Coutinho sale puts Liverpool in tough spot: Reinvest in stars or cash in?
Selling Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona is a big moment for Liverpool, and if they play it well, it could be a transformative deal, one that restores them to the elite of European football. But if they drop the ball on this one, failing to wisely and strategically invest the transfer fee -- reportedly £105 million down, potentially rising to £142 million -- Liverpool risk blowing the golden opportunity that now stands before them and manager Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool's initial reaction to selling Coutinho is expected to be a renewed move for Monaco winger Thomas Lemar, whom they failed to sign following a late bid for the 22-year-old during the summer transfer window. Lemar will cost in the region of £90 million but is a highly sought-after player. Tempting him to Anfield would be a coup for Liverpool and a signal to their major competitors that they mean business and are prepared to spend big to prove it.
But recent history, both at Liverpool and elsewhere, shows that banking a huge fee for a star player does not automatically lead to the money being well spent.
Liverpool received £75 million from Barcelona for Luis Suarez in the summer of 2014, but that windfall was largely wasted on the likes of Lazar Markovic, Divock Origi and Mario Balotelli. Only Adam Lallana (£28 million) has proven to be a success at Anfield since being signed with the proceeds of the Suarez money.
Manchester United secured a world-record £80 million fee from Real Madrid for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, but despite setting out to sign Karim Benzema and David Villa as Ronaldo's replacement, they ended up sticking most of it in the bank, spending just over £20 million on Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Mame Diouf, also capturing Michael Owen on a free transfer.
United had the chance to make a statement after selling Ronaldo, and they blew it, but Liverpool cannot afford to do the same. Equally, they cannot make the mistake they made after Suarez by spending the Coutinho money on quantity rather than quality. (It's worth noting that Tottenham were similarly wasteful after selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £85 million in 2013.)
Liverpool have sold their biggest star, so they need another one to fill the void, and Lemar would at least give them the opportunity to do that. The reason they need to land a big signing is not only about replacing Coutinho in the team, either. It's also crucial that the club sends a message to the current squad: "We want to win, and we will sign the players do it." Otherwise, the danger for Liverpool is that after losing Coutinho, they will merely allow Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane to move to the front of the queue for the next big-money move out of Anfield.
The £75 million signing of Virgil van Dijk and impending summer arrival of Naby Keita from RB Leipzig suggest that Liverpool once again see themselves as big spenders, but Coutinho's leaving has placed pressure on them to back that up. For too long, Liverpool have allowed themselves to become a stepping stone for their best players once they decide to move on to bigger and better things, and Coutinho is merely the latest example, stretching all the way back to Steve McManaman's departure to Real Madrid in 1999.
Since McManaman quit Anfield for the Bernabeu, where he won two Champions League titles, Liverpool have also lost Owen, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Suarez and Raheem Sterling. Coutinho has added himself to that stellar list, and Salah could well be the next following his incredible scoring output this season.
But Liverpool now have the chance to press the reset button and close the exit door by quickly reinvesting the Coutinho money.
Sources have told ESPN FC that Lemar rejected a move to Arsenal last August because he had set his heart on a move to Liverpool, so it is a deal that Klopp will be confident of pulling off, particularly now that Monaco are out of the Champions League this season. But Liverpool also need a new goalkeeper and reinforcements in midfield, with Emre Can expected to run down his contract and move to Juventus as a free agent in the summer.
A move for Lemar and perhaps a top-class goalkeeper, such as Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak, would be a smart way to spend the Coutinho money, but the ball is now in Liverpool's court.
What they do next will tell us everything about whether they want to be back at the top table or if they are content to cash in on their best player every couple of years.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_