Is Philippe Coutinho Really Liverpool's Most Indispensable Man?

Rob Lancaster@RobLancs79Featured ColumnistAugust 4, 2017

Barcelona have already failed with one bid for Philippe Coutinho—they are expected to return with another offer.
Barcelona have already failed with one bid for Philippe Coutinho—they are expected to return with another offer.Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Now Neymar has completed his move to Paris Saint-Germain, the footballing world waits for the ripple effect.

While the announcement on Thursday hardly came as a surprise, there was still a need to pinch yourself that the deal had actually been completed. A player who appeared to be in a perfect position at Barcelona, lining up alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, has decided to leave the band and go solo.

PSG forked out €222 million (£200.5 million) to get hold of one of the world's brightest stars, per BBC Sport. They didn't just break the transfer record, they crushed it into tiny pieces.

The £89 million Manchester United paid Juventus a year ago to bring back Paul Pogba now looks like pocket change in comparison.

So, as Neymar looks for a new pad and works out the best place to take his dry cleaning in the French capital, Barcelona must now focus on how to replace a third of their potent forward line that combined for 364 goals in their three seasons together, per Squawka Football on Twitter.

The fact the Spanish superpower now has all this money to burn and a gaping hole to fill sends Liverpool supporters into a nervous sweat.

According to La Liga expert Guillem Balague on Twitter, Philippe Coutinho is on a short list of potential replacements for Neymar:

For Reds everywhere, there is a horrible sense of deja vu. Three years ago, the draw of playing for Barcelona lured Suarez away; they must now hope history isn't repeated.

At least this time the circumstances are different. Unlike his old team-mate, Coutinho hasn't made his desire to leave public.

Suarez talked of going long before the time came for him to pack his bags. His public complaints led to the now-famous £40 million-plus-£1 offer from Arsenal, who hoped to trigger a release clause in his contract.

The Uruguayan left a year later, having scooped the PFA and Football Writers' Player of the Year awards after a season that saw Liverpool come close to ending their league title drought.

Luis Suarez eventually got his wish.
Luis Suarez eventually got his wish.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Liverpool struggled to recover from the loss of their talismanic forward. Then-manager Brendan Rodgers hoped to hit the jackpot by signing Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona as a replacement; instead, he finished up with the booby prize in Mario Balotelli.

Would Coutinho's departure have a similar impact in 2017? Could even a manager of Jurgen Klopp's capabilities conjure up a way to cope without the man nicknamed "The Little Magician."

To answer those questions, you need to have an appreciation for what the Brazilian means to the team.

While Suarez was the centrepiece of the attack in the 2013/14 campaign, Coutinho overcame a slow start (including suffering a shoulder injury) to score five times and register seven assists that season, including a dramatic late winner in a 3-2 triumph over eventual champions Manchester City at Anfield.

However, he's since stepped up from his role as a supporting cast member to take centre stage. Just look at his output in the Premier League over his four full seasons in England:

SeasonAppearancesGoalsAssists
2013/143357
2014/153555
2015/162685
2016/1731137

Under Klopp, his development took an interesting twist in the run-in last season.

Mostly used in an advanced position during his time on Merseyside, whether it be from the left side or as an attacking midfielder, Coutinho was moved further back to provide creativity from a deeper role.

There was one particularly eye-catching performance in that position at West Ham United, as he scored twice and also set up another in a 4-0 triumph that pushed Liverpool ever closer to a top-four finish. On that day, Klopp's new diamond sparkled, with his little gem dazzling on the left side of a midfield four.

The arrival of Mohamed Salah during the current transfer window suggests Coutinho can expect to play more minutes in the engine room, allowing him to seize control of games. Rather than be left waiting on the periphery, Klopp wants one of his most creative forces to be setting the tone in possession.

A lack of depth out wide means the 25-year-old's days in the front three aren't over just yet, though. Such versatility adds to his importance; he is a fantastic footballer, wherever he lines up on the field.

Yet that isn't to say Liverpool cannot thrive without him. They lost just one of the seven league games he missed due to ankle ligament damage in 2016/17, a run of fixtures that included notable victories over Everton and Manchester City.

