ROTTACH-EGERN, GERMANY - Friday, July 28, 2017: Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Correia during a training session at FC Rottach-Egern on day three of the preseason training camp in Germany. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

SEE if you can spot the difference between these four players:

  • Charles Itandje
  • Luis Suarez
  • Mamadou Sakho
  • Philippe Coutinho

Any ideas?

For those who don’t remember, or just don’t know, Itandje was a reserve goalkeeper who misbehaved during the Hillsborough memorial service in 2009. He was disciplined by the club for his behaviour which was described as “wholly unacceptable”, and the incident spelled the end of his Liverpool career.

You’ll remember the other three but, for the purposes of the article, Liverpool signed Suarez for a club-record fee of £22.8million in January 2011, while he was serving a ban in the Netherlands for biting PSV Eindhoven player Otman Bakkal during a match on November 20, 2010.

Following a game against Manchester United in October 2011, Suarez was charged with, and found guilty of, using “insulting words with a reference to Mr Evra’s colour” to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra by an FA commission. Suarez was fined £40,000 and banned for eight games.

In Liverpool’s next encounter with United in February, during the pre-game handshakes Suarez avoided shaking Evra’s hand, for which Suarez and Kenny Dalglish were later forced to apologise. Suarez was also banned for one match for making an obscene gesture towards Fulham fans.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Monday, December 5, 2011: Liverpool's Luis Alberto Suarez Diaz is fouled by Fulham's Philippe Senderos during the Premiership match at Craven Cottage. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Suarez was rewarded with a new, long-term contract in August 2012.

He then decided to have a nibble on the shoulder of Branislav Ivanovic in a match against Chelsea in April 2013, for which he was banned for 10 games, then tried to force through a move to Arsenal in the summer of that same year despite having claimed previously that he wanted to leave Liverpool to get away from the English press.

The best player I have ever seen in the flesh was crowned player of the year the following season, after the club refused to allow him to leave, before sealing a dream move to Barcelona in July 2014.

A hell of a ride for a player who was only at the club for three and a half years.

Sakho has a shorter list of incidents to report, including being upset and leaving the stadium when left out of the squad to play Everton in September 2014, followed by the more serious incident of taking fat-burning pills without the club’s approval which saw him banned by UEFA from playing in Liverpool’s 2016 Europa League run in. On May 28, 2016, the ban expired after the substance was found to not be on the banned substance list. The case was dismissed by UEFA in July 2016.

During Liverpool’s pre-season tour of the United States in the summer of 2016, Sakho was sent home by Jürgen Klopp for not respecting the rules that had been put in place for the squad. Klopp revealed that Sakho had been late for the team’s flight, missed a medical treatment session and was also late for a team meal. As a result, Sakho was demoted from the senior squad and only played competitive football with the reserves before being loaned and subsequently sold to Crystal Palace, despite Michael Beale praising his attitude while playing for the under 23s.

Which brings us to Coutinho.

ROTTACH-EGERN, GERMANY - Friday, July 28, 2017: Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Correia after a training session at FC Rottach-Egern on day three of the preseason training camp in Germany. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In January 2017, the club’s little magician signed a five-year contract containing no release clauses. After signing, he told the club’s website:

“I would like to thank everybody at the club, first of all. I am very happy to sign a new contract here. It is a club that I am very grateful to and this shows my happiness here. I will work much harder to repay the belief shown in me. I signed this new contract to stay here for a few more years because it’s a great honour for me. It gives me great happiness because I was welcomed here with open arms by everyone at the club and the supporters right from my first day. I am very thankful to this football club for everything.”

That gratefulness and happiness lasted around six months before he realised that Barcelona wanted to sign him, subsequently handed in a transfer request and attempted to force through a move partly by, it appears, feigning injury to avoid playing for the team in the first few games of the season, before heading off on international duty and running around like a spring chicken.

The consequences for Coutinho? He’ll be welcomed back into the squad with open arms. Klopp has already stated while in Germany during the international break: “We still have a really good player in the squad who can play.”

So, what does this all tell us?

