Why Liverpool don't need to replace Phil Coutinho... Yet
Sunday morning, a few hours before Liverpool kicked off against Manchester City, I was just about done. It hadn’t been the best day for Liverpool up until that point, as the toxic fever pitch and maelstrom of Liverpool fans’ complaints about everything from Jon Flanagan’s guilty plea right the way through to Liverpool deciding £90m was too much to bid for Thomas Lemar reached a crescendo.
And I’d had enough. I didn’t want to see one more stupid, angry tweet about how the sky had decided to fall in again because Bobby Firmino was being accused of racially abusing Holgate. And I feared the worst. I feared that if we lost to Man City, the little corner of LFC fandom I inhabited would become unbearable.
So I tweeted the premise of this article: no, Liverpool don’t need to spunk an extra £30m to replace Phil Coutinho this window. We could quite happily wait until the summer to replace him. I’ve already written at length about why this Liverpool team are heading places without Phil, and that we absolutely don’t need him to be a successful football club over the next few years, but here’s specifically why we don’t need Naby Keita now, and why Lemar or if Monaco won’t lower their price a suitable alternative can also wait.
It would be slightly unfair to use Sunday as ample evidence that Liverpool don’t need to bring someone in this window, but it has to be said that it does draw a pleasant comparison. On Sunday, Arsenal turned in a performance of complete and utter disarray, underlining the absolute chaos that currently underpins the club. A few hours later, Liverpool completed a sensational win to move eight points clear of the Gunners.
I don’t need to spend long pointing out why we should finish ahead of Arsenal. They look set to lose their best player, their squad is a mess from top to bottom, they lack quality in every area, their injury record is poor, their mentality means they consistently struggle against the top six, their manager is past his sell-by date and did I mention we’re eight points ahead of them?
So whilst there are other, complicating factors, in my head, the equation comes down to this. Liverpool need to finish ahead of just one of Spurs, Chelsea and Man United. At the moment, we’re three points behind United, level on points with Chelsea and three clear of Spurs. So it’s up for grabs. I think second is more than possible, even without Coutinho.
Let’s start with Chelsea. Chelsea have now drawn their last four games in all competitions, winning two of their last seven. They’ve had a strange season, but their squad is looking thin. In terms of attack, they’re over-reliant on Hazard, with Morata a decent header of the ball but not offering much else and in poor form. Defensive they’re solid but they have a real lack of creativity in midfield. Conte’s tactics have been strange and they lack a balance in their side.
Spurs have similar issues to Liverpool funnily enough. They have a very good team, but their lack of depth is crippling. They are perpetually one injury away from an implosion and this problem has consistently meant that they struggle to cope with balancing a league campaign with a European run. In Kane, they have an elite goalscorer, but with a tricky spell coming up, there is every chance Spurs could fall apart in February.
Let’s move on talk about Man United. United have been very good in fits and starts and have a deep squad with lots of clutch players capable of grinding out a result. Their goalkeeper is so annoyingly good that he’s basically broken. But their underlying stats, especially defensively, indicate that they are massively overperforming and recently this came back to haunt them, as they drew three league games in a row just a few weeks ago. There’s plenty of evidence that United are on the cusp of falling apart, and even if they don’t, they’re not consistently good enough to suggest that they’ll surge ahead of a Liverpool side that they’re only three points clear of, with matches against all of the top six to navigate.
All of which brings me back to the club I believe will finish second, Liverpool Football Club. Do I think we can finish ahead of all of these clubs? Yes. Definitely. Do I think we will finish ahead of one of them, which is all we need to do to secure 4th spot, and more Champions League football, the base target of our campaign? Yes. Definitely. Obviously.
Liverpool are the league’s second top scorers, with Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah the most formidable front three in the division, especially on current form. City have more goals but they also have significantly more quality from deep, taken on their own merits, Bobby Mo and Sadio are a match for Sane, Sterling and Aguero.
The problems then, as many see it, come behind them, but the evidence of those problems existing becomes more and more scant as we look at the available evidence. Yes, Liverpool have conceded 28 goals in the league, which is far too many. However, over half of those, 16, were conceded in the first nine league games. Since the 4-1 defeat to Spurs, we have conceded 12 goals in 14 league games, which is much more manageable, and including six in two games against Man City and Arsenal. And that’s before the addition of Virgil Van Dijk.
So clearly, our defence is not as bad as people are making out, and is only going to improve. Our full-back positions look pretty sorted, Ragnar Klavan has become something of a cult legend and the aforementioned Van Dijk can only further improve us. The addition of Van Dijk cannot be understated, and there’s a fair argument to be made that Van Dijk will improve Liverpool potentially as much as losing Coutinho weakens them.
