ONLY two players now remain from Liverpool’s 2013-14 squad. The rapid turnover reflects not just a change of manager but also a freakish squad that all too briefly peaked for one glorious spring and a resultant change of approach in the transfer market. Nevertheless, the numbers are stark.
At this stage of 2011-12 there were still eight players at Melwood who had been there four years earlier, despite one of the most tumultuous periods in the club’s history: Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Fabio Aurelio, Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt.
In 2018 it is all very different, and there is some sadness to that. Jordan Henderson remains, though a far different beast from the gallivanting enabler of four years ago. Simon Mignolet is the other, but while Henderson has morphed with age and injury the Belgian has simply stagnated.
Jon Flanagan has been sent out on loan for a second successive season, but it is the other two departures in January that caused a stir. Nothing more needs to be said about Philippe Coutinho’s £142m move to Barcelona. It was followed last week by Daniel Sturridge, pushed through the exit door on loan to West Brom.
Nostalgia and football go hand in hand. And the idea of never seeing Coutinho and Sturridge combining in a red shirt again is a sad one. Things change, and if you stand still in football you will get left behind. Coutinho felt he had outgrown Liverpool, while it is clear Liverpool felt Sturridge was no longer worth their patience even if he ultimately wanted to leave.
There was a moment in West Brom’s defeat by Manchester City last week where Sturridge, a second-half substitute, was sent clean through on goal. Four years ago there is no doubt in your mind what happens next, only how it happens — would he chip the keeper, take it round him or just slot it? He was full of both possibility and inevitability.
Instead he could barely get the ball out of his feet, almost tripped over it, then eventually took the ball round the keeper onto his lethal left foot but too far from goal, and rolled an effort into the side netting. It would be tempting to laugh, if it wasn’t so — to use that word again — sad.
This is one of the best strikers I’ve seen in a red shirt, playing up front for an Alan Pardew side littered with Tony Pulis players, regressing to a level that reflects his failing body and not his immense skill. He is only 28 years old, but now looks like he’s been playing professional football for all 28 of those years.
Just over 1,000 miles south of the Eithad Stadium and Philippe Coutinho was making his full Barcelona debut at the Nou Camp a few days earlier. A video went viral of him falling over on the touchline trying to retrieve a ball from out of play. That was funny.
Bitterness will reign for quite some time over the nature of the Brazilian’s departure. Eventually, maybe, he will enjoy the renaissance in Liverpudlian minds that Fernando Torres now enjoys. Only Luis Suarez really left with good grace and best wishes.
Seeing Coutinho go to the best team in Spain, to play with the greatest player in the world and the mad bastard who used to play up front at Liverpool, while Sturridge mixes it with West Brom’s 584 centre-half grocks is, yep, sad. How have two players who enjoyed such an on-pitch telepathy, who so thrived on bringing the best out of each other, endured such a wild change of fortunes?
And this is important to remember. The pair were absolutely on a par up until the summer of 2016, when it became clear Sturridge no longer commanded a first-team place when fit and Jürgen Klopp built his side on the axis of Coutinho and Roberto Firmino.
That they both depart a couple of weeks apart in a January transfer window is poetic. This is, after all, how their Liverpool careers began. Sturridge arriving at the earliest opportunity in 2013 on the first day business was open for the month. Coutinho followed him through the door later in the month, by which time Sturridge had become the first Red since Alan Kennedy to score in his opening three games.
He had a fourth by the time the Brazilian made his Anfield bow, at the tail end of a 2-0 defeat against West Brom — a reminder of the sort of side they were parachuted into. Seven of the starters that night remained as key components of the 2013-14 vintage a year later.
They first started a game together six days later, a 5-0 romp over Swansea with both getting on the scoresheet. The seeds of the 2013-14 title challenge were being sown, with only one more defeat suffered from mid-February until the end of the season.
Suarez was the undisputed ace in the pack, but missed the final four games of the campaign after chomping on Branislav Ivanovic’s arm. It proved a blessing in disguise for Brendan Rodgers, and thrust his two new stars into the limelight.
A 6-0 win at Newcastle and a 3-1 victory at Fulham, the scene of Sturridge’s one and only Liverpool hat-trick, showed the pair at their best. Coutinho’s dazzling footwork in midfield and eye for the extraordinary pass perfectly suited Sturridge’s ability to play on the shoulder of the last man.
Offered the freedom of the pitch at St James’ Park and Craven Cottage they combined to devastating effect. It was the birth of a beautiful partnership, one rarely seen again in later years. When Sturridge ran on to another inch-perfect Coutinho through ball that dissected the West Ham defence in May last year, the end result was never in doubt.
He danced around Adrian and slotted home to give Liverpool the lead in a tense game that went on to secure a top four finish. It was a blast from the past, and proved to be their last hurrah together. By this stage both players’ careers were heading down different gradients. It was more a glimpse of what could have been, than the hint of more to come.
Few pairings in Liverpool history have combined so devastatingly and yet so fleetingly. They never won a trophy together, and will become symbols of an era that promised so much and delivered so little. A Liverpool side that froze when it mattered most — against Chelsea in 2014, and the two cup finals in spring 2016. The brittleness of the current side is, in part, founded on that inability to get over the line in those do-or-die moments.
But that should not define Sturridge or Coutinho. Liverpool may not have won a trophy in six years, but the pair represented a new, thrilling dawn. Kenny Dalglish’s side fell off a cliff in 2012 and played some anaemic football. There was little imagination, little daring. Nuts and bolts footballers in the final third — Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll — are not what dreams are made of.
Sturridge and Coutinho were a release from that. Football is, ultimately, about winning. But if you can’t win, at least make the adventure worth it. They did.