Does Liverpool need to replace Philippe Coutinho?

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As Lyon’s Nabil Fekir dispossessed Manchester City’s Fernandinho in a dangerous position in the middle of the park, the Frenchman took aim before firing the ball into the corner of the net to leave the Etihad Stadium stunned. City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, watching from high in the stands, sat motionless while his players looked at each other in disbelief and blame.

Thirty miles west down the East Lancs Road, fans of another English club also took note. Just three months earlier, Fekir, after being identified as the man to fill the No. 10 role left available following Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona, dressed in a Liverpool kit for the purpose of all the promotional photos that tend to surround the modern-day transfer deal.

The deal in question struck on the terms that Liverpool would pay £53 million to Lyon and Fekir, seemingly thrilled at the potential move, would sign a five-year deal worth £140,000 a week with the Reds before flying out to Russia for the World Cup. The World Cup France would go on to win.

On June 10, Liverpool fans went to bed excited that the next day they would be unveiling their new playmaker, a role missing at the club since January. Still, late that night, it emerged that Liverpool called off the move due to the Merseyside outfit’s concerns that an old knee ligament injury would potentially hamper their proposed expensive new recruit’s performances. To this day, Fekir remains a Lyon player. Hence, the damage to City, much to Liverpool fan’s frustration.

If there is a problem, what is it?

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For many, last January’s sale of the Brazilian magician, which represented a £133.5 million profit on the player they picked up for £8 million, should have signalled the end of their season’s progress. Instead, with £75 million instantly reinvested on Virgil van Dijk, they marched through to the Champions League final, the biggest game on Earth, where they ultimately lost to Real Madrid. Just as when the former 888Poker ambassador Luis Suarez made the same journey when he left Liverpool for Barcelona three years ago, an overwhelming talent lost needs replacing.

This season Liverpool’s free-flowing football and the high-scoring game mostly blunted, replaced, instead, by efficiency — this is their best ever start to a Premier League campaign — and defensive stubbornness, as further funds redirected into Alisson Becker in the goal, momentarily the highest-priced goalkeeper in the world.

At times, in the transfer market, manager Jurgen Klopp acted like a man with a winning poker strategy, but the loss of Coutinho sees his bluff called. Despite their unbeaten start to the season, a strange feeling of unsatisfaction permeates the Merseysiders as the goals of last season have mostly dried up, and Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah all look slightly out of sorts. But why has Klopp’s poker hand depleted so, if it has at all, of course?

When processing why this is the case, two determining factors present themselves:

  • (A) – The departure of Željko Buvač, Klopp’s long-standing number two, stalwart and man dubbed ‘The Brain’. The Serbian previously worked alongside Klopp for 17 years before leaving his post as assistant manager towards the end of last season, with no signs of returning (although this, like the Fekir collapse, remains uncommented on by the club). Is this what has seen Klopp’s poker hand hit the rails?
  • (B) – The sale of Coutinho. Taking the latter at hand, what can they do and who, if any, could join the club and get the attack, and Klopp’s poker game, firing again?

Who can replace Philippe Coutinho?

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Assuming the deal with Fekir isn’t reinvigorated in January, America’s next big hope, 20-year-old Borussia Dortmund wide attacker Christian Pulisic might be next through the doors at Anfield. Pulisic has quickly become one of the most exciting young players in Europe, already bagging nine international goals for the United States in 21 caps. Former Dortmund boss Klopp is a keen admirer, but the American would not directly do what Coutinho did. While he does look like he will one day be a Liverpool player, that time might not be yet and, as a winger, this wouldn’t fill the hole in the middle vacated by Coutinho anyway.

The 22-year-old Nigerian international Moses Simon is another name linked with the Reds. Currently, on the books at Gent, Simon is known for his lightning-quick speed, directness and the tendency to cut inside, all traits that would appeal to Klopp and the way he sets his team out. Even then though, he would feel more like a wide player to allow the boss to rotate the front three rather than sit in the middle a la Coutinho.

Elsewhere, there have been suggestions that Morocco international and Ajax star Hakim Ziyech has the attention of Liverpool, and he is one that does at least play through the middle. The attacking midfielder put in some strong performances at the World Cup and has continued to impress for his club this season, netting seven goals in 16 appearances. Kerem Demirbay to Liverpool is another possibility. Similarly, to Fekir, Hoffenheim midfielder Demirbay may have been close to a move to Merseyside already had it not been for the 25-year-old to suffer an ankle injury. Meanwhile, in Italy, Napoli appears ready to listen to offers for 27-year-old Lorenzo Insigne, who is another linked with Liverpool.

Less likely to pay dividends is Liverpool’s move for Paulo Dybala. Summer reports by Argentine broadcaster TyC claimed that Dybala, comfortably the man most suited to replace Coutinho, was a target for Liverpool with the Merseyside club already contacting representatives of the player in the hope of rejuvenating the attack and reaffirming Klopp’s poker hand. One player already at the club who looks like he could potentially fill the role is Xherdan Shaqiri. Recruited at a discounted price of £13 million in the summer, the Swiss performed well when given a chance this season and has already scored twice for his new team. In the meantime, while Liverpool needs to bring new blood to their midfield, their strong start to the season suggests there is no need to hit the panic button quite yet and that there is life in the old poker player yet.