Liverpool and Coutinho: When Barcelona come calling…

It seems an inopportune time to be discussing Barcelona’s transfer market strength, given how recently they were rendered powerless to stop possibly the third best footballer in the world from leaving for Paris.

Yet monsters don’t lick their wounds for long. On Wednesday evening it was reported that Liverpool had rejected a second bid from Barcelona for Philippe Coutinho, thought to be worth in the region of £90m. One saga ends, another quickly begins.

Liverpool will do all in their might to keep Coutinho, and that is only natural. Not only is the Brazilian a fine player approaching his likely peak, but we have reached the eve of the season. Jurgen Klopp’s frustrations in landing Liverpool’s top transfer targets would only increase with Coutinho’s departure. It’s one thing having no hot water left to top up the bath, but another entirely to have someone pull out the plug at the same time.

If there does come a price when Coutinho is worth selling, it is becoming harder and harder to determine that exact value. If the events of this summer have not quite reinvented the transfer market wheel, they have certainly added gold-plated alloy spinners.

It has always been difficult to know what a player is truly worth, but now it is hard even to know what price is expensive and what constitutes cheap. Paul Pogba, for 12 months labelled as the height of football’s opulence, now cost less than half the world record transfer fee.

Aside from the potential loss of such a key player, there is offence taken when any star performer is wanted by another club. ‘We will not be bullied by Barcelona,’ is Liverpool’s defiant media message. You may notice that Southampton are saying exactly the same thing about Virgil van Dijk. Which club is aiming to take advantage of Southampton again?

Of course Liverpool will eventually be ‘bullied’ by Barcelona, because that is the natural order of things. Football has an established food chain and it is impossible to find a shortcut up the tiers: Barcelona and Real Madrid are at the top, and everyone else is below. Paris St Germain and Manchester City’s billions reserve them seats at that top table, as do the recent domestic dynasties of Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich, but for a combination of the two, only Real and Barca make the grade.

That is not to say that Coutinho will or should be sold in the next three weeks, and certainly not in a cut-price deal. The financial might of the Premier League’s elite is such that offers can be refuted and want-away players put out until offers become eye-watering to our expectations of the normal. But, one way or another, if Barcelona truly do want to continue their pursuit of Coutinho they will get their wish. Just like David de Gea and Real Madrid, eventually. Fighting off European football’s apex predators is an exercise in holding back the tide.

Many Liverpool supporters understand this, of course. Their issue with selling Coutinho is not the loss in itself, but their lack of confidence in the club to replace him adequately. Not with a like-for-like player – only a small minority are that foolish – but certainly with a player further along in his development than Coutinho was when he signed in 2013. The doubts they have over the competence of Liverpool’s hierarchy is portrayed by dismay at the sale. If you haven’t got a Plan B, don’t sell the Plan A.

The mistake is in believing that accepting the reality will somehow cause the entire ecosystem to fall. Quite the contrary: Barcelona feed on Liverpool, Liverpool feed on Southampton, Southampton feed on any number of clubs across Europe and the Football League.

The key to success is not in altering football’s transfer market dynamic, but ensuring that your succession plans allow you to thrive in it. Rather than admitting weakness, that is demonstrating strength. Whichever players you sell.

Daniel Storey – Enjoyed this? Please do a lovely thing and buy Daniel’s Portrait of an Icon book here. Proceeds go to the wonderful Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. 

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