“THE best players aspire to be at clubs like Barcelona.”
That’s the sort of phrase Liverpool supporters have heard over and over again this summer, and it’s not too dissimilar to situations the club have been involved with in the past.
Throughout the whole Philippe Coutinho saga, comparisons have been drawn to Luis Suarez in the summer of 2013, when he handed in a transfer request to force through a move to Arsenal — with the infamous release clause and £40,000,001 bid from The Gunners.
What do you think they're smoking over there at Emirates?
— John W. Henry (@John_W_Henry) July 24, 2013
Though at first it was suggested that Coutinho wouldn’t be forcing through a move to the Camp Nou, it became apparent towards the back end of last week that the pull of the Spanish giants, and likely the voices in his ear from those around him, had got into the player’s head.
The extent of Barca’s attempts to unsettle the Brazilian and upset the balance in Liverpool’s dressing room has been fully exposed over the course of the weekend. Stories of Coutinho and Jürgen Klopp’s relationship becoming frayed over the last six months, the player being unhappy with his role in the team and Fenway Sports Group’s statement forcing his hand are all conveniently timed plays on the truth. The truth is that Coutinho signed a new five-year deal in January without a release clause, that at the time was a signal of his commitment to the club.
It is common in modern football that players don’t tend to honour their contracts for one reason or another. Barcelona and Real Madrid are right at the top of the food chain in the footballing world, but that doesn’t mean other clubs should be forced to sell their prize assets the minute they come calling.
In a summer where “illegal” approaches have been particularly disruptive to Liverpool’s pursuit of targets, it’s hard to see how the Catalan club have stayed on the correct side of that line in their attempts to sign Coutinho.
But some of the blame will fall at the 25-year-old’s door, and rightly so. The unsettling tactics couldn’t be put into play without some sort of agreement to go along with it from Coutinho himself. The decision to go back on his word of seeking an amicable exit is ultimately his.
There has been talk of downing tools if Coutinho doesn’t get his way but many have already pointed out that doing so would affect his chances of being called up to the Brazil squad for the upcoming World Cup in Russia. And that wouldn’t be the only damage. If the Brazilian playmaker decided to sit off in the reserves and sulk for the next nine months would he still be guaranteed his big move when the window opens next year? It seems unlikely.
Whatever happens there’s little doubt that his reputation as one of modern football’s few “good guys” has been tainted. If the club were to sanction a sale this summer, god forbid, Coutinho would leave the club on bad terms, and Liverpool supporters aren’t the type to keep a lid on things when somebody shows disrespect towards their club — just ask Michael Owen and Fernando Torres.
The only way he could rescue his reputation is to follow the moves of former teammate Suarez. The Uruguayan had flirted with the idea of legal action against the club in the summer of 2013 after they seemingly chose not to honour a release clause which would have allowed him the opportunity to secure a move to Premier League rivals Arsenal.
That saga was heralded as a victory over player power for Liverpool, with Suarez being forced to stay and eventually being reintegrated into the first team. It didn’t stop the striker from eventually getting his wish, but when he did it was on the club’s terms.
After a period of sulking and being frozen out, Suarez bounced back to help Liverpool make a sustained title challenge with 31 goals and and 12 assists, signing a new deal with a release clause which allowed him the chance to move to Barca the following summer.
At the time that was best for all parties. Suarez would get his big move, Barca would gain one of the world’s best strikers and Liverpool would get big money and the time to reinvest it — though nobody knew they would end up signing Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli.
Perhaps most importantly, Suarez left the club with his reputation almost completely intact. Supporters acknowledged that a move to Barca was the player’s dream and were delighted with the contribution he made during the 2013-14 season. His reputation with many as a former great neglects the fact that he had tried almost everything to force a move to Arsenal a year earlier, such is the fickle nature of the football fan.
It’s hard to see why Coutinho’s situation would look any different in a year’s time.
Barcelona are a club going through a testing time. Their ageing stars are in the process of being replaced, which is proving a bigger challenge than they were perhaps prepared for, and the sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain hasn’t helped lift the mood of their supporters. It’s unlikely that, should they fail in their attempts to sign Coutinho this summer, that will be the end of the matter.
Liverpool too are going through a testing time, in a completely different sense. The next few weeks are massive in terms of the progression of the club, qualification for the Champions League group stage is central to that. Some will make out the club are in a worse situation than they are given how the transfer window has gone but the club have made some necessary additions to the side which picked up 76 points last season.
Coutinho, with his best ever goal return of 14, was crucial to that points haul, as his absence was to the team’s downturn in form during January and February, and he’ll be crucial to ensuring Liverpool can build on the last campaign.
If he stays one more season and helps The Reds achieve their objectives he can leave on better terms, the club’s terms, next summer.
“I don’t care what Coutinho wants – they’ve got to get him to stay.” ✊
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 15 August 2017
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