old Trafford and their model. A brief background to the events that led to the take over at Anfield and Old Trafford would be used to elaborate my argument.
The Glazers bought Manchester United while the club was in a good position. There were series of protests by the fans as the purchase was be termed a “hostile takeover”. During this period, the club had the services of an icon Sir Alex Ferguson (SAF) who understood the visions of the Glaziers as well as the frustration of the fans. He played a pivotal role in mediating between the owners and the fans and was able to convince the owners that the only way of getting the fans to their side is to compete with other clubs in Europe financially. Around same period, there were some investments with the noisy neighbours initially from former Thailand PM and eventually Sheikh Mansour. Based on the pressure from SAF, the Glaziers aligned their strategy in line with his advice. Though SAF is no longer with United but the gains of the early investments led to trophies for the fans and cash in the bank for the owners. Today, United is ranked among the most valuable teams in the world by Deloitte.
In our case i.e Liverpool case, the FSG came when the club was in desperate need of finance to escape bankruptcy after the Hicks/Gillette debacle. Unlike the United fans that saw the Glaziers as devils, the Kops saw FSG as God sent angels. From the beginning, the advantage was with them unlike the United case. Also, there was no stability in the managerial position as Benitez left under the Hicks/Gillett and was replaced Roy Hodgson who was fighting for his life while the new owners arrived. Later, Kenny Dalgish, an icon was brought to save the sinking ship on the pitch, but it was purely on FSG terms. The rest is history. This piece was brought here to explain the true position of the battle between us, the Kops and FSG. It might sound strange, but the truth is that the American do have their style and the advantage reside with them over us, the Kops.
Since October 2011 when they bought the club, the owners have a net spending of £163.9m after the conclusion of the summer transfer windows. Within same period, Man City has a net spending of £718.5m, Manchester United £540.5m, Chelsea £351.8m and Arsenal £179.8m. Only Spurs recorded a profit of £20.5m. With the Coutinho and VVD deals, this position has reduced considerably. These figures above clearly showed that though the owners have spent significant amount for players recruitment, but their model cannot be compared with other teams in the top 6.
Now, it is official that Philippe Coutinho is now a Barcelona player just as it is official that Liverpool would play their next game against Manchester City in few days’ time. What happens next is of paramount importance to the fans. Firstly, what kind of players would be recruited to strength the squad? Several names have been linked with Liverpool in recent days and I believe Jurgen Klopp can handle this process better that his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers. Brendan squandered the Suarez fund on average players and the result was a drop in the quality of the squad. As for my preferred choice, I think Riyad Mahrez would be great as a direct replacement for Coutinho. Also, I think there is a need for a new goalkeeper with Jan Oblak of Atletico Madrid as my choice. Adding another striker to the team would be great and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang would fit perfectly. The second question and the most important for me is when would the club spend the Coutinho fund? There has been rumour that Klopp is satisfied with the current squad, but I think it would be suicidal for the coach to stretch their capacity.
In the league, Liverpool plays Manchester City on Sunday at Anfield and their performance in the game would give a bit of the new direction for the reminder of the season. A win against City would provide a morale boost for the squad and their self-belief would be heightened. A loss or draw would bring to the fore the need for the club to reinforce with new additions. Whatever happens on Sunday, the squad still has the required ammunition to fight and finish in the top 4. Anything short of that would be regarded as a failure and come May 2018, the ghost of the Coutinho exit would exhumed by the press. In the domestic cup, the club has the chance of winning a trophy. They would face West Bromwich Albion in the last weekend of January at Anfield. The home advantage and the current form of the clubs indicates an easy win for Liverpool. Playing EPL sides in the early round has given the club the opportunity of according the competition the right attitude and come May 2018, Liverpool would be at Wembley as one of the finalist, all things being equal.
The scenario is a bit different in the Champions League. Liverpool would take on FC Porto in February and the advantage of playing the second leg at Anfield gave them a slight edge over their opponent. With mother luck smiling on the club, the club can get an easier fixture in the quarters and then the semifinal or finals become a possibility.
As a fan I am so glad that the whole saga is over. Attention would be focused on the reminder of the season and I think the club would be successful. Though it would be difficult if there are no addition but the current squad with the addition of VVD can mount a great challenge in all fronts. The departure of Coutinho has left a hole in the squad but covers some holes in the pocket of the owners as claimed by the unhappy fans. However, there are positives for the club from deals as highlighted earlier. The fee is good, Klopp remains our coach and the distraction is over. To my fellow Kops, there is still hope. Let’s face the reality: Coutinho is gone. Like we say in Lagos; Soldier go, Soldier come Barrack remain. Liverpool remain in our hearts, and so shall it be. This is because YOU NEVER WALK ALONE.