What Liverpool fans were dreading for the entirety of last summer came to fruition this past weekend. Coutinho traded in his Merseyside-red shirt for the most famous kit in Catalonia. Barcelona have paid a king’s ransom of £142 million total for the attacking midfielder known as “the Little Magician”. That number makes him, at the present moment, the second-most expensive transfer ever (Kylian Mbappe is still considered on loan at Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco, though his transfer of £166.4 million has already been agreed upon). The add-ons in the deal- which are based on Coutinho’s pending performance with Barcelona- are likely to be achieved, considering Barcelona are currently running La Liga comparable to the same level of dominance that Bayern Munich are running the Bundesliga.
While Andres Iniesta is unquestionably one of the greatest midfielders of the past 10 years, Coutinho should have no problem filling the Spaniard’s shoes when the time inevitably comes. Who will fill the hole in Liverpool’s midfield, however, comes with a less transparent answer. Rumors of what the club should do with the sudden influx of cash are abundant this winter transfer window, ranging from Jurgen Klopp waiting until the summer to spend, to Naby Keita joining Liverpool a half-season earlier than expected. The remedy is expected to come sooner rather than later, and here are just some of the options possibly available to replace Philippe Coutinho.
Nabil Fekir is, in my humble opinion, the best realistic choice to replace Coutinho. With an impressive 16 goals and 4 assists in all competitions, including four braces, Fekir has helped vault Olympique Lyon into 3rd place in Ligue 1 and into the Round of 32 in the Europa League where they will face Villarreal. He plays similarly to Coutinho in that he loves to dribble in the half-space and isn’t afraid to take the long shot, proven by his goal of the season candidate back in August against Bordeaux in which he scored from the half-way line. He can take set pieces as well, as four of his goals have come from penalties and free kicks. Add in his creativity and spectacular control, and Fekir has all the traits needed to emulate the former Liverpool attacker.
Shortly after the sale of Coutinho was officially announced, a rumor via beIN Sports began to spread that Riyad Mahrez will be on his way to Liverpool for a medical. At the same time, another rumor, via Sky Sports, stated that the club was not interested in Mahrez as a Coutinho replacement. Regardless of which gossip is correct, there isn’t much doubt that the Algerian would be an excellent piece in Klopp’s squad.
Mahrez plays primarily as the right midfielder in Leicester City’s 4-4-2 formation. While he has become an ace at assisting or finishing a counter-attack, Mahrez can also play in more possessive situations. His tendency to dribble then cut back towards the top of the box is similar to that of Arjen Robben and on occasion Liverpool’s own Sadio Mane. Whether a change in formation is necessary should Mahrez join is debatable, but Klopp has shown in the past he is more than capable of doing so. Mahrez’s productivity in the Premier League is also a welcome supporting point, as he is already familiar with the league.
Thomas Lemar would be another very good choice to replace Coutinho (the word ‘replace’ is to be taken loosely throughout this article, as tactics and formations can be shifted with the outgoing and incoming of players). The youngest of the options named here, Lemar has played a major part of Monaco’s rise over the last season and a half. Playing in a similar position as Mahrez, he excels at setting up Radamel Falcao for ideal scoring situations. Lemar, along with Nabil Fekir, will be looking to make the most of the latter half of this season as potential open spots in Les Bleus squad for the upcoming 2018 World Cup are few and far between.
Manuel Lanzini is the most similar candidate to Coutinho on this list in terms of traditional 10 play. Despite playing for one of the more struggling clubs in the Premier League, Lanzini has assisted on one of every five West Ham goals. He has the ball control and playmaking skills to contribute to Liverpool’s potent attack, and the added benefit of a relatively low cost. However, while Lanzini wouldn’t be a poor signing, it would take a rare opinion to say that there aren’t any better options out there, especially when taking into account the newly acquired funds.
The great Johan Cruyff once discussed how a traditional 10 cannot work in a 4-3-3 system. If Klopp believes this and wants to continue using this formation, then buying another high quality 8 could be the solution. There are plenty of these midfielders ready to take their talents to the next level, but buying this type of player in this situation comes with a risk. The ability to distribute forward to the front three would be more difficult for someone who also is required to track back and defend often, and Liverpool’s dynamic attack might take a hit in terms of output.
Going into the latter half of the season, with places two through six on the table only eight points apart, this signing can’t afford to be a miss. An array of other viewpoints is out there, from buying an already established, more attack-focused player such as Paulo Dybala or Dries Mertens to taking the youth route and promoting Ben Woodburn, with the long-term plan of inserting him into the lineup. When Klopp finally allowed Coutinho to leave, he left the club in a difficult position. But as James Pearce stated in a recent piece for the Liverpool Echo: “You can’t keep holding on to someone who doesn’t want to be there”.
When Coutinho was bought from Inter Milan for a mere £8.5 million, opinions were divided. He had only scored three league goals in two seasons with the Serie A club, but had a successful half-season loan stint at Espanyol, scoring five goals in 16 matches. A remarkable 54 goals later, the Brazilian has since been an absolute delight to watch at Anfield, and will be sorely missed no matter who replaces him. This has become a recent trend for Liverpool, as a multitude of departures over the last ten years have made major headlines as high-dollar transfers. But as it is said, no player is bigger than the club, and Liverpool fans can turn their emotions toward the excitement of signing a new talisman to boost the already impressive attack once again.
Writer: Will Sinsky/@wsinsky
Photo: Barcelona FC