The Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona transfer saga lasted the whole of the summer. It was a distraction Liverpool could have done without.
The Brazilian was desperate to leave according to reports, even handing in a transfer request. A ‘back injury’ that ironically cured as soon as the international break began saw Coutinho sit out Liverpool’s first three Premier League games.
It was far from ideal for a side looking to push on and finally win their first ever Premier League title.
However, Liverpool stood firm all summer and insisted Coutinho would not be sold, no matter the price.
The Reds even rejected a bid as high as £118m to keep one of their star men. They did, and whether Coutinho likes it or not, he is here to stay for the time being at least.
A swift return
It’s important to note that this piece isn’t a dig at Coutinho’s character. Footballers only have a short career and a possible dream move to Barcelona may only come around once. It would be both unreasonable and harsh to criticise Coutinho for having his head turned.
However, the fact of the matter is this; his head was turned. His commitment to Liverpool will now, inevitably, come under question until he proves differently.
Coutinho remains one of Liverpool’s most important players, but should he make an immediate return to the first XI?
Liverpool have made a good start to the Premier League without Coutinho. An opening day 3-3 draw away to Watford was a disappointment, but the Reds followed that up with a hard-earned 1-0 victory against Crystal Palace before battering Arsenal 4-0.
Seven points out of nine shows they are coping without the Brazilian’s artistry, but for how long?
Is gegenpressing really the best playmaker?
Despite having one of the most frightening attacks in Europe, Liverpool are often found lacking creativity against sides who don’t fall into their gegenpressing Venus fly trap.
Jurgen Klopp has often stated this form of pressing is better than any singular playmaker though Liverpool struggle to create and progress the ball.
This is especially so with a midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum, none of whom are particularly great at passing the ball through the lines and finding the gaps.
This is why Coutinho is still so important to Klopp. Having failed to sign Thomas Lemar, and with Adam Lallana injured until Christmas, Coutinho is the only established player at Liverpool who can perform this role.
Klopp recognised ball progression as an issue for the Reds, by targeting Lemar from Monaco and also utilising Coutinho in a deeper role towards the end of last season.
It worked as the Brazilian was wonderful from deep and Liverpool were fluid through the lines, which led to some impressive results, including a 5-0 victory away to West Ham where the former Inter playmaker was the star of the show.
It is clear then that Coutinho’s ability and role in the side warrants an immediate return to Klopp’s starting line up.
Forgiving & forgetting
However, Coutinho won’t be of any use unless his head is in the right place. There have been plenty of previous examples of players who have largely disappointed having seen a transfer move materialise.
Kyle Walker at Tottenham Hotspur was dropped for several games last season and put in some abject performances after it was rumoured he wanted out. Riyad Mahrez, similarly, was rather poor for Leicester City last season as his summer move failed to develop.
However, there are plenty examples of players who were denied their moves, but got their head down and continued to put in high-class performances.
Luis Suarez was denied a move to Arsenal but was sensational for Liverpool that season. Patrick Vieira wanted to leave Arsenal in 2001 but stayed to become an integral part of the Invincibles.
Luka Modric was denied a move to Chelsea but sealed a transfer to Real Madrid a year later after another outstanding season for Spurs.
Back to the starting XI
So then, only Coutinho himself will know if he is ready.
There’s reason to suggest that Klopp could keep him on the bench versus Manchester City this weekend as Pep Guardiola’s side, like Arsenal, are one looking to attack and commit men forwards, which falls perfectly into Klopp’s counter-pressing strategy.
It will be a risk to thrust him straight back into the first team picture, but his ability and importance make it a gamble worth taking.
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