Opinion: Can Liverpool afford to keep Philippe Coutinho?

In an increasingly competitive and physical Premier League, squad strength is vital. Therefore it was pleasing to see Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp make five changes to his side against Crystal Palace on Saturday and still come away with a 1-0 win.

Sadio Mané’s winner was fortuitous and the Reds struggled to break down a team which was seeking its fourth consecutive league victory at Anfield. Yet Palace also made few chances and overall Liverpool deserved to win the game. The performance was not their best, but winning teams often win ugly with lucky goals – a habit Liverpool would welcome more often when they are misfiring in front of goal.

Liverpool recorded their first clean sheet of the season on Saturday – in fact, in their last six league games, they have kept five clean sheets. Who said anything about defensive troubles?

Should Liverpool progress to the Champions League group stages at Hoffenheim’s expense, then Klopp will be hugely satisfied with the results his side have begun this season with, even if there is work still to be done on performances.

Transfers are now the pressing issue whilst the August window remains open, with all headlines at Anfield dominated by one man – Philippe Coutinho.

Neymar’s world-record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain has caused a lot of headaches at Anfield as Barcelona immediately strengthened their interest in Liverpool’s Coutinho. Unsurprisingly, the 25-year-old’s head has been turned by the Spanish giants, although Liverpool fans were surprised when the Brazilian submitted a transfer request last Friday.

Since then Coutinho has supposedly been unavailable due to a back injury, which few believe, especially amid reports that he has refused to play for Liverpool again in his bid to force through a move to Spain.

Barcelona are undoubtedly reeling from their loss of superiority in Spain to Real Madrid, alongside the loss of one of their star players, one-third of their ‘MSN’ (Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar) axis and the youngest of the trio by far.

The manner of Neymar’s loss will also have hurt, and now they have begun a desperate scramble to secure replacements. Coutinho was on Barcelona’s radar, but not for this season, not until Neymar left for France.

Needing to appease their fans, Barcelona have tried to sign both Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé to replace Neymar, but so far they have been left frustrated and unsuccessful.

Worse could be to come, should any rumours linking Messi to Manchester City carry substance.

Should the Reds keep a hold of the Brazilian?

Regarding Liverpool, should they hold onto Coutinho? Is any bid acceptable?

According to Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, Coutinho is not for sale at any price, as declared by FSG in a statement on the day Coutinho handed in his transfer request.

Perhaps there is a different approach behind the scenes, or mixed opinions (Klopp may not want to sell Coutinho but the German will undoubtedly be feeling hurt by his star playmaker’s actions) but publicly Liverpool remain resolute against Barcelona’s advances.

The Spanish giants have seen three bids rejected by Liverpool, with the final bid reportedly amounting to around £114m, although with a sizeable amount in add-ons. Barcelona even issued an ultimatum for Sunday night, calling for Liverpool to accept the bid or they would walk away – to Liverpool’s amusement, given the bid was already rejected.

Financially, if Liverpool received an upfront bid of, say, £130m, that would be extremely tough for FSG to turn down. Whilst the transfer market is becoming increasingly inflated, such a fee represents far more than Coutinho is probably worth, arguably double that amount in fact.

Coutinho still has his best years ahead of him, and his talent is undeniable, but he has been inconsistent for Liverpool, especially when he has played out wide in a front three. He performs more regularly when attacking from midfield, as he showcased to an extent in the 2013-14 season, where Liverpool challenged for the Premier League title, and at the end of last season.

Moreover, replacements for Coutinho certainly exist. Arsenal’s Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, PSG’s Julian Draxler and Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez are three potential targets, two of which could be recruited with plenty of change to spare from the Coutinho sale, perhaps to go towards Klopp’s supposedly priority targets – Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk and RB Leipzig’s Naby Keïta.

Four quality players heavily funded by the sale of just one, who is arguably not even a world-class player yet.

However, whilst this strategy may seem an enticing one, with just over a week to go before the transfer window shuts, Liverpool would struggle to perform all of this business at such a late stage, especially at reasonable (for this market) fees.

Replacements may seem obtainable on paper, but are far more difficult to secure in reality, especially when every club is playing a poker game at this late stage in the window.

Liverpool will surely be active in the market before the end of August, probably once Champions League group stage football is guaranteed, but Klopp will want to focus only on strengthening his team, not overhauling it.

A centre-back and centre-midfielder are desperately required, especially with Adam Lallana’s thigh injury ruling the 29-year-old out for around three months.

Keeping Coutinho - a risk?

But will Coutinho play for Liverpool again, and will he play at his best?

Suárez was outstanding in his final year at Anfield, almost leading Liverpool to the title in 2014. The Uruguayan had wanted to leave in the summer of 2013 and join Arsenal, but was persuaded to stay by Steven Gerrard on the promise that an exceptional season would see Real Madrid or Barcelona come calling, which they duly did.

Barcelona already want Coutinho now, but probably to play in their front three rather than midfield, whereas in the future he could succeed Barcelona legend Andres Iniésta.

This will not be Coutinho’s only chance to join Barcelona – prior to Neymar’s departure, the Spanish club would have been planning for his arrival in a year’s time, and if they truly want Coutinho, they will come back for him in 2018.

In fact, next summer Coutinho himself may have second thoughts on a move to Barcelona, should their problems continue.

Given this season ends with a World Cup, there is little doubt that Coutinho, if he stays at Liverpool beyond August, will apologize, withdraw his transfer request and perform again.

Time heals old wounds – if Coutinho works hard and has the right attitude, he can repair any broken relationships at the club and with the fans. The rest can be left for next summer.