Coutinho saga speaks to Liverpool's continued transfer mismanagement
Philippe Coutinho is one of the great success stories of Fenway Sports Group's time in charge at Liverpool. The Brazil international's career on Merseyside has worked out exactly as the American owners dreamt it would. Until now.
When FSG took over the club in 2010, they developed a plan. The idea was to make Anfield a prime destination for the best young players in the world, a place where youngsters would get playing time to develop their talents. Coutinho, who could not make the breakthrough into the first team at Inter Milan, arrived at Liverpool at the age of 20 and flourished.
Converting potential into success has been a key component in FSG's approach to the game but that success, in the owners' imagination at least, would be expressed in trophies. The latter has not happened. Not all the young players who came to Anfield progressed at the same rate as Coutinho and the silverware has not materialised. Instead, the 25-year-old has outgrown his teammates and surroundings.
It was not meant to be this way. Selling Coutinho, who cost a mere £8.5 million, would produce a massive profit. The more cynical supporters among the Liverpool fanbase will be quick to accuse FSG of putting cash before competitiveness but it was never part of the owners' plans to turn Anfield into a moneymaking finishing school for talented youngsters.
Barcelona's interest in Coutinho has come at a bad time. Liverpool's efforts in the transfer market during the summer window have been far from impressive. The club were keen to project the image of Michael Edwards, the sporting director whose remit is player recruitment, as being world-class. Yet the embarrassing apology Liverpool issued to Southampton in June over their pursuit of Virgil van Dijk, and the fruitless attempt to lure Naby Keita to the Premier League, suggest otherwise.
Anfield's chaotic approach to player acquisition means that a decision over Coutinho's future has become more than a business or footballing issue. It has become a matter of prestige.
After Red Bull Leipzig stood firm in the face of Liverpool's offer of £70 million for Keita, the Merseyside club cannot afford to capitulate easily to Barca. FSG -- and the fans on the Kop -- believe that their status is closer to the Catalan team's than the Bundesliga side. Losing Coutinho would be a painful reality check: it would mean Liverpool were neither powerful enough to impose their will on Leipzig nor strong enough to withstand Barca's predatory advances. It is not a message that FSG want to send to the rest of Europe, especially as the team attempts to qualify for the Champions League group stage for just the second time in the owners' seven years in charge.
Bringing in Jurgen Klopp two years ago told the world that Anfield could still attract managers of the highest class. Now, Liverpool need to show they can tempt top-notch players to the club and keep them there. It sets up a complex scenario where the decisions being taken may not be the most rational.
Even in this inflated transfer market, £100 million profit on Coutinho should represent good business. He is still developing as a player and has not yet imposed himself as one of the Premier League's dominant performers. Sadio Mane was arguably more important to Klopp's side last season and the Senegal winger was considerably more influential than Coutinho during Liverpool's best spells. There has never been a sense that the German was building a side around Coutinho and so, a compelling line of thought has emerged that suggests Klopp is well-staffed with attacking midfielders and Coutinho is the one least suited to the manager's pressing style.
It is difficult to keep a player who wants to leave a club but Liverpool are fortunate that Coutinho is not a disruptive personality. He is keen to go to the Nou Camp. The lifestyle and culture in Catalonia are less alien to someone from South America than life on Merseyside and Coutinho is close to Luis Suarez. Barcelona also offer the chance to win medals. Liverpool are still some way from providing the same opportunities yet the forward does not want to burn bridges at Anfield. He wants to leave in a friendly manner. That will happen at some point but it may not be this summer.
The root of the problem, for player and club, is in mismanaged transfer activity. The young players who FSG hoped would grow into a formidable side have not all risen to the challenge. Despite this, Edwards, the prime architect of the squad, has been promoted and lauded internally. Yet if Liverpool had managed to secure the services of Van Dijk and Keita, the threat of losing one of their best players would not cause such angst. Barca's offer might have looked like a deal worth considering. Instead, the Coutinho saga is another symptom of Liverpool's flawed approach to recruitment.
Whatever happens to Coutinho, Anfield looks no closer to solving its transfer conundrum.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.