Inflation is making fools of us all, because there’s no longer any way of assessing value in the transfer-market. A point has been reached at which quoting numbers and fees seems beside the point and, because of the agreement struck between Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain, we also know that football – in its true sporting sense – isn’t always the sole animating factor behind a purchase.
And, it seems, economics are of dwindling importance to sales, too
The Philippe Coutinho situation is strange. Given the size of revenue recently received, Barcelona were always likely to be driven into a seller’s market. Other European clubs are well aware of quite how flush they are, but can also – crucially – smell their desperation. As evidenced by the recent Spanish Super Cup performances against Real Madrid, Barca have an urgent need. Without Neymar they lack balance and penetration on the left of their forward line and, from the perspective of continental primacy, their pride has been damaged. They do the taking, nobody takes from them.
They have two needs to address: the first is to restore their offensive equilibrium but the second, which is of equal weight, is to re-inflate their organisational ego. They need a statement player and they’re willing pay through the nose to get one.
The difficulty with Coutinho is that he only vaguely satisfies that criteria. He’s a good player without being an exceptional one and, while there would be some satisfaction to be had in prising him from FSG’s whitening fingers, the cache isn’t worth in excess of £100m.
Under normal conditions, Liverpool would scarcely be able to to believe their luck. Coutinho is an asset to them, but he represents plain creativity in an attacking system which now depends on a particularly vertical thrust. Sadio Mane is of critical importance to Klopp and Mohamed Salah’s signing has doubled the dynamism; the offensive threat is now well defined and properly backed with appropriate talent, leaving Klopp – in theory – to re-imagine his defensive parts.
That’s the baffling aspect of this: while selling Coutinho would be inconvenient, the fee offered for him should be too large to turn away. Liverpool may not have any fiscal need to do business with Barcelona, but the opportunities it would create are surely more significant than the potential damage it might do. Even prior to this scenario arising, the club were seemingly willing and able to complete transfers for Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk, two players potentially capable of bringing exponential improvement to midfield and defence respectively. Imagine, then, the extent of the club’s reach after a nine figure sale. Keita might be off the table for the next year at least and van Dijk’s transfer has likely grown too political to be completed, but £100m – in whatever form it arrives – would enable a sizeable reconstruction. Centre-backs, goalkeepers, holding midfielders; all the missing pieces in one go, all the problems vanquished.
But appearances seem to matter more in the modern game. Just as Barcelona’s aggression in pursuing Coutinho suggests an reckless, any-famous-player-will-do naivety, Liverpool’s blunt refusal to negotiate seems similarly reflexive and equally ill-advised. It suggests fear of the act of selling, an over-focus on the imagined public relations negative that it would create; it’s a highly narrow perspective – particularly now, particularly with the recruiting tools the club has to its name.
The case for keeping the player makes itself. Coutinho has proven himself a fine – if inconsistent – Premier League performer and is legitimately one of the most watchable players in the country. But to catch Barca in this state, with them so determined to sign a player whose form does not determine whether the sun rises and falls over Anfield, represents the kind of chance which only appears once every few decades. This is not the same as Tottenham selling Luka Modric or Gareth Bale, or Manchester United losing Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s not even potentially as devastating as watching Xabi Alonso sign for Real Madrid.
Coutinho is no longer a player who defines his team’s mood and so Liverpool find themselves in the enviable situation of being able to complete the largest sale in British footballing history without really having to pay the consequences for doing so. There would be no mandatory rebuild if he left and neither would it force a pivot away from the existing style. He may glimmer and shine, but he is ultimately still just decoration; the tree won’t topple without him.
That’s something worth dwelling on. It’s certainly not an opportunity which should be rejected out of hand.