Moving onto midfield, which is where we’re going to miss Coutinho’s influence, particularly when it comes to goals from midfield, and offering another class rotation option. Well, our midfield is not as bad as people make out.
For all the clamouring for a defensive midfielder, Emre Can has been different class yet when called upon, turning in consistently brilliant performances week in week out and will be able to do so until at least the summer. Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner are both workmanlike and neither have significant strengths but Henderson should be back soon to shore up that position.
As for attacking midfield, a lot has been made of the return of Adam Lallana. And whilst he clearly cannot match Coutinho’s output, he will certainly be a good option once he regains fitness. And Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is developing into a really decent player, as evidenced by his absolutely brilliant display against Man City. Given a decent run in attacking midfield, he could definitely help fill the Coutinho shaped void.
The key area that Liverpool still need to address is obviously the goalkeeping position. That looks like something that will be addressed in the summer but whether or not we can muddle through until then remains to be seen. Nevertheless, even if I argue Liverpool need a goalkeeper, that’s not the same as Liverpool needing to replace Coutinho.
Now there remain key questions that this article hasn’t yet addressed. Depth remains a core issue. Taking out a world class player like Coutinho and not replacing him means that players who would have been good rotation options, such as Lallana and Oxlade-Chamberlain, suddenly need to pick up the slack, both in terms of quality and in terms of minutes. That certainly is true, but Liverpool only have fifteen more Premier League games to get through, and the hardest part of the season is over, with Klopp rotating exceptionally well up until this point.
The other core issue is other trophies. If replacing Coutinho now means Liverpool are more likely to win the FA Cup or Champions League then that has to be prioritised. Do we really want another season of targeting top four?
The answer here for me is a little bit of yes and a little bit of no. On the one hand, I completely agree that simply settling for fourth after what has been a potentially brilliant season feels a little stale. On the other hand, we’re not settling for fourth. As mentioned, I think Liverpool can target second place and a real sense of Premier League progression. Regardless, this is a club that hasn’t managed back to back Champions League qualifications in a decade, so whether or not you want to accept it, back to back Champions League qualifications is an achievement and is a step in the right direction.
As for the cups: I’m on record as being notoriously and unfairly churlish about the FA Cup, but I see no reason we can’t give it a go with the current squad. The Champions League is the big one. And whilst it’s absolutely fair to point out that not replacing Phil decreases our chances of winning the big competition, my responses are multiple.
First of all, any replacement we signed would more than likely be cup-tied. So whilst there’s certainly a case to be made about how we’d be able to rotate the squad better to ensure our players were more fit for a UCL challenge, Naby Keita or Thomas Lemar would be unable to help us get past Porto or beyond.
Secondly, this team on its day is good enough to give anyone a game. But I don’t think we’re ready to, nor should we be expecting a serious UCL challenge in this campaign, as much as we want one.
All of this merely reinforces my judgement. I absolutely, 100% want and would love to see Liverpool go out and spend a lot of money on a big name replacement for Coutinho (or at least please for the love of God a goalkeeper). But if that doesn’t happen, I won’t be throwing a tantrum, calling it a disgrace or be “baffled by our lack of planning”.
And this brings me to my final point. The circumstances of Coutinho’s departure have been consistently derided. The idea that he might have been disruptive to the squad has been poo-pooed, the suggestion that Klopp was putting trust in the current players laughed at. The notion that for a player manager like Jurgen Klopp, who needs his players to run through a brick wall for him, someone like Coutinho is better off in Barcelona than in Liverpool is something that people cannot understand.
And yet, without Coutinho, Klopp has never looked happier. The players have never looked more motivated. They ran beyond brick walls to beat Man City. And whilst it is almost certainly unfair to suggest that Phil’s negative influence sat on the bench would have changed that, or to say that Phil’s talents on the pitch aren’t sorely missed because of a bit of extra effort, what does have to be said is this. Jurgen Klopp isn’t just building a squad. He’s building a team. And this is a team that has no place for Phil Coutinho anymore.
Liverpool are 18 games unbeaten now. Coutinho has only started ten of those games. Whilst it’s accurate to say our record without him this season is undoubtedly excellent (11 wins, one draw and one defeat in games in which Coutinho hasn’t featured and draws in the two games in which he has come off the bench), it’s difficult to judge. It would be wrong to say that that record means Liverpool will be fine without him, but it’s impossible to completely ignore either.
Liverpool are going places. And whilst Sunday is a tiny sample size to take from, what it also is is a clear and massive message. A postcard to Barcelona, stamped by Oxlade-Chamberlain. A message to the rest of the Premier League, to Pep Guardiola and potentially to Barcelona themselves.
Liverpool doesn’t need Phil Coutinho. And we’re only just getting started.