“We have never been in a better position in recent times, as a club, to react in the right way,” Jurgen Klopp said when Philippe Coutinho finally left Liverpool for Barcelona in January of last year. “We will use our size and strength to absorb moments like this and still move forward.”
The club’s supporters were desperately seeking assurances that the loss of such a key player would not set Klopp’s side back but few took solace from those words. They had little reason to. Those same supporters had watched players leave for the Camp Nou before and then seen the club crumble.
Javier Mascherano was the first of three departures from Liverpool to Barcelona this decade, moving for £18million. More significantly, he was the first major name to leave in the post-Rafael Benitez era. Fernando Torres departed for Chelsea five months later, shortly after the signing of one Luis Suarez.
The decline in the club’s fortunes which followed cannot be explained simply by failings in recruitment but it can be illustrated by them. A selection of the players to arrive at Anfield in the year which followed Mascherano’s departure tells its own tale. In came Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, Sebastian Coates, Doni and, of course, Andy Carroll.
Add those names to the likes of Milan Jovanovic, Joe Cole, Paul Konchesky, Danny Wilson and Christian Poulsen, who all joined the club at around the same time as Mascherano left, in the death throes of Tom Hicks and George Gillet’s ruinous ownership. The sum of their combined transfer fees comes to around £80m.
When Suarez followed Mascherano to the Camp Nou in 2014, Liverpool’s recruitment was better, but not by much, and particularly poor when it came to directly replacing the Uruguayan. It was mid-November by the time either Mario Balotelli or Rickie Lambert had scored a league goal. By the end of the campaign, together, they had managed three.
The league finishes in the two seasons after each of Mascherano and Suarez’s departures were sixth, eighth, sixth and then eighth again. Is it any wonder then that, midway through last season when Coutinho’s £142million departure was completed, Liverpool supporters began to fear that history would repeat itself?
In fairness, Klopp himself was wounded when he learned of Coutinho’s desire to leave during the 2017 tour of Hong Kong, having noticed a change in the player’s demeanour. A muted goal celebration in the Premier League Asia Trophy was the first public signal of discontent. In private, Coutinho was freely discussing his hopes of a move with team-mates.
What had begun as a flirtation with Barcelona some years earlier had matured into a heartfelt desire to leave that summer. Over the following weeks and months, this became an insistence that now was the time to go. Neither Klopp nor Fenway Sports Group could convince the player to change his decision.
But there were two key differences from the exits of Mascherano and Suarez: Liverpool were now a club who knew how to soften the blow of losing such an influential player and in Klopp, they had a manager with plenty of experience in such situations, given the churn of talent he endured at Borussia Dortmund.
The financial boon of receiving the third-highest transfer fee of all time was therefore not wasted. Though Liverpool are not a club which must sell in order to buy, that the most lavish summer in the club’s history followed its most lucrative sale is no coincidence. Losing Coutinho allowed for smart, sensible upgrades in several key positions.
And whereas Roy Hodgson or Brendan Rodgers sought to replace an outgoing star with an individual in the same role who failed spectacularly, Klopp instead has recalibrated his team. Coutinho’s departure has had to mean a more conservative midfield set-up but this has been offset by greater threat down the flanks.
The dangerous, central areas of the pitch are now typically protected by Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner – ‘the Brexit midfield’, as they are uncharitably known by some fans on social media – and this allows full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are now the two key players who support Liverpool’s attack.
Together, the pair have set up 23 goals in all competitions this season – almost twice what Coutinho managed in his final half-season at the club. It is a crude argument based on raw numbers, but there is a case to say that Liverpool have essentially lost none of the creative output which Coutinho brought and yet on top of that, they have stabilised their midfield.
Granted, this set-up might have been different had last summer’s pursuit of Nabil Fekir not been aborted at the eleventh hour. The absence of a creative player in midfield is also easily identified as a problem on those occasions when Liverpool do not play with their usual rhythm and struggle to create chances.
But those occasions have been few and far between in a season which could yet end with Premier League and Champions League titles; a season that will still stand as a memorable one if they end it empty-handed. Liverpool appear to have learned how to absorb the loss of a key player and still move forward. They have reacted in exactly the right way, just as Klopp promised.
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