Sunday, October 1, 2023

Leaving Liverpool: The Pitfalls to Avoid

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Liverpool’s story over the last 50 years or so has been a most intriguing one. Bill Shankly lifted them to the top, with Bob Paisley ready to take on the burden and maintain the legend, reaching even greater heights. Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish managed to keep their status as one of the best clubs on the planet, but the aftermaths of the Heysel and especially Hillsborough disasters were hard to cope with, and a steady decline began from the early 1990s.

There were signs, most notably under Gerard Houlier and Rafa Benitez, that the club could once again be destined for the very top. The infamous Hicks and Gillet era did them significant damage, repaired to a slight degree when Dalglish returned for his second spell and led the team to the 2012 League Cup. Brendan Rodgers came close to delivering the league title for the first time after 24 years in 2014, but it wasn’t to be.

It was eventually the arrival of Jurgen Klopp that did it, and Liverpool won the 2019 Champions League, followed by the long-awaited Premier League title in 2020.

But for a long time, even after Klopp came in to take the reigns and a bright future appeared on the horizon, their most talented players looked on the club as a stepping stone, seeking to leave when the really top ones came calling. The near success of 2013-14 was completely dispelled when Luis Suarez forced a move to Barcelona that summer. A year later, Raheem Sterling left in a similar manner to join Manchester City.

But since Klopp took over, there were three players the club wanted to keep, who still felt the need to leave and forced their way out. They don’t seem to have recognized in time the fact that Liverpool were on their way up.

Phillippe Coutinho

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The man of the moment, one might almost say, due to the fact that he’s just joined Aston Villa on loan from Barcelona for the rest of the season, and Villa have the option to make the deal permanent for €40 million in the summer. At Villa Park, he will once again be working with Steven Gerrard, the man who was his captain for two and a half years at Anfield.

The summer of 2017 was a difficult one for the Merseysiders, especially at the very end, and Coutinho was the reason. Around 24 hours before his team were scheduled to take to the pitch and begin their Premier League campaign, the Brazilian shocked them all by handing in a transfer request, with Barcelona making no secret of their interest. The uncertainty, however, was short-lived as Fenway Sports Group, the club owners, stepped in decisively and categorically stated Coutinho would remain a Liverpool player when the window is shut. Indeed, that was what happened.

Naturally, the speculations didn’t subside but continued to grow, pointing this time towards January as the moment the ‘magician’ might leave Anfield. At first, that didn’t seem likely, but in November that year, first reasonably reliable reports started emerging about the club’s stance softening.

In the end, an offer arrived the club were prepared to consider, and about a week after the arrival of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton was confirmed, they announced Coutinho was to join Barcelona. The fee, together with the add-ons, reportedly stood at €160 million.

We’ve all seen what happened after. Liverpool reinvested the money wisely, signing goalkeeper Alisson Becker from AS Roma and midfielder Fabinho from AS Monaco in the summer, having already reached the Champions League final and secured a place in the competition for the following season. They never looked back and their approach, as well as Klopp’s faith the remaining players along with the newcomers paid off big-time.

Meanwhile, Coutinho said he’d joined Barcelona to win the Champions League. Ironically enough, his team were famously dismantled by Liverpool in the 2019 semifinal, and not only did Liverpool win the Champions League without him, but he himself later left Barcelona to spend a year on loan at Bayern Munich – and won the Champions League there.

The fact that Coutinho was sent (or allowed) to leave back then, as well as now again, speaks volumes about his time and contribution at the Catalan club. He was brought in to be the immediate replacement for Neymar who joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, and later to evolve into a natural successor for Andres Iniesta in midfield. He proved neither in the end. In fact, he proved to have been the biggest mistake, at least in financial terms, that any club have ever made in the transfer market.

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Now he’s back in the Premier League, and there can be no doubt that he’ll benefit from Gerrard knowing him and his talents well. It will take time for him to readjust to the pace of the English top flight, but he’ll likely get there and prove an important part of the team.

But it still won’t be what he wanted. With all due respect to Villa, it’s hard to imagine them fighting earnestly for the biggest trophies out there any time soon, and at the age of 29, it’s not as if Coutinho can afford to wait too long.

