PL Stories - Ep 34Mar 22
Why Jurgen Klopp's decision to let Philippe Coutinho leave was Liverpool's sliding door moment in quest for first Premier League title
Jurgen Klopp's decision to let Philippe Coutinho join Barcelona proved a pivotal moment in Liverpool's mission to end their 30-year wait for a 19th title
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When Jurgen Klopp first addressed the media as the new manager of Liverpool football club, he made a bold claim.
Liverpool's 18th and last league title had come back in 1990.
The ensuing 25 years had brought a series of painful near misses as Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United assumed the mantle of English football's top dogs.
"If I sit here in four years, I am pretty confident we will have one title," he told reporters, with that now iconic big-toothed smile.
"It's the biggest honour I can imagine, one of the biggest clubs in the world. I've been given the opportunity to help in this situation, but it's not so difficult as some people in this room think."
Not only did people inside the room need convincing, everyone inside the club had to be transformed - in Klopp's own words - from doubters to believers.
How he transformed Liverpool from also-rans to the most dominant side in the land is another story in itself.
But there was one key moment along the way that proved pivotal in the resurrection of a sleeping giant.
Here BT Sport looks at how Klopp ended Liverpool's title drought to make himself an Anfield immortal.
It's easy to see in hindsight, but the decision to allow Philippe Coutinho to join Barcelona in January 2018 was one that could have easily derailed the German's Anfield tenure.
The diminutive Brazilian had been the creative heartbeat of the side under Klopp and Brendan Rodgers before that, but starting the 2017/18 season he had his sights set on a dream move to Spain.
Klopp ultimately sanctioned 'Phil's' sale without a ready-made replacement lined up - but his reasoning was clear.
He explained: “You cannot use him if he's not 100 per cent. Philippe Coutinho is a world class player but if he's not 100 per cent, he's not that international class or Premier League class. You lose the grip.
“By the way, final decision, if I would have said 'no way', the club would have said 'ok, let's try'.
“But it was clear there was no chance. It's not that there was an open question or something and in the end 50 per cent pro, 50 per cent contra and I had to make the decision. In the end, it was quite easy.”
Allowing his primary playmaker to leave halfway through the season was a huge gamble.
But Liverpool didn't falter in Coutinho's absence, in fact, they thrived.
Without a typical number 10 like Coutinho to play off up front, Klopp employed a dynamic three-man midfield capable of creating as well as protecting his back four.
Klopp believed Liverpool had become too predictable with the majority of their play going through Coutinho.
Without him they were forced to cultivate different approaches in attack, forcing other players to take on attacking responsibility, including full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
The results were almost instantaneous.
Liverpool surpassed all expectations, reaching their first Champions League final for 11 years and securing back-to-back top-four finishes in the Premier League for the first time since 2009.
More than forcing Klopp to evolve, Coutinho's exit can be pin-pointed as a sliding doors moment that inspired the German to re-shuffle his pack in pursuit of a 19th league crown.
The arrival of Van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk's £75m move from Southampton to Liverpool will go down as one of greatest bargains in Premier League history.
The big Dutchman single-handedly transformed Klopp's Reds from a disjointed and disorganised side whose defence was its achilles heel, to one of the stingiest backlines in the league.
Yet, without the £142m fee acquired in the sale of Coutinho, Van Dijk may have been wearing Manchester City blue rather than Liverpool red.
Liverpool faced stiff competition for the former Celtic's centre-back's signature but Klopp was adamant the club would be getting the kind of defensive leader they had been sorely lacking since Jamie Carragher's retirement.
Although the transfer was struck with Southampton five days before the fee was agreed with Barcelona, Liverpool were able to spend big knowing Coutinho's sale would give them the financial clout to acquire Klopp's number one target.
Van Dijk proved worth the effort.
In his first full season at Anfield Van Dijk became just the fourth defender to win the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award and the first since 2004.
