Whenever a player of Philippe Coutinho’s stature bolts for greener pastures, and hundreds of millions of dollars change hands, world football lurches out of equilibrium. It leaps into a state of transition and uncertainty. A megadeal always has multiple makeweights. Until both parties find them, the European club ecosystem finds itself struggling for balance.
That’s the stage of the cycle the sport has seemingly arrived at after Liverpool and Barcelona agreed a $192.5 million deal for Coutinho, who’ll temporarily become the second-most expensive player ever. First and foremost, Barcelona must make financial room for him.
Over in England, Liverpool must find a replacement. That’s where the fun often begins. Big transfers fuel the rumor mill. Over the coming weeks, the Reds will be linked with dozens of players who could fill the diminutive playmaker’s disproportionately massive shoes.
They’ve already been linked with a few. Monaco winger Thomas Lemar, 22, has reportedly been a target for some time. Riyad Mahrez’s name has popped up in British papers over the past few days, though Liverpool has reportedly refuted those reports directly. Others – perhaps even Christian Pulisic – will fill the pages of tabloids beginning on Monday.
But in a way, the Coutinho deal is unique. The aftermath, therefore, will be different. Football isn’t as far away from equilibrium as it often is after a move this big. Because in a way, the Coutinho deal isn’t the action that requires a reaction; it is the reaction.
In other words, the Coutinho deal is actually the one that brings the sport nearer to equilibrium. It’s the final piece of Barca’s reaction to its sale of Neymar to PSG for a world-record $268 million. Since the Neymar sale, and before the Coutinho purchase, Barcelona had made a net profit on transfers of around $140 million. The Coutinho deal takes it to a net spend of around $50 million. Sales of Arda Turan and a few others can bring the club – one, by the way, that doesn’t need to break even – close to breaking even.
On the other end, it’s a move Liverpool has budgeted for. This past summer, it agreed to spend $68 million on RB Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita next summer. This past week, it shelled out a whopping $102 million for center back Virgil van Dijk.
In other words, Liverpool might already have its Coutinho replacements.
Keita and van Dijk are anything but like-for-like replacements, of course. The latter is the most expensive defender ever. The former is a box-to-box midfielder who can replicate some of Coutinho’s attacking contributions with his dribbling and ball-progression, even if not all of them.
But Liverpool, ever since Klopp took charge, has suffered from its own personal imbalance. It has the second-best attack in the Premier League, but a mistake-prone defense wallowing outside the league’s top five. It can maintain its current level of play, and perhaps even improve, without signing a direct Coutinho replacement. It will be different, but not necessarily worse.
The key point is that Coutinho’s departure doesn’t leave a hole, like Neymar’s did at Barcelona. Klopp’s system doesn’t require a No. 10. It does require an athletic, energetic and clinical front three, but Liverpool has that even without Coutinho. Mohamed Salah has been a revelation on the right wing. Sadio Mane, especially when an attacking focal point, has been one of the Premier League’s best on either wing. Roberto Firmino is excellent up top.
Liverpool does have money to spend, and will likely spend it. Monaco has said it won’t sell Lemar in January, but a summer deal for the French winger is a very real possibility. Just as probable, though, would be a swoop for a less heralded playmaker in the $40 million range whom Klopp identifies as the newest subject of his affection.
But he already has several utility players, like summer signing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who can deputize in midfield and on the wings. His midfield may actually achieve a better balance with two 8s in front of a 6, rather than with Coutinho in a free role as the most advanced of the three.
Liverpool was about as prepared for the departure of Coutinho as any club could be. Had it held out until the summer, it would have been even better off. In the short term, its top-four hopes have certainly been dented.
But the deal won’t be as big a shock to the transfer market’s system as past equivalents. And it won’t be a shock to Liverpool’s system. The club has already braced itself for this, so much so that its plan for replacements is not only already in place; it has, in large part, already been executed.
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