Coutinho was the leading man before he left Liverpool. Klopp himself said once he had told Coutinho the club would build him a statue outside Anfield if he stayed, and if he left, he’d be just another number at Barcelona, and no more. Klopp was obviously prepared to build his team and base his game around the Brazilian playmaker, but it obviously wasn’t enough to make Coutinho see the mistake he was about to make.

It was said for a while that Coutinho would have gladly returned to Liverpool when his fate at the Camp Nou became clear.

But Liverpool had moved on by then. They didn’t need him any more; they don’t need him now.

Emre Can

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All throughout the 2017-18 season, stories were emerging about the talks between Liverpool and Emre Can about a new contract which repeatedly failed to bring an agreement. The German midfielder insisted he wasn’t after money, and though players often say that even when its abundantly clear otherwise, let’s presume for a moment that was true. So what was the reason, why did he refuse the offer and left eventually as a free agent?

The explanation that seems most likely, money issues aside, is that he may have demanded a more prominent role in the team; a guaranteed starting spot or something in that direction. That would’ve been something Klopp would decisively refuse to grant. As every successful manager of the modern game does, Klopp demands his players earn the minutes they crave. The result – Can made is final appearance in the Liverpool shirt as a substitute in the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev, and joined Juventus as a free agent straight after.

The first season in Turin did not look bad for the player who was still only 24 at the time. He made 29 Serie A appearances, 20 of which as a member of the starting XI, and it appeared for a while he had got from Juventus what he wanted Liverpool to give him.

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However, the following campaign saw him lose his place in the team, and he started only twice in the first half of the campaign, and he was completely left out of the squad for the group stage of the Champions League. Obviously unhappy with the situation, he left to join Borussia Dortmund on loan for the remaining part of 2019-20, and the deal was confirmed as permanent for a reported fee of €25 million the following summer.

It seems he’s finally found his level at Dortmund, a team usually looking in from outside as Bayern Munich win the Bundesliga title year after year, and it may be that he has finally learned that a top-level professional player cannot afford not to be willing to fight for his place under the sun, to work hard to prove every coach who doubts him or rates others higher wrong. Liverpool were never the problem.

Georginio Wijnaldum

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The story of Georginio Wijnaldum is a similar one to that of Emre Can, but only up to a point. The midfielder was still on his original five-year contract, which he signed upon arrival from Newcastle in 2016, when the talks about a new deal began. Being 30 at the time, he presumably wanted one truly big contract in his career, one that would reflect his unquestionably immense contribution to everything Liverpool have achieved under Klopp.

However, months slowly went by, the day Wijnaldum would become a free agent was looming, and the two sides of the negotiations seemed no closer to reaching an agreement. Barcelona were once again involved, hovering around, waiting to snatch the Dutchman away with a lucrative offer already prepared. When that day came, reports suggested Wijnaldum had accepted the terms and was about to undergo a medical ahead of signing, but money is a dangerous way to attract someone, especially if you’re not the biggest beast in the jungle.

It was PSG who again thwarted Barcelona’s plans, stepping in at the eleventh hour and reportedly doubling Barcleona’s offer to Wijnaldum. So, in the end, he went to the French capital instead.

But like Coutinho before him, Wijnaldum didn’t find all as he imagined it would be at his new club. It didn’t take long for him to openly admit he wasn’t happy. There were even reports that some of his new teammates, South Americans mostly, were refusing to pass the ball to him in training, believing him to be usurping the role of Leandro Paredes, their friend and obviously a popular figure in the dressing room. If so, no self-respecting professional footballer would be happy there.

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According to Sky Sports, Wijnaldum is now keen to follow in the footsteps of Coutinho and return to the Premier League on loan. His contract with PSG has two and a half years to run, and it remains to be seen whether a suitable offer arrives this month. It would likely do him good to get away from the Parc des Princes for a while and try and get his head back on the right way.

There have been others who left Liverpool during the Klopp era, but these three, Coutinho, Can and Wijnaldum, were arguably the only ones who had an important role to play, but for one reason or another, they wouldn’t. And given where their respective careers have taken them since, a simple conclusion writes itself here.

They all made a mistake in leaving Liverpool.


Veselin Trajkovic

Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.



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