Sadio Mane made a flying start to life with Liverpool last season.
Sadio Mane made a flying start to life with Liverpool last season.Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Sadio Mane, meanwhile, was missing for three of the team's six league losses over the course of the campaign, while he was also withdrawn at Bournemouth with the side 3-1 up (then watched on from the bench as his colleagues collapsed down the stretch, eventually losing 4-3).

Without Mane, the attack often looked lethargic. The Senegalese forward doesn't necessarily need the ball to make an impact—his pace is, obviously, a huge asset, while Liverpool's high press can lead to opportunities to launch him at defences that are not set up to cope.

Even Tottenham Hotspur—owners of the stingiest defence in the top flight—were caught out at Anfield. All it needs is a misplaced pass from the opposition to launch Mane beyond a broken defensive line.

That pressing game is triggered from the front and, therefore, Roberto Firmino, is crucial. His willingness to work for the cause and close down opponents makes him a teacher's pet, and also explains why he starts up top ahead of Daniel Sturridge, who most would agree is the better finisher out of the two.

Then again, you could just agree with Paul Ince that James Milner is the most important Red of the lot, per Squawka News:

While the team perhaps lacks a little sparkle in his absence, it can function without Coutinho.

That doesn't, however, mean they are better off taking Barcelona's money. Selling isn't just about the impact it may or may not have on the team on the field, but also the message it sends off it. At a time when Klopp has raised expectation levels, losing a leading light would reflect dimly on the club's ambitions.

Typically, the German has been defiant in the face of media questions over Coutinho's future. He has no plans to take out a key cog, particularly one who signed a new, long-term contract in January of this year.

"We believe in working together, we believe in development together. We believe in using the basis," Klopp told reporters during the Asia Trophy (h/t Jack Lusby of This Is Anfield). "We want to work together, we want to make the next step together, and for this, we need to stay together. That's how it is."

According to James Dutton of the MailOnline, Barcelona had a £72 million offer turned down earlier in the summer. The Blaugrana will be back—Dutton reported a €120 million (£107.3 million) bid is expected.

Coutinho hasn't attempted to rock the boat. Don't expect that to change either, according to Tim Vickery.

"He's a good pro, and he doesn't really have the incentive to pull a sulk in a World Cup year," the South American expert told TalkSport radio (h/t Joe Rimmer of the Liverpool Echo).

Should Liverpool eventually cave (and there is no sign that will happen...yet), they will be the ones with the wedge of cash to spend, extending the Neymar ripple effect a little further into the transfer pool.

But is he indispensable to Liverpool? Not from a playing point of view, no. Important, without a doubt, yet Klopp's crop is far from a one-man team.

This transfer saga feels more about the club standing firm and refusing to kowtow to Barcelona. However, there seems an inevitability that, at some point, Coutinho will end up at the Camp Nou.

Finding a striker to replace Suarez was a tough task in 2014; free-scoring frontmen are not just thin on the ground, they also cost a pretty penny. You pay a premium for goals, as Rodgers and his transfer committee found out to their cost.

Playmakers with Coutinho's type of flexibility hardly come cheap, but you'd have no need to necessarily find a like-for-like replacement. The additional cash could even be used to get Naby Keita out of Leipzig.

While technically gifted and glorious to watch in full flow, Coutinho wasn't the catalyst for the much-improved Reds last year. That was Klopp, the man Liverpool cannot afford to lose.

        

Rob Lancaster is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All statistics used in the article are from TransferMarkt unless otherwise stated.

Related

    Fabregas: Ronaldo's Goals Come from Dead-Balls or Mistakes

    World Football logo
    World Football

    Fabregas: Ronaldo's Goals Come from Dead-Balls or Mistakes

    sport.es
    via sport

    Keita Arrives, Fekir Talk Returns, 2 Keepers Ruled Out

    Liverpool logo
    Liverpool

    Keita Arrives, Fekir Talk Returns, 2 Keepers Ruled Out

    This Is Anfield
    via This Is Anfield

    Find Your World Cup Twin

    World Football logo
    World Football

    Find Your World Cup Twin

    VG Nett
    via VG Nett

    Lukaku & Hazard Put on Show in Belgium Goalfest

    World Football logo
    World Football

    Lukaku & Hazard Put on Show in Belgium Goalfest

    Matt Jones
    via Bleacher Report