I wrote an article last season following the TAW Player podcast with Damian Hughes about his book, Liquid Thinking, and his research into different cultures at football clubs.

I made the point, which I repeated time and again last year, that no matter how much any of us rated Sakho, he would simply not be brought back into the first-team fold after disrespecting Klopp’s rules on too many occasions (which I make to be three under Jürgen’s management, based on the above short summary).

BIRKENHEAD, ENGLAND - Wednesday, September 28, 2016: Liverpool's Mamadou Sakho gives instructions to team-mate Tiago Ilori during the Premier League International Cup match against Wolfsburg at Prenton Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The culture which Klopp is building throughout his squad and the football club, combined with the acute analysis of Damian, led me to buy in completely to the idea that the group must come first so, regardless of the player’s ability, if they don’t stick to the rules they are out. Full stop. The sacrifice of one player is worthwhile for the greater good.

In hindsight, I have to admit that I was naïve and had forgotten a golden rule of football and, perhaps, of life in general.

When you look at the list of players at the top of the article, it’s clear that you can easily separate them by footballing ability. Imagine if Suarez had laughed during a memorial service. Would the club have sold him? Given the number of extreme incidents that took place during his short spell at the club after which he received the full backing of the club, my best guess is that he would have apologised, the club would have explained how memorial services in Uruguay are happy affairs and he misunderstood the general mood, and we would have all moved on with our lives and forgotten about it, instead focusing on his next ridiculous hat trick against Norwich.

I’m afraid to say that the sad reality of football, even under Klopp, is that the rules change depending on the player’s ability. It’s easier to make an example of a reserve goalkeeper or a centre back of whom you’re not 100 per cent convinced than it is to consign your best (arguably second best) player to the bin because of his unacceptable behaviour.

Interestingly, I think the same would apply to the other players’ views on the situation. If you’re Jordan Henderson and you want to win as many shiny things as possible before you retire, you know you’ve got a better chance of doing it with Suarez or Coutinho in your side, regardless of whether they’ve been biting and abusing opponents, or demanding to leave the very team you play for.

All can be forgiven and forgotten quite quickly when you know your colleague is a superstar who can help to take you to places you might not otherwise go, and it would be much more difficult for Klopp to sell to the dressing room that they’d be better off in the long run without Coutinho because playing him for the under 23s all season would ultimately be good for the culture of the club. Far easier to do that with an erratic centre back or third-choice goalie.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 30, 2008: Liverpool's goalkeeper Charles Itandje warms-up before the Premiership match against West Ham United at Upton Park. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Was Itandje’s behaviour really worse than Suarez’s, and deserving of being punished with expulsion from the club while Luis got a new contract? Granted those incidents were under different management regimes, but the extremes between their respective behaviour is as extreme as the difference between their footballing ability, which I suggest explains the different treatment they each received (notwithstanding that Itandje’s conduct was unacceptable).

Were Sakho’s errors of judgement and sloppy timekeeping really worse than what Coutinho has just done, whereby he has purposefully and repeatedly disrespected his manager and his teammates by attempting to force a move away despite having signed his new contract in January, allowing his now infamous entourage and his murky agent to feed the press with negative information about his relationship with his manager?

I can’t imagine that anyone would argue that Sakho’s behaviour was worse (although even as I typed that I remembered that this will be published on the internet, so no opinion would surprise me).

The sad reality in which we live is that compromises will always be made. Klopp himself gets away with mistakes that others might not because he is charming and handsome, and is able to sweet talk the press in such a way that they give him an easier ride than might otherwise be the case. So I suppose it would be somewhat ironic if he didn’t naturally give Coutinho an opportunity to redeem himself regardless of his conduct over the summer, given his elite-level footballing ability.

I remember when I was a kid watching the cartoon He-Man which always ended with a morale of the story from which we could learn. Something noble and good. Something which taught us how to be better people and to take care of each other.

I don’t ever remember an episode which gave such a real-life lesson though, which appears to be:

If you’re going to break the rules, you’d best make sure you’re bloody good at what you do.

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