Perpetually calm and cool-headed, his tag as the world's most expensive defender never fazed Van Dijk.
His comforting presence at the heart of Liverpool's defence has been integral to their quest for a first Premier League title.
“For me personally, coming to the club, winning the Champions League, winning the Premier League in the two-and-a-half seasons I’ve been at the club, it is just magnificent personally and a dream come true," Van Dijk told the club's website as Chelsea's 2-1 victory over Manchester City confirmed Liverpool's league crown.
“It’s something I always hoped for when I joined Liverpool. It’s just amazing and it’s amazing to be part of this group."
For Jordan Henderson, Thursday night closed the book on a true redemption story.
“It’s hard to describe, to be honest.” Henderson told Liverpool’s official website.
“I’ve been so honoured to be part of this football club right from the first moment that I came and to go on the journey to be with this manager, this group of players, these fans – it’s been so special."
It hasn't always been plain sailing. In the summer of 2012, Henderson was stunned to be told he could leave Anfield just a year after signing for £20million from Sunderland.
Henderson described the moment he found out he was being used as a makeweight in Rodgers’ attempt to lure Clint Dempsey away from Fulham as a ‘sort of bolt from the blue’.
Fast forward eight years and Liverpool have become World, European and Premier League champions with Henderson as captain.
Not only has the 30-year-old grown into one of the most respected leaders in world football, he's also become one of the most effective midfielders in Europe.
Henderson and Coutinho played alongside each other between 2013 and 2018 but it was the Brazilian's departure that saw the former evolve into the complete midfielder.
Before then, critics of the England international called him energetic and industrious but unreliable in possession.
In a demonstrable example of his undervalued tactical intelligence, he moved seamlessly into the No. 8 role to help fill the void left by Coutinho and accommodate the incoming Fabinho.
“Hendo, from my point of view, is a brilliant player,” said Klopp during the 2018/19 season that saw Liverpool miss out on the title to Man City, despite amassing 95 points in the process.
“He’s our skipper, he’s a fantastic character. If I had to write a book about Hendo, it would be 500 pages.
“The most difficult job in the last 500 years of football was to replace Steven Gerrard. In the mind of the people it was like if it’s not Stevie, then it’s not good enough.
“And he has dealt with that outstandingly well so he can be really proud. Now we have to think of the future and he is a very important part of our team.”
The heir to the throne
As Liverpool prepared to kick off the 2017/18 campaign, it was clear that Coutinho had his heart set on a move to La Liga.
Hours after the club expressly stated he was not for sale, the former Inter Milan star handed in a transfer request via email.
While Liverpool refused to budge on their position, the club had already began mitigating for Coutinho's inevitable departure with the signing of Mohamed Salah.
There were more natural replacements for Coutinho than Salah.
Borussia Dortmund's Christian Pulisic, who Klopp knew well, and Bayer Leverkusen's Julian Brandt were both put forward as potential signings.
In fact, Klopp preferred a move for Brandt, now of Dortmund, but the German boss was persuaded of Salah's ability and backed a £36m deal with Roma.
The Egyptian scored on his Premier League debut for Liverpool in 2017 and the man affectionately known simply as 'Mo' has not looked back since.
Some feared Salah would be a one-hit wonder after a first season in which he scored 32 league goals, scooping the PFA Players of the Year and Football Writers' Player of the Year award double.
Before working under Klopp, Salah had the reputation as a direct and effective winger without the necessary killer instinct to be a consistent threat in front of goal.
But in an agile, electrifying front three alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, Salah has cemented his place in Liverpool's history books as one of their greatest adopted sons.
Since signing, no player has scored more Premier League goals than Salah.
The Chelsea cast-off has netted 71 times in 101 appearances for the Reds, 12 more than Harry Kane's tally and 13 more than Sergio Aguero.
Every cloud has a silver lining. For Liverpool, losing their most talented asset inadvertently enabled Klopp to create what could end up being one of the most dominant teams in modern football.
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