Cue the panic:
“The window! Man City! ManU! Barcelona! Madrid! Even West Ham! They’re all signing people!!!”
My response? Yawn.
We were one of the best teams in Europe last year, were one lousy point away from doing the double, haven’t taken a loss at Anfield in a couple years, lost all of one game in the EPL in total, and have a young team mostly signed to long-term deals. And the reason for panic is… what?
“But-! But-! A creative midfielder-!”
Ugh. I hate when people latch on to a concept that they’ve heard or read somewhere and don’t use it in context. It then becomes the one- to three-word answer to everything. It’s almost never true in politics (“socialism!”) and it isn’t true here, either. To wit: Liverpool does not need a “creative midfielder”. We don’t really need anything. It would be really nice to have more depth at left back, but there is no crisis here and certainly not one that demands spending tens of millions on a player who may just be taking up a warm spot on the bench for much of the season. Let’s use the current fantasy, former Red Philippe Coutinho, as a perfect example.
Phil is a good player. He was great for us and he’s now feeling the dire weight of Klopp’s words before his departure (“Stay here and they’ll build a statue of you. Go there and you’ll be just another player.”) Klopp said that not to diminish LFC’s status in comparison to Barca, but to emphasize how the different fanbases would react to someone who is a star at the different clubs. So, yes, Coutinho was a star here. Again, he’s a good, maybe great, player. But at this point, in the rapidly-changing world of football, to Liverpool he’s a relic of the past.
The big rumor from an Italian source (because that’s where we all go to get news about potential transactions between Spanish and English clubs) was that Barca wanted to send Coutinho on a 2-year loan deal with an option to buy at the end for €88M. Let’s put aside all the psychological aspects of Phil’s return, both for him and the fans (and the rest of the team), and just focus on the two realities that are at least as important: the money and the pitch.
The money. We’re still in the process of collecting money from Barca for the Coutinho sale. A big chunk of the €145M was used to buy Fabinho, one of the best 6s in Europe, and Alisson, the best goalkeeper in Europe, but the rest is still trickling in as Phil gets more appearances with them (or not.) By any stretch of the imagination, we got the better end of that sale. This summer, Barcelona has spent a quarter of a billion Euros on Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, Neto and Emerson. Loan deals always involve someone paying the player’s wages. Barca needed a €36M loan to pay part of Griezmann’s fee. They are now cash poor. They don’t want to keep paying Coutinho’s wages (which is part of why he’s on the block), which means a loan would do them no good if they’re paying. Liverpool’s wage structure has inflated significantly in the past couple years, based on the talent we’ve signed and the re-signings to extended contracts. Liverpool is, likewise, not interested in paying another player’s significant wage demands. We have the cash to do so, but there’s no sense in doing it when you think about the more important aspect: the pitch.
The pitch. Coutinho is a midfielder, with occasional sorties as an attacking winger. We typically line up in a 4-3-3, which means DM, recycler, and attacker/distributor in most 4-3-3 systems. Fabinho has the DM (#6) spot locked down, but we know that both Henderson and Gini can play there and do well. In the #8, Henderson has been allowed to return to his more natural role, but we also have Keita, Ox, Gini, and Milner who can play there. In the recycler spot, Milner, Hendo, Gini, Ox, and Keita can all play there, as well. One of the advantages of the 4-3-3 in general and Klopp’s system in particular is its flexibility, allowing players to occupy mixed roles and take advantage of their varying levels of ability. We saw some of that the other night while watching Milner drop behind Fabinho on a regular basis against Dortmund. So, we’re at least three deep in every spot in the midfield. Where, exactly, would Coutinho fit in here? Especially when one considers that, among the players I listed above, he’s perhaps the least flexible. Furthermore, Klopp’s system is exhausting for midfielders and one of Phil’s well-known weaknesses is his lack of endurance. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t play defense like Klopp wants, which is the heavily-rumored reason why Shaqiri was dropped to the bench after some sterling offensive output last winter.
So, let’s move to the front line. Of our starting wingers, Salah and Mané, whom would you like to replace with Coutinho on a regular basis? If your answer was anything but “Neither”, then I think you’re watching the wrong club. In fact, Coutinho isn’t really best out on the wing. He’s much more useful as a #10, given his passing ability. But that role on Barcelona (and not even strictly a #10) is occupied by one Lionel Messi, which is why Coutinho doesn’t play there. We don’t use a #10, instead employing Bob as a false 9. A false 9 has to do a lot of running, a lot of tackling, a lot of mixing it up in the air; none of which are Coutinho’s normal activities. Firmino, the heart and soul of our offensive system, is the superior player in every respect for what we want that central forward to do and be. So, where does Coutinho fit in here?
“Well, as a backup!”, you say. Except that we already have The Cube, Champions League hero Origi, and now returned-from-injury Brewster to back up the best front line in Europe. Does it make any kind of sense for Coutinho to leave his “dream club” and return to the club that he spurned, faking injuries, and paying €10M of his own money to ensure his departure, only to find himself in the same role he’s currently unhappy with: an immensely expensive player riding the bench because he doesn’t/can’t do what the manager wants? Rhetorical question, yo. Also, after having him ride the bench for two years, we’d supposedly be interested (in this mythical Italian world) in shelling out €88M (over half of what we received for him) for a player who would be 29 years old at that time, in direct contrast to the buying pattern for the club since Edwards took over and Klopp arrived? Sure. Pull the other one.
The conclusion. Again, the truth is: we don’t need anyone. We could use a backup at left back (perhaps especially now that Larouci has been scythed down in a “friendly”…) and that’s really about it. Despite their demonstrated willingness to spend, FSG are not, in fact, made of money. We’ve spent a lot, but we’re not the public relations tool of a human rights-violating petrostate, so we can’t go out and splash money like City can. Everything that FSG has done was with the idea of preserving the long-term viability of the club so that it doesn’t end up in a Hicks and Gillett scenario again. They’ve done that remarkably well, given that spending wisely has also brought a 6th European Cup and come the closest to ending the top division drought in 30 years. The fact that LFC isn’t buying means that there’s nothing to be bought that’s any better than what we have. Yes, I know. The consumer culture means that we should have new toys every year just like the other rich kids. Don’t fall for it. Just fall back on the words of a famous journalist:
“Don’t panic. Bring a towel.” He probably meant that second part for those times when someone left the window open.