Philippe Coutinho’s departure from Liverpool was met with consternation from supporters and a wave of suspicion towards Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the owners. It turned out to be one of the best things that happened to the club in years.
Jurgen Klopp certainly shed no tears at the Brazilian’s exit to Barcelona. The manager appreciated Coutinho’s ability but was never going to structure a team around him. The German tussled with the same question that Barca never really answered and Bayern Munich will now have to address: where is the 27-year-old’s best position? Klopp did not waste energy pondering this. He had other options.
By the time Coutinho left Anfield in January last year, Liverpool’s front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were in place and developing into the most effective attacking trio in Europe. The obvious place to deploy Coutinho was in the midfield but the evolving system needed more power in the engine room than the ‘Little Magician’ could provide. Especially before the signing of Virgil van Dijk – whose arrival has been inextricably linked with Coutinho’s departure – Liverpool’s midfielders were as much concerned about protecting the heart of the defence as getting forward.
Had he stayed, the Brazilian might have flourished in the present setup. While he struggled to find his feet in Catalonia, Klopp’s side were becoming more potent. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were growing into outstanding attacking full-backs who stretch teams across the central areas and open up space inside. Van Dijk’s presence allows the players in front of him to concentrate more of their efforts on getting forward. Looking ahead to Arsenal’s visit to Anfield on Saturday, it is easy to imagine Coutinho as the fulcrum of a midfield three with two strong-running partners. Bayern’s newest recruit could have been living that dream but he brought the nightmare upon himself.
He expected the move to the Nou Camp to put him at the highest level of European football. Instead, he has had to watch from Catalonia as his old club reached two Champions League finals and collected the trophy in Madrid in June. Coutinho started both legs of the semi-final against Liverpool in May and was hauled off after an hour in each game. The substitution at Anfield must have been particularly painful. It was clear he had swapped a great club on the rise for a great club in decline. The domestic medals are some compensation - two La Ligas, a Copa del Rey and a Supercopa - but no one could realistically argue that his time in Spain was a success.
Bayern are a team that also needed surgery last season – Klopp’s side won at the Allianz with dismissive ease in the knockout round. Even in Bavaria they are not entirely sure that Coutinho solves their problems.
The transfer was the catalyst for Liverpool’s renaissance in the past 18 months. Van Dijk changed the dynamic of the team. Would he have arrived on Merseyside without the Coutinho money? Barca agreed to pay up to £146 million and Anfield will bank most of it despite the loan move to Bayern. The £75 million spent on the Dutchman has proved to be a bargain. It is generally believed that FSG would not have approved the outlay without the sale but that theory does not take into account the evidence of the fractious summer transfer window of 2017.
Coutinho and his representative Kia Joorabchian were agitating for a move to the Nou Camp. In response FSG issued a 'definitive' statement saying that no offers for the player would be considered. He would not be allowed to leave.
At the same time Liverpool were trying to rescue their botched initial attempt to sign Van Dijk. Southampton were furious early in the window when it became public that the defender was expected to move to Anfield. Had the south club coast relented and allowed Van Dijk to move in August, Klopp would have paid £50 million plus for the centre back at a time when the intention was to keep Coutinho.
The midfielder’s subsequent behaviour – announcing his desperation to leave to the squad and complaining of a back injury that the medical staff could not confirm – meant that a January departure was inevitable. FSG, still suffering from the residual suspicion of fans that lingered since the departure of their compatriot former owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, did not want to be seen to be selling their best assets. The manager was not so convinced and, at Anfield, Klopp gets what he wants. There is no doubting that the money generated by Coutinho was recycled to buy Alisson Becker from Roma but Liverpool would have paid the price for Van Dijk whatever happened.
Coutinho has a fair amount to prove in Munich. Can he dominate games from the No 10 position? Will he be shunted out to the wing and, if so, can he be effective? Might Bayern even consider using him as a deep-lying playmaker? One thing has been demonstrated without doubt, though: Liverpool have been better without him. He may rue the day he walked out on Anfield and Klopp. The Kop had no need to worry.