Liverpool were better off without him. How desperately Barcelona needed him.
Philippe Coutinho has been the brunt of a fair few jokes following the Reds’ stunning victory against Manchester City and Barca’s shock exit to Roma in the Champions League.
Harsh, perhaps, considering there are very few who would turn down the chance to join Real Madrid or Barcelona if presented with the opportunity at the height of their career.
But Coutinho’s decision to leave Anfield for the Camp Nou in January may just have worked in Jurgen Klopp’s favour – and the fact he allowed such a special player to leave mid-season shows the German believed his side could continue to flourish without him.
Fans were less convinced. But after the thrilling 4-3 league victory against Manchester City in January, which Coutinho controversially missed as talk of a move ramped up, the belief spread.
It reached new heights following the stunning 3-0 success against the same opponents in the Champions League last week, in which Liverpool’s front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah ran City ragged.
For all the talk of Liverpool’s fab four before Coutinho’s departure, the results had been mixed when they all started together. They’d enjoyed a 7-0 demolition of a poor Spartak side in Europe, and a 3-0 home win against lowly Southampton in the Premier League, but also drew 3-3 with Sevilla – having led 3-0 at half time – and Arsenal.
Their forward play was thrilling, but defensively it left them vulnerable. With four attacking players, Liverpool had no answer if teams were able to bypass the initial press. The imbalance was obvious. Four had to become three when it mattered most.
Virgil van Dijk’s January arrival can’t be ignored in bringing more stability and calmness to Liverpool’s play, but with Coutinho gone, Klopp has been able to find the perfect balance, especially in big games.
And games don’t come much bigger than City in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Had Coutinho decided to hold off on his move to Barcelona until the summer, the Brazilian’s quality and creativity would surely have been called upon by Klopp over the two legs against City?
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, goalscorer in the first leg and tireless in the second, would perhaps have been the midfielder sacrificed had Klopp decided to play all four. But the England international’s running, commitment and defensive understanding were crucial.
Had Klopp opted to play a more balanced three in midfield, Mane could well have been the fall guy. But without his pace and direct running, City’s defenders would have had a much easier time. It was his clever touch in the second leg that led to Salah’s crucial away goal.
Klopp played it perfectly. He didn’t need Coutinho on Tuesday night. Barcelona did though. Ernesto Valverde’s side were craving creativity as they inexplicably crashed out to Roma, without the ineligible Brazilian.
But Klopp has been able to form a Liverpool side that doesn’t miss the 25-year-old’s influence on the ball, his eye for a pass and outrageous long-range strikes.
City star Fernandinho suggested the Reds are a long-ball side before the second leg, but that is not a true reflection of their style. Direct? Yes. Long ball? Not a chance. There’s a quickness and a sharpness about their play going forward that makes them so dangerous.
With the pace of Mane and Salah and the endless running from Firmino, Klopp has got it just right.
Having played for the Reds earlier in their European campaign, Coutinho could end up having a La Liga and Champions League medal in his trophy cabinet come the end of the season. Had he stayed at Liverpool, he’d probably have had neither.
While his departure seemed like a blow at the time, it could all end perfectly for